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Public Administration Research: Help or Hindrance for Practitioners? (Part II)

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA. 

By Joseph Adler

*This is part two of a two-part column about research on racial profiling by police officers and the potential for public administrators to draw erroneous conclusions from these studies. To view part one, click here.*

The Triumph of Blue: Counterintuitive Results?

adler mayVicky Wilkins and Brian Williams, in a 2008 Public Administration Review article titled “Black or Blue: Racial Profiling and Representative Bureaucracy,” conducted a quantitative analysis of 168,901 police traffic stops conducted in San Diego during calendar year 2000. Ordinary least squares regression was used to determine whether the number of stops involving African-American drivers is proportional to the number of African-American driver-eligible population in that section of the city. They expected to find that as the percentage of minority police officers in a patrol sector increases, the racial disparities in that division would decrease. The analysis yielded the opposite result. The police sector with the largest percentage of African-American police officers, 22.7 percent, also had one of the highest rates of disproportionate traffic stops affecting African- American motorists. A 1 percent increase in Black police officers resulted in a 1.98 percent increase in the number of African-American drivers being stopped.

Wilkins and Williams credit the counterintuitive results to the strength of organizational socialization in para-military organizations such as police departments being able to overcome any potential effects that passive or active representation may offer. Explaining the positive correlation found between the percentage of African-American police officers and the disproportionate number of traffic stops involving Black motorists the researchers theorized that the minority officers face an overwhelming pressure to fit into the culture of the organization, in effect producing a “blue” mentality, which trumps the impact of representative bureaucracy.

Utilizing the same San Diego data set in a 2009  Administration and Society article titled “Representing Blue: Representative Bureaucracy and Racial Profiling in the Latino Community,” Wilkins and Williams tested the link between the presence of Latino police officers and the incidence of traffic stop racial profiling of Latino motorists. The same quantitative methodology was applied and not surprisingly, the same conclusion was reached –an increase of 1 percent of Latino police officers leads to an almost 1 percent (0.98 percent) increase of Latino drivers involved in vehicular stops. The authors state that this result along with the earlier study of African-American police officers suggests that workplace socialization brought about by organizational culture may be intense enough to suppress racial or ethnic affinity of minority police officers with the residents of the jurisdiction.

Policy Dilemma: What is a Public Administrator to do?

Given the findings of Wilkins and Williams what is the takeaway for police administrators or other governmental policy makers? Should representative bureaucracy adherents reevaluate their advocacy? Should state and local governments abandon the goal of attaining a diverse workforce reflecting of our changing demographic population? This is where the need for more dialogue and understanding between public administration scholars and practitioners is crucial. The research methodology is no doubt within the mainstream of academic standards for public administration researchers. For practitioners, on the other hand, the study offers little if any guidance.

While the statistics employed by the researchers are valid, they may not offer a very accurate representation. A comparison of aggregated data show a relationship, but it does not tell us the behavior of a specific police officer. The study did not measure the actions of individual police officers of any ethnicity in terms of whether the ethnicity of the officer resulted in racial profiling. By not looking at the individual police taking this action (traffic stop), the conclusions are mostly speculative. There was no follow up study of San Diego African-American or Latino police officers, or of the entire organization, to test the strength of organizational culture, merely an assertion based on the literature and interviews with non San Diego officers.

It is equally plausible to state that the disparity in racial profiling in San Diego are due to the actions of aggressive non-minority police officers who wanted to burnish their credentials for promotion or recognition by having a large number of public interactions on their record. Perhaps there are other unstated and unearthed reasons for the counterintuitive results. A bit of skepticism, at least on the part of public administrators, is in order prior to making policy modifications based on these studies.

Concluding Observations

Academicians and researchers working in the broad area of public policy and public administration should have a responsibility to the profession that goes beyond publishing research findings solely meant to be read by other academicians. The existence of racial profiling is a vexing issue in the public sector and policy makers need to be able to rely on empirical evidence arrived at by rigorous methodology to address the problem. The literature of representative bureaucracy appears to offer one potential solution by supporting the hiring, retention, and promotion of minority police officers and other public sector employees, which in turn can lead to better service delivery and acceptance of government. When research suggests a contrary conclusion, such as the one implied by Wilkins and Williams, there ought to be an obligation to delve deeper into the issue to explain every facet of the issue. The reliance on statistical methods falls short. A more in-depth study, involving the actual officers and the broader community, and not just the analysis of the aggregate traffic stop data, would be needed before we can suggest that police socialization is so intense that it leads Latino and African-American officers to engage in behaviors that are detrimental to the communities they serve.

 

Author: Joseph Adler is a member of ASPA and is a NAPA Fellow. He is the Director of the Office of Human Resources for Montgomery County, Maryland. He has held a number of senior level public administration positions  in state and local governments. The views and comments expressed in this article are solely the author’s and do not represent any policy positions of Montgomery County, Maryland.  Mr. Adler can be reached at: [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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