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DSJ Part 3: Fostering Equitable Law Enforcement in Troubled Times

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ivonne Roman, Brandi Blessett and Sean McCandless
October 6, 2020

As noted by Susan Gooden, the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racism exacerbate inequities experienced by people who are Black, Indigenous, Persons of Color and women, especially in law enforcement. Through focusing on the experiences of one of the authors, we discuss how advocating for equity is not for the faint of heart but has never been more necessary.

Roman’s Experience

Since 2015, there have been glaring disparities in the pass rates for women in New Jersey’s (NJ) police academies. My efforts to address these inequities were met with disdain, distortions of facts and attempts to discredit me. 

I gave a TED TALK on the topic, and a 2019 investigative journalism piece revealed legally impermissible gender disparities in NJ police academies. The public learned that women failed at rates 13 times higher than years prior to 2015. In some academies, 80% of women failed the fitness exam, where nationally only 19% failed. Support for these women’s plight was lacking. Comments sections on these stories were misogynistic, crude and hateful. I was personally vilified on police social media platforms. 

Until recently, policing has been white and male. Women and people of color began trickling into police departments in the late 1960s. However, height restrictions were enacted, requiring applicants to be 5’7” or taller, thus eliminating most women, who average 5’4”. Courts struck down the height restrictions, and, in turn, police enacted fitness standards.

In response to media attention on attrition rates in NJ police academies, the NJ Senate held a hearing on Women in Policing. The witness list was one-sided, all speaking in defense of the current standards. After hearing policewomen opine the test was fair, while providing no context based on science or the law, I added myself to the witness list. 

In my testimony, I cited the EEO requirements for fitness exams, the validation requirement based on federal case law, and a recent court decision in Pennsylvania that invalidated the fitness standards currently in use in NJ.

To my dismay, the senators fawned over opinions of patrol women with less than two years’ experience. Senators were less impressed with the legally grounded and science-based testimony of an experienced Latina with an accent, who happened to be a former, major city police chief and working towards a PhD in Public Affairs.

So, when I read an editorial about proposed legislation to diversify policing in New Jersey in response to protests after the killing of George Floyd, I wasn’t optimistic. The legislation includes various bills that did little to remove barriers for women and other people of color. The first required the Civil Service Commission (CSC) to analyze the racial composition of law enforcement agencies so as to identify agencies that might benefit most from eliminating any preference in hiring based upon residency. This does nothing for the mostly Black and Brown recruits dismissed from academies due to an invalidated fitness test, and opens up the inner city jobs, where minorities are concentrated to the entire state.

Another bill requires the CSC to maintain a database of applicants with threshold decisions made for selection or disqualification by law enforcement agencies. Despite filing an Open Record Request and paying a $5,000 fee, I was informed the records were confidential. The bill bars the collection of any personally identifying information, but a decision was made that files were not subject to public review. This bill doesn’t protect the applicants, but the status quo. 

The same bill gives authority to state and national law enforcement agencies to identify best practices and trainings for candidate selection. For unknown reasons, the law sunsets after 18 months. This raises serious concerns whether the CSC will be able to achieve all of the law’s goals within an 18-month period.

Despite everything discussed above, a bill to address deficits of women in policing does not exist. The legislation fixes nothing. One only needs to scratch the surface to realize that the proposed bills were for optics, not substantive policy change. When demands for police reform are at an all-time high, legislators and law enforcement agencies need to think long and hard about waning public trust. 

Authors’ Concluding Thoughts

Policing is foundational in and across society. The inequitable representation of women and people of color within law enforcement is problematic, especially given the disparate impacts of the criminal legal system. Law enforcement is both an art and a science. The art is the ability to engage with communities (even when in distress) to reach an outcome that does not end in injury or death. The science requires using evidence-based practices to best influence decisionmaking and achieve desired policy outcomes (e.g. less crime, safe and healthy communities). 

Given policing’s homogeneity but also ongoing legitimacy crises, increasing access may help foster legitimacy in and with underserved communities. Diversifying police forces is not the silver bullet to cure all the ails in the system, but it is a step in the right direction. Moreover, ignoring the research to sustain the status quo and erecting barriers for participation is deeply troubling. These actions widen gaps between law enforcement and underserved communities. Therefore, the legislation proposed to diversity policing in NJ is like the emperor–It has no clothes.


Ivonne Roman is the retired police chief of Newark, NJ, founder of the Women’s Leadership Academy, and a PhD student at Rutgers University Camden. She is currently a Police Relationships Manager at the Center for Policing Equity, a research think tank on race and policing. Twitter ID : @PD_PhD

Brandi Blessett, Ph.D. is an associate professor and Director of the Master of Public Administration program at the University of Cincinnati. Twitter: @urbanrambl_

Sean McCandless, Ph.D. works as an assistant professor and associate director of the Doctorate in Public Administration program at the University of Illinois Springfield. Twitter: @seanmcc_pa

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