Racial discrimination lawsuits have high price tags. Civil disorder is costly and often results in death, personal injury, and property loss. According to research, 90 percent of the major civil disorders that have occurred in the United States resulted from police-citizen conflicts, many of which could have been avoided. Multicultural training can reduce the number of lawsuits, as well as the possibility of civil disorder, but only can succeed with the acceptance and management of cultural diversity. Historically, strategies employed by police in dealing with minorities and minority issues have differed from those with other groups. While improvements in those strategies have occurred in the last decade, further improvements are needed and easily attainable. Although these discussions often have focused on African-Americans, many cultural diversity issues have similar implications on other racial and ethnic groups. This issue, of course, is not new to American policing. In 1962, the late Robert Kennedy, whil e serving as U.S. attorney general, said, "Every society gets the kind of criminal it deserves. What is equally true is that every community gets the class of law enforcement it insists on." (1) Communities must begin to insist, if not demand, that their police department's leadership seriously seek to discover and eliminate cultural biases, prejudices, and other barriers that impede the ability of the police to effectively deal with cultural differences in the community. While "racial profiling" has become the latest racial issue, it probably will not be the last. As America becomes more culturally diverse and citizens' skin colors begin to meld, the importance of recognizing sameness, rather than difference, becomes imperative.
Effects of Incidents
In terms of damaged police-community relations, public trust, and public confidence, the true cost of civil disorders, such as the reactions in Los Angeles following the acquittal of the police officers involved in the Rodney King incident, never will be fully understood. Now, 10 years later, the minority community in Los Angeles still feels the effects of that tragedy. Public trust is difficult to attain, important to maintain, and easily lost. One such incident can undo years of hard work and community bridge building. Similar situations have occurred in New York, Miami, and Washington, D.C. Each of these, incidents resulted from police-citizen interactions that crossed racial and cultural lines.
Research indicates that the dynamics of a civil disorder may not be as complex as many believe. Police in mainstream America often deal with situations that lead to miscommunication and, inadvertently, tragic consequences if the police are not trained to recognize and understand citizen reactions based on differing cultural norms. As the United States quickly becomes one of the most culturally diverse nations, law enforcement agencies must train their officers to understand and be understood by those with whom they differ in areas other than merely language.
The results of not understanding cultural differences expend resources sorely needed for other police services and programs, which benefit communities. In addition to generating the enormous costs of rebuilding community trust and creating grounds for large monetary awards from civil suits, the loss of lives and injuries to citizens and police, as well as property damage, can have a serious impact on governments already fiscally challenged. These incidents can negatively affect the ability of local government to secure bonds, make it difficult and costly to obtain and maintain insurance, and frighten potential new businesses or cause established businesses to flee to the presumed safety and security of the suburbs, thereby reducing the tax base as they leave.
Law Enforcement Response
Law enforcement administrators must take a proactive approach to eliminate community disorder and unrest, particularly that which results from a lack of understanding on the part of officers engaged in policing an ever-increasing culturally diverse society. Administrators can reduce the human factors that provide many of the sparks that ignite community unrest and dissatisfaction by realizing, understanding, accepting, and managing cultural diversity and human differences, both within their departments and their communities.
What happens when the organizational culture of a police department, combined with the personal biases and prejudices of police officers, conflicts and clashes with the culture of the community? In brief, the community as a whole begins to become dysfunctional in terms of dealing with its own problems, which often leads to small concerns quickly escalating into larger, more complex issues. While law enforcement agencies must understand the various cultures in their service areas, they also must examine their own organizational culture and determine how it affects the way they view and value people in their communities. Racism and sexism, for example, exist within agencies because law enforcement represents a microcosm of society as a whole; police officers come from within that society. Like citizens, officers learn prejudice and bias from their culture. While training officers to be good law enforcement practitioners may be relatively simple, teaching them to be perfect human beings, who come from a less-tha n-perfect society, presents a much more difficult task.
Cultural diversity training helps police break free from their traditional stance of being "apart from" the community to a more inclusive philosophy of being "a part of" the community. Realizing the difficulty of becoming a part of something that they do not understand causes a desperate need for an intense and ongoing educational process for developing an understanding of cultural differences and how those differences affect policing a free and culturally diverse society.
Too often, police, like many others, tend to lump cultures into races or nationalities. This way of thinking does not prepare officers to deal with many of the challenges and conflicts of which they may become a part. For example, an officer may be assigned to a predominantly "black community" within a city. But, what constitutes a black community? Within the race, many diverse cultures exist, such as blacks of Hispanic, African, African-Caribbean, American, European, or Asian descent. Each culture, as opposed to race, within a community is unique and has different, as well as similar, needs that require serious consideration if police are to interact equally and effectively with every citizen.
A police department that reflects the cultural makeup of the community does not guarantee freedom from cultural conflict. Unintentional conflicts can result from not understanding cultural norms and differences. The acceptance and management of diversity cannot be just a program or strategy. Personal, personnel, and policy changes must occur from the top to the bottom of the organization. Law enforcement administrators must have insight into the attitudes, biases, and prejudices brought to, and learned on, the job that their personnel carry into their communities.
Training and education remain the key to managing diversity and recognizing cultural differences. No training program automatically can change attitudes, but, with appropriate education and consistent reinforcement, agencies will encourage a positive change in behavior. Training must develop interpersonal skills, such as active listening, and police personnel must become aware of their own feelings, values, biases, and behaviors. Cultural diversity training, if not conducted properly or supported by changes in the organization, is better left undone. Training for the sake of training can diminish importance, damage morale, and undermine leadership credibility. Further, it wastes time and resources.
Many police departments will implement cultural diversity training by edict, assuming that it will take hold through osmosis. These agencies fail to realize that traditional values and ways of doing things have deep roots that reach throughout the organization. Although officers easily can become jaded and cynical due to the nature of their job, they always should remember that the people they serve are the same ones who gave them their authority to police. Only through training and continuous reinforcement can cultural diversity management take hold and become the organizational norm.
All organizations have a culture. The traditional police culture developed as a means of maintaining the status quo in society and police agencies and was intended to foster conformity. Changing an organization's mind-set presents a difficult challenge. Each police agency has its own cultural norms, expectations, rites, rituals, common language, and traditions that become very strong. Each police agency is part of a community, which also has its own culture and traditions.
Twenty-first century America rapidly is becoming more diverse. Identifying the status quo has become increasingly difficult. The dynamics of society demonstrate that cultural and racial divisions are becoming more prevalent and the basic social and economic disparities that have caused many problems in America have not, and will not, disappear anytime soon. The same conditions that exist in society today were present more than 25 years ago when this country literally was tearing itself apart racially. (2) As long as the rift between cultures continues and so many people perceive that they have no legitimate means to achieve the American dream, racial clashes will continue to occur.
In 1840, Alex de Tocqueville, a French social philosopher, addressed the issue of race relations in the United States in his time by saying, "If there ever are great revolutions there, they will be caused by the presence of the blacks upon American soil. That is to say, it will not be the equality of social conditions but rather their inequality which may give rise thereto." (3) Cultural conflict is nothing new, even de Tocqueville realized its potentially destructive consequences in the 1840s.
But, enlightened, better-educated police officers can open their profession and their communities to new ideas and approaches that can help reduce these problems. With appropriate, well-developed training, law enforcement agencies can provide their officers with the tools to understand, appreciate, and deal with the cultural differences that impact their daily interactions with the citizens they are sworn to protect.
(1.) Retrieved from http://www.mernorablequotations.com/rfk:htm on August 17, 2001.
(2.) Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, Kerner Commission Final Report (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1968).
(3.) Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York, NY: Vintage Books Edition, 1990), 256; retrieved from http://www.tocqueville.org on August 17, 2001.
Chief Coderoni serves with the Muscatine, Iowa, Police Department.