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Experts see greater diversity among police officers as a key solution to reducing racial bias in traffic stops, arrest rates and police-involved shootings.

However, although police authorities have invested in recruiting more ethnic minorities and women, the diversification of the police force has been slower than the public would like.

As a researcher who works with police departments to improve their hiring processes, I am always looking for insights into how to accelerate this progress.

Customer loyalty is key

An important strategy is to retain recruits throughout their training period. After all, recruiting diverse trainees is of little use if they never graduate from the academy and enter police service.

To learn more about why some candidates drop out of training, my co-authors and I examined 88 years of turnover data at the academy that trains patrol officers for the Michigan State Police.

Our main finding is that attrition in Michigan is strongly related to economic trends, with dropout rates increasing when the overall economy is thriving. However, we also found higher attrition rates among women and ethnic and racial minorities who entered college between 2001 and 2022. This coincided with a significant increase in attrition across all groups starting around 2014.

The loss of these candidates had an impact. The Michigan State Police reported that its sworn troopers were 90% white in February 2024, even though the state is 77% white.

The Michigan State Police has long struggled to keep its workforce diverse. It hired its first black officer in 1967 but operated under a settlement plan – a court-ordered plan to deal with discrimination findings – from 1977 to 1993, with the trend of declining diversity raising concerns over the past decade.

In addition to diversification, many police departments are also struggling with critical staffing shortages. In Michigan, the number of officers has declined by 19.6% between 2001 and 2023. Staffing shortages are forcing current police officers to work long hours, leading to higher burnout and potentially slower response times. While there is some evidence that hiring has increased over the past year, challenges remain.

So how can recruiters ensure that minorities and women complete police training and make the transition to becoming police officers?

Police work is complex

To answer this question, it is helpful to consider the demands of police work.

An effective police officer needs a comprehensive set of knowledge, skills and abilities. He must be able to master legal procedures, make quick decisions and handle stress without losing his integrity and empathy. He must have excellent verbal communication skills and interpersonal skills. He must be able to de-escalate violence and comfort traumatized people.

In order to defuse dangers and rescue injured people, physical strength and fitness are essential.

Mental health is critical, especially given the increased attention given to preventing police violence. Police must maintain high standards even when understaffed.

During a study with the Michigan State Police, my colleagues and I found that many applicants experience “culture shock” when faced with the demands of this job.

Policeman talks to two young girls.
A more diverse police workforce can only be achieved by retaining recruits throughout their training period.
Richard Hutchings/Getty

Family concerns about the dangerous nature of the profession and the reality of working night shifts and on public holidays contribute to many people’s reluctance to apply for or continue training.

Studies have also shown that members of ethnic and racial minorities are less likely to have family and friends who previously worked in the police force and therefore have less insider knowledge of the demands of the profession.

Authorities are addressing these challenges with preparation programs that help individuals understand the demands of this demanding job before they are hired. They are also working with recruits’ families, providing support and emphasizing soldiers’ well-being from the start.

What repels, what attracts

My colleagues and I have also investigated why students pursuing criminal justice degrees conclude that working in the police force is not a viable option.

We found that they turned away from police work because the conditions and working hours were dangerous, they thought police work was pointless and they had a bad image of the police.

Women and nonbinary people were about nine times more likely than their white male counterparts to rule out policing—and ethnic minority groups 40 times more likely to do so. Instead, these groups reported pursuing opportunities in federal policing, probation, corporate security, and the legal system.

Our data show that about a quarter of racial and ethnic minorities have explicitly expressed concerns about public distrust of the police and the possibility of bias from both the public (such as taunts and insults) and the organization in terms of assignments and promotions.

Guidelines from the National Institute of Justice show that a company’s attractiveness can be increased by having a consistent message about resources and support for diversity.

Research my colleagues and I have conducted suggests that a greater emphasis on the value of policing in recruitment materials would encourage more ethnic minority groups to apply.

Authenticity and transparency required

Police departments often use photos of officers from ethnic and racial minorities in their advertising. These materials include statements about diversity and inclusion and highlight community engagement work.

These are evidence-based recruitment practices to signal an inclusive work environment to underrepresented people.

However, research shows that working in the police force has become a stigmatised profession, with declining moral credibility and undermining trust. Recruitment must be adapted to this reality.

Police departments are often criticized for inconsistent and dishonest reporting on diversity, sometimes referred to as “diversity dishonesty.”

Many recruits find it dishonest to use stock photos to create a narrative that doesn’t exist. Effective community recruitment requires authentic discussions about public distrust surrounding shootings, arrests, and other incidents the public perceives as racially motivated involving police officers.

Our research outside of policing suggests that the public gives more weight to things like negative online reviews and less importance to references to minority representation or statements about diversity.

The challenge of changing the image of the profession and individual agencies is great. Research shows that public apologies have little impact on public support for the police, as plans for future change are often unspecific and without clear accountability.

However, transparency about past critical incidents in the community and reform efforts can be helpful.

For example, the Michigan State Police has a website specifically dedicated to informing the public about personnel, funding, policies, traffic stops, use of force, and more.

Avoiding topics such as race and police history, especially among members of underrepresented populations, breeds mistrust and inevitably harms efforts to diversify the police force.

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