The racial gap in law enforcement has critical negative effects in terms of internal department dynamics and of interaction with policed communities. Closing this racial gap would ensure that the demographic of the police forces matches the demographic of the neighbourhoods they serve, consequently increasing their representativeness and improving their legitimacy. This lack of diversity is particularly critical in the United States, where Federal data collected from 467 local police departments showed that, between 2007 and 2016, more than two thirds of these departments became whiter with respect to their reference communities, while Black and Hispanic groups remained underrepresented.
The police racial gap is a matter of public significance. In 2014, after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man, by a white police officer, efforts by U.S. law enforcement agencies to recruit Black officers increased. Still, in 2020, after the killing of George Floyd, many lost confidence in the policing system, which further diminished the number of Black applicants to police departments and the retention rates of Black officers. In this setting, it is crucial for law enforcement to be able to attract diverse candidates, encouraging their application and welcoming them into a career from which they are often estranged. One solution to achieve increased diversity in the police recruitment process can be found in the application of behavioural insights.
Indeed, experimental studies in the U.S. have shown that Black individuals who wish to become police officers are subject to both self-stereotyping and stereotype threat effects, relevant factors which reduce their likeliness to respectively apply and be selected for the job. In psychological terms, self-stereotyping refers to voluntarily fitting oneself into the stereotype attached to one’s group, and the main manifestation of this attitude is the self-selection in roles and occupations which are consistent with one’s gender or race. As police forces are disproportionately white, self-selection is likely to be one of the factors which drives Black individuals away from applying to the police forces. On the other hand, stereotype threat refers to the concern faced by individuals of minority groups which comes with the perception of being evaluated in terms of a negative stereotype. Stereotype threat effects have been largely studied in educational contexts and have been demonstrated to be contributing factors to the long-standing gender and racial gaps in academic performance. This can be caused by two factors, either the pressure not underachieve, or the reverse effect of eliciting the stereotypic behaviour one is trying to avoid. Therefore, stereotype threat adverse effects have been proven to affect the performance of Black applicants, whenever they feel that they are challenging a stereotype in undertaking admission tests for police departments.
Attracting applicants: overcoming the self-stereotype bias
To understand how to overcome the self-stereotype bias faced by Black individuals, the Behavioural Insights Team has run a series of experiments focused on targeting the racial identity of applicants to the Los Angeles Police Department. These experiments relied on the targeting of advertisement of the department to predominantly Black communities, and results demonstrated that recruiting messages focused on identity were particularly successful in increasing the application rates of Black individuals, hence offering an effective de-biasing mechanism against self-selection. In particular, the advertisement used focused on the message of how diverse applicants could help “drive the change” in the police force. As Black applicants are more likely than their white counterparts to state that they joined the police to contribute to creating change within the profession, law enforcement agencies should consider that messages focused on diversity inclusiveness are best received by Black communities when designing recruitment strategies.
Recruitment: eliminating the effects of stereotype threat
However, only focusing on attracting applicants is not sufficient, as data shows that Black applicants, on average, tend to perform worse than white applicants on certain selection tests due to stereotype threat effects. To address this matter, the Behavioural Insights Team also developed an intervention able to reduce such threat in applicants before they take the test, hence increasing drastically the success rate of individuals of Black (or other racial minorities) background. The experiment was in this case ran in the UK, in partnership with the Avon and Somerset Police, and was based on the observation that the greatest disproportionate drop in the success of minority applicants was concentrated in one stage of the selection process: a multiple-choice online assessment testing the applicants’ responses to real life situations faced by officers. To reduce the stereotype threat effect, it was sufficient to add to the test instructions some sentences prompting applicants to reflect on what might make them a good addition to the police force, and what significance their selection would bear in their community. While this de-biasing intervention positively affected outcomes for Black applicants (with an increase of 20 percentage points in the possibility of passing to the next step of the selection process), it had no influence on the test scores of white applicants, as they were not subject to any stereotype threat effect.
Other applications of behavioural insights
These are some possible cost-less solutions that have been envisaged to reduce the racial gap in police forces. Still, there are also many other issues, and the problem is not only related to the attraction and selection of diverse applicants, but also to the retention of non-white officers throughout their careers, as well as to the promotion of minorities to top ranks. Therefore, behavioural insights can also be used for numerous other purposes, such as reducing racial bias in background checks and departmental interviews, creating better peer support among officers and teams, and diminishing discrimination in promotions.
Shalal, A. and Landay, J. (2020, July 2). Black cops say discrimination and nepotism behind U.S. police race gap, Reuters. Retreived from reuters.com.
Linos, E. Reinhard, J. Ruda, S. (2015, July 25). Promoting diversity in the police, The Behavioural Insights Team. Retreived from bi.team.
Leatherby, L. and Oppel Jr., R. A. (2020, September 23). Which police departments are as diverse as their communities?, The New York Times. Retrieved from nytimes.com.
“Behavioral insights for building the police force of tomorrow” report by The Behavioural Insights Team. Retrieved from bi.team.