Local Law Enforcement Actively Working To Expand Diversity

By Becca Sagaris, Shelby Reeves and Sara Al Harthi

KENT, Ohio — The Merriam-Webster definition of diversity is “the practice or quality of including or involving people from a range of different social and ethnic backgrounds and of different genders, sexual orientations, etc.” 

Headshot of Administrative Lieutenant Michael Lewis from the Kent City Police Department
Headshot of Administrative Lieutenant Michael Lewis from the Kent City Police Department. (Courtesy of Michael Lewis).

Diversity in general in any workplace environment is important to ensure inclusion among all people involved, both staff and community. It is especially important in law enforcement to decrease the opportunity to abuse their power and increase their understanding of the people they serve, improving law enforcement’s relationship with the community.

“Diversity within our department means having different groups well-represented within our agency,” Michael Lewis, the Administrative Lieutenant at the Kent City Police Department, said. “We are looking to add to our police department by having people of different race, gender, ethnicity. People who bring different life experiences to our department. […] People from different backgrounds who can share a lot of things and help others learn, […] creating a better understanding and communication between the police department and the community that we serve.”

Taking a look into different categories of diversity within law enforcement will help create a better understanding of the progress law enforcement agencies have made so far and highlight the areas that need to be improved.

Gender Diversity

“In 2016, about 12% of full-time sworn officers in local police departments were female,” which is an increase from the 10% reported in 1997, according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). 

The Kent City Police Department (KCPD) just about represents the national statistic to a tee, reporting five (11.9%) full-time female sworn police officers out of the 43 total at their department. However, they currently have one vacancy.

“Prior to this year, we had seven (16.3%) full-time female sworn police officers working for our agency,” Lewis said. “Unfortunately, two of our retirees this year, including our chief of police, were female. Our female chief retired in June, and we had a female detective with 31 years of experience retire in July.”

The five that remain work in the patrol division as police officers. In addition, the KCPD’s dispatchers are mainly female, reporting 10 out of the 12 being female (83.3%). The department also has two compliance officers, one of whom is female. 

Headshot of Cara Rabe-Hemp, a professor of criminal justice and associate dean in the college of applied sciences and technology at Illinois State University.
Headshot of Cara Rabe-Hemp, a professor of criminal justice and associate dean in the college of applied sciences and technology at Illinois State University. (Courtesy of Cara Rabe-Hemp).

“When we talk about gender diversity, as it relates to policing, we’re really talking about trying to make a police department more representative of the community that it protects and serves,” Cara Rabe-Hemp, a researcher in women and policing, professor of criminal justice and associate dean in the college of applied sciences and technology at Illinois State University, said. 

Having gender diversity present in law enforcement is an important step in improving law enforcement’s representation and understanding of their communities.

Overall, the KCPD has had a minimal amount of female complaints, both in-house and within the community, which adds to the department’s desirability to females interested in joining and staying in their force. However, there was one in-house sexual harassment allegation to one of the KCPD officers several years ago. He was said to have been disciplined for the incident and is no longer employed with their department, Lewis said. 

Retaining women is important to the KCPD because of what female police officers can bring to the police department, including different perspectives, backgrounds, capabilities and approaches to situations, Lewis said.

“[Women] are obviously completely capable of doing everything that a male police officer is capable of doing, but then there are also a number of instances where they are just better at dealing with certain situations, specifically instances of sexual assault,” Lewis said. “Sometimes we may have a victim who is perhaps more comfortable speaking with a female about certain things than they would be with a male officer.”

A Brief History

Sources: League of Californa Cities report on Gender Issues in Policing from the Law and Order Perspectives, E-newsletter of the COPS Office and Police1.

Obstacles and Concerns

Women are faced with various obstacles when it comes to acquiring a position within law enforcement. Understanding what these obstacles are can help discover methods in improving female representation and retention in law enforcement.

Within the hiring process, women can face obstacles including issues with the recruiting materials, the test itself and the general resistance to women present in law enforcement, Rabe-Hemp said.

“Many of the existing job descriptions […] for entry-level law enforcement officers continue to place a heavy emphasis on physical attributes over other skills,” the National Center for Women and Policing (NCWP) publication of Recruiting and Retaining Women, 2001, stated. “These descriptions often convey the message […] that the only response to fighting crime is through use of force, and that other skills such as communication or mediation are not as highly valued.”

Women tend to possess more communication and mediation skills rather than physical skills, such as the use of force. Because of this, many qualified women will likely be screened out due to the traditional portrayal of police work having an emphasis on physical skills, according to the publication.

Due to what we know about the physiological makeup of a female’s body, the focus on physical attributes in testing can pose a great disadvantage for women, making them less likely to pass the test at the same rate as men strictly due to the makeup of their body.

“If bench pressing a certain percentage of your body weight predicts successful policing, then it’s an important measure,” Rabe-Hemp said. “The challenge is, no one’s really been able to show that this is a successful prediction down the road of being a good or great police officer.”

The challenges women face in the hiring process can be additionally difficult when realizing there is a general resistance to having women in law enforcement, Rabe-Hemp said.

“A very recent survey […] asked women about their experiences,” Rabe-Hemp said. “A majority of women that are in the ranks currently suggested that policing was still very male-dominated and not very friendly to women. So, we know, at the very least, there’s resistance to women within the police culture.”

Women are potentially faced with more challenges after passing the tests and being hired on, including policies dealing with the potential of having to balance family with policing, sexual harassment and retention, Rabe-Hemp said. 

“In interviewing women and talking to them about their experiences, [another obstacle] is their ability to balance family and policing in their careers,” Rabe-Hemp said. “Things like light-duty policies and written maternity policies [can help] so they know what they can expect.” (AUDIO)

“Sexual harassment is prevalent in most law enforcement agencies,” the NWCP publication stated. “Studies found that anywhere from 60-70% of women officers experienced sexual/gender harassment.”

When it comes to sexual harassment, one of the biggest problem areas is around the policy. Although nearly all law enforcement agencies have a sexual harassment policy, “they are frequently not comprehensive enough to give guidance to employees on what is expected of their behavior in the workplace,” according to the NWCP publication.

Rabe-Hemp noted that although sexual harassment within the police force was once blatant and life-threatening a decade or two ago, most of the indicators suggest that there are much fewer sexual harassment incidences occurring, but that it does still exist and poses as an additional barrier to women in the police culture.

“Generally speaking, we’ve stabilized, or plateaued, the percentage of the representation of women police officers,” Rabe-Hemp said. “That has some scholars concerned because if we don’t continue to hire female police officers at the same rate in which they retire, […]  we are not likely to be able to maintain the level of representation of women police that we’ve had.”

Benefits to Having Women in Law Enforcement
– Female officers are proven to be as competent as
their male counterparts.
– Female officers are less likely to use excessive force.
– Female officers can help implement community-
oriented policing.
– More female officers will improve law enforcement’s
response to violence against women.
– Increasing the presence of female officers reduces
problems of sex discrimination and harassment within
an agency.
– The presence of women can bring about beneficial
changes in policy for all officers.
Source: National Center for Women and Policing publication of
“Recruiting and Retaining Women.”

Although recruiting women to work in law enforcement is an important first step at ensuring a diverse representation of the community being served, it is also important to work to retain these women.

“Hiring [women] is not the same as retaining them,” Rabe-Hemp said. “One of the challenges, in some agencies, is that there was a perception of a ‘revolving door;’ if your percentage is the same from year to year of female police officers, they’re not counting which of those were retained, they’re just [counting] representation.”

There is very little work has been completed on why women leave law enforcement, making it difficult to pinpoint exact reasons. However, many reasons seemingly revolve around challenges with policing and motherhood; or, rather than them leaving law enforcement entirely, they may just transfer to a different department, Rabe-Hemp said.

Solutions

Solutions to these obstacles experienced by women in law enforcement can begin happening after fundamental policy amendments and implementations have been made, including shifting to a community policing recruitment model, implementing family-friendly written policies and strengthening sexual harassment written policies. 

“One of the things that we have to think about is if you’re a police agency and you haven’t traditionally had women interested or you haven’t recruited women into your police ranks, fundamentally, you’re gonna have to do something different for that to change,” Rabe-Hemp said. 

Racial Diversity

Throughout America, only around 76% of the population are white, but law enforcement often does not show the true diversity of the population. 

Headshot of Chief Byard of the Aurora Police Department.
Chief Byard of the Aurora Police Department has seen a decrease in applicants wanting to become police officers.

The census estimated that in 2019, Kent’s population was around 80% white and 9% black. In comparison, the Kent Police Department currently has one black officer, Lewis said.

“As far as diversity with race,” Lewis said. “That’s an area that we are lacking in presently.”

Some of the diversity problems stem from people retiring from the force after years of service. The Aurora police department currently staffs no African-American officers, Brian Byard, the Aurora Chief of Police, said. Byard believes this is because less and less people want to become police. 

“Years ago, you would have hundreds of people reaching out to take a civil service test or become police officers for departments such as Aurora,” Byard said. “Now, what we have is we’re lucky if we get 20 to 30 people that apply or take the test to become police officers.” 

Overall, the police in Portage county have a low diversity rate when it comes to race.

The idea of a diverse police staff first came into fruition in 1867 when the first African-American police officers were appointed to duty in Alabama. In 1875, Bass Reeves was appointed Deputy U.S. Marshal, making him the first African-American to hold the title. 

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission strives to make the workforce more diverse and give minorities an equal chance at jobs they are often not seen in. Because of this commission and advancements in society, there are now over 90,000 black police officers serving in America.

In response to their lack of diversity, the Kent Police are working on better recruitment and outreach methods. 

Headshot of Dr. Judson Jeffries, professor of African American and African Studies at The Ohio State University.
Dr. Jeffries from Ohio State University understands that a diverse staff will not fix all problems, but it can help.

“Unfortunately, we are not seeing what we feel is quite an adequate representation of minorities taking our police test.” Lewis said.

During their last application period, the department saw 102 applicants, of which only 10 were black, Lewis said. Some scholars believe that a more racially diverse staff will make the community have a more welcoming attitude towards the police. 

“Community residents may be less likely to be leery of the police, may be more likely to call them in time of need may be more likely to cooperate with police officers when conducting investigations simply because they see people who not only look like them on the police force but people they may actually know personally.” said Dr. Judson Jeffries, professor of African American and African Studies at The Ohio State University.

The Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted the disparity of police diversity and the violent acts committed by white police officers to members of minority communities. 

While Jeffries does not believe a diverse police department will fix all the problems, it may help. 

“Having a more diverse police department could potentially, in fact, bring police departments and communities closer,” said Jeffries. “The operative word is potential.”

Solutions

The overall lack of diversity in the police has caused many departments to reevaluate the way they recruit. This involves going to the police academies and colleges to get people available to join, as well as being seen more in the community as a positive presence. 

Religion Diversity

Muslims are the fastest-growing religious group in the world, not just in the U.S. This growth and migration of Muslims, alongside the terror stigma and extremist groups that promote violence under the name of Islam, have brought Muslims and the Islamic religion to the center of the political debate around the world.

According to a Pew Research Center article, the estimated number of Muslims in the U.S. is 3.45 million.

Since the Middle Eastern, specifically Muslim, culture is growing in the U.S. it has a strong presence in communities across Ohio and many other states. Islam is different from Christianity, which is the most common religion in the U.S.

In order to create positive public relations with everyone in the society, Sarah Shendy, a Law Enforcement Recruiter for the Copley Police Department (CPD), created a class called “Islam In America/Shattering the Myths,” which is aimed to teach first responders about the Middle Eastern/Muslim culture.

Sarah Shendy said she considers herself to be the ambassador of Islam.

Shendy moved to the U.S. from Egypt when she was seven years old. She said she felt it was her duty to make police officers understand the culture and the religion better to avoid misunderstandings or misconceptions.

Shendy started teaching the “Islam in America/Shattering the Myths” class at CPD because she felt the need to tell people how it is being a Muslim in the U.S.

Shendy said teaching the class is enjoyable and fun because she loves to teach people about her culture and religion, she said she’s passionate about it and that what helps getting her message across to other people. She said the best part about it is the feedback she gets after class.

“They are so unbelievably willing and wanting to learn,” Shendy said. “They’re so thirsty, so hungry, for that information. When they leave class, they say things like ‘I can’t wait to interact with the Muslim community’ or ‘I didn’t realize how much we have in common.’ “

The goal of the class is to encourage police officers to obtain knowledge and awareness about the people they serve and work with. Misconceptions about the Muslim Religion is addressed in the class presentation. The topics are not limited to teaching about the religion; she also explains the differences between Middle Eastern cultures and their relationship to the religion, Shendy said.

Shendy teaches interviewing skills, working with children, gender roles and cultural expectations, religious fulfillment, resolving language barriers, women and the hijab, implicit and explicit bias and radical Muslims.

“Police departments are really trying to recruit people,” Shendy said. People are afraid for their lives and afraid of the anti-cop stigma. The numbers of applications have been going down the past few years and it’s hard to create a diverse workplace, Shendy said.

Lewis further explained that recruiting people with different faiths is not easy because they don’t know what the applicants’ religion is.  

“We obviously don’t want to create a situation where somebody feels like they may have been overlooked because of their religion,” Lewis said. “So that is something that is best left out.”

KCPD has a thorough hiring process, which includes an in-depth background investigation and several face-to-face interviews. Because of this, diversity traits such as race, gender and ethnicity are not things that can be kept unknown, Lewis said.

Shendy said, even though diversity is hard to achieve, police officers are eager to learn about different cultures.

“Police officers are wanting to learn anything that’s going to make them better at their job,” Shendy said. “Especially when it comes to diversity and interacting with different religions and cultures, because you’ll never be able to do enough in that aspect. Things are always changing. In order for us to be effective, we need to know the people that we serve.”


Reporter roles:
Becca Sagaris: Wrote the gender diversity section, lead interviewer with Lieutenant Michael Lewis, interviewed Cara Rabe-Hemp, created timeline, created graphic on diversity in the KCPD, created benefits to women in law enforcement sidebar, made general edits for whole piece and helped organize document.

Shelby Reeves: Racial diversity, assistant interviewer with Lieutenant Michael Lewis, interviewed Chief Byard, Interviewed Dr. Jeffries, created community vs. police race population chart, general edits.

Sara Al Harthi: Wrote the religion section. Interviewed Sarah Shendy.