I have a friend who is an official of a nearby local town. She shared a post from the police department of her town bragging about the diversity of their officers. They were confident that their police force reflected their community. They gave a detailed breakdown of the ethnic backgrounds of their officers and compared them to the ethnic backgrounds of the community that they served, illustrating how they aligned.
One statistic immediately jumped out at me: the police officers in that town are 93% male and 7% female whereas the town’s population is 48% male and 52% female. How is a police force that is overwhelmingly male reflective of the community?
As I typed my comment on her post, pointing out the obvious gender discrimination, I was transported back to a memorable evening at a town council meeting in my own town. I try to keep up with the issues in my town, attending and speaking at council meetings. That particular meeting included a promotion ceremony for two police officers.
There were a lot of police, both local and from surrounding towns, in attendance to help mark and celebrate this important milestone in their fellow officers’ careers. All the seats were taken. It was standing room only. I remember looking around the room and being struck by the fact that it was a sea of white male faces. I saw only 1 black officer and 1 female officer.
I live in a very diverse town. We pride ourselves on our diversity. We also make sure that every group in town is represented on the town council so that everyone has a say in local government. That evening it occurred to me that the town council was more diverse than the police force.
And yes, when I got up to speak on my issue, I also questioned the lack of diversity in the police force. The answer I received was that one of the officers being promoted was Hispanic. Okay. But we have a large population of people from South Asia living in town. Why were there no Asian officers? And why was there only 1 female officer? The town manager, who happened to be the former police chief in town, cut me off and ended my speaking time.
The whole point of this diatribe is that apparently the gender discrimination that I saw on the police force in my town is not confined to my town. It is also rampant in the police forces of other local towns.
I know that most of the people reading this are too young to remember the 70s outside of a textbook. I actually lived through the 70s. Black people and women were fighting discrimination in hiring practices. A favorite tactic of companies in those years was to hire 1 black employee and 1 female employee so that they couldn’t be accused of discrimination. They were known as the Token Black and the Token Woman. And yes, 1 employee was considered sufficient for diversity. It was a very different time.
A study was done in NJ by the National Institute of Justice in 2018 to find out why women were so woefully underrepresented on local NJ police departments. Statewide, women only make up 13% of the police officers, a number that hasn’t changed in 30 years.
Female officers who participated in the study overwhelmingly pointed to barriers to women put up by male officers including hostile work environments, harassment, sexism, double standards, and a lack of support and opportunities for advancement. They also reported that women are actively discouraged from applying to police academies. To those of us who witnessed the entrance of women into the workforce in the 70s, this sounds all too familiar. This is exactly the atmosphere encountered by women in the workplace 50 years ago.
What is standing in the way of change? The study revealed that it was the police departments themselves that are resistant to change. The male officers are happy with their Boys Club and have no incentive to change.
When it comes to police departments in NJ, the answer to my initial question about tokenism is that it never went away. Tokenism is still alive and well in the police departments in NJ and nothing is being done to change it.