Personal identity in policing
Police officers, in general, are often keenly aware that their professional identity poses an immediate barrier when engaging with communities who have been marginalized and negatively impacted by the criminal justice system. Thus, personal, non-work identity affiliations can be a potential source of connection. Police officers who do not share similar personal identities with the communities they are responsible for serving (e.g., a white officer in a Black community) may need to work harder to understand, learn and, ultimately, overcome cultural barriers. However, when there is shared personal identity between police officers and the residents they serve, this can lead to shared understanding, enhanced relatability and reduced social distance, all of which may (but does not always) materialize into behavioral changes on either the part of the police officer or resident. That said, officers of color may also be faced with identity conflicts, which is “when individuals feel they must give precedence to one set of meanings, values, and behaviors over another in order to satisfy particular identity-based expectations, and therefore cannot express or validate the other identities.”
In general, officers are expected to engage in fair and unbiased treatment, albeit whether they do in practice is debatable. Hiring officers of color is often touted as a remedy for promoting fair treatment by reducing potential racial bias or discrimination. However, this places an additional burden on officers of color to navigate the informal expectations that come with the professional identity of being a “police officer” while maintaining their personal cultural identity to connect with the community. Officers of color may feel explicit or implicit pressure to adhere to their professional identity (from colleagues or the larger organizational culture), suppress their personal identity, avoid the appearance of favoritism or bias, and may even downplay the importance of their racial identity as a point of connection.
Apart from this, variation exists across officers regarding their level of identification with any singular identity affiliation. Two black officers may feel different levels of identification with their racial identity depending on their upbringing or intersections with other identities (e.g., socioeconomic status, gender). These officers may also choose to “represent” the Black community in distinct ways depending on their views of crime and its source (e.g., whether crime is a function of individual choices, family dynamics, structural or cultural factors etc.). That said, even with the potential benefits and consequences of shared personal identity in policing (e.g., racial similarity), an officer’s treatment toward the community is important and their behavior is not solely derived from any singular shared identity. As such, while diversity and representation are still important within policing, we need to think more comprehensively about how professional identity intersects with personal identity and recognize the many individuals, organizational, structural, social, and cultural factors that shape perceptions and behaviors.
This article, originally published by the LSE Phelan US Centre, is based on the paper “Representing Personal and Professional Identities in Policing: Sources of Strength and Conflict” in Public Administration Review