Multicultural Issues in Policing

For the past 40 years, law enforcement in the United States has been accused of being ethnocentric and unable to accommodate cultures other than Caucasian white. In a country founded by ethnic groups and immigrants, it is difficult to conceive of a practice that is so insensitive to the needs of other cultures. In order to be an effective law enforcement officer one must understand other cultures in a personal way that goes beyond language barriers. This research will examine cultural issues related to the law enforcement and issues that may affect the ability to deliver fair and just law enforcement for all cultures.

Understanding Cultural Differences

The formal definition of culture refers to a shared system of beliefs, values, customs, behaviors, and the means that a group of people use to adjust to their world and others around them. Cultures are typically defined by their traits that make them different from other groups. All cultures have similarities and differences. Culture refers to the uniqueness of each and every group. It may include the way they dress, the foods that they eat, family structure, and moral values. Often other cultures are judged only by those things that are easily observable, such as the way they dress, their language, or the foods that they eat. However, cultural differences may not be as apparent on the outside and the necessity of cultural understanding may be missed by an officer. The ability to recognize what constitutes a multicultural experience and to recognize the diversity that exists is the first step to understanding differences.

During the 1960s the United States was called the "melting pot." There is a general belief that the various cultures and races that made up the United States had blended together in such a way that they represented a sing unique culture. The difficulty with this way of thinking is that it implied that cultural differences had disappeared. This process is called acculturation Where one culture dominates the other in such a way that the less aggressive disappears so they can they cannot be distinguished from the dominant culture. Conquerors often wish to acculturate those that they seek to control. In the United States it was believed that cultures other than Caucasian white had all but disappeared. It was believed that we were all "Americans" regardless of where we came from or any other differences that we may have.

The following survey results indicate how people indicated that they feel about racial profiling in recent years.

Data Source: Gallup Pollls. In Jeffereson, a. (2003).

As one can see, blacks feel that racial profiling exists much more than the white population. National averages are closer to the white population. This may reflect bias in the survey, or may indicate that the white culture dominates in this respect. Either way, this survey demonstrates a high degree of bias in the results.

The struggle in America has been for cultures to retain their identity and their uniqueness that ties them together. Many cultures resisted acculturation fervently and managed to keep their own identity to various degrees. There are many groups with an America that have resisted acculturation and retain much of their original culture. However, there is an expectation that all cultures will abide by certain customs at the expense of giving up some of the values that they truly believe.

There are several sources of cultural bias that could affect the judgment of a police officer. Every one is a member of different cultures in various areas of their lives. There are a part of their ethnic background, the culture of the nation in which they live, their regional culture, and the culture of their community (McDonald, 2001). They are also influenced by their religious culture, family culture, and other social activities. Every organization has its own culture including the way members address each other, and what is considered acceptable behavior within the organization. Organizations embody a certain set of values that form the expectations of their members.

Personal beliefs may also affect cultural understanding among the police officer. Understanding how these various levels and sources of cultural bias come together to create an understanding of a particular situation is the first part in being able to eliminate cultural bias in officer judgment. Racism is learned from the community in which one lives (Coderoni, 2002). Often people are not aware that their viewpoints represent racism. In order to understand how cultural differences affect one's own personal beliefs and perceptions of others one must be able to step back and look at things from the other person's point-of-view.

Police officers come from the community in which they work (Coderoni, 2002). Many times racial tensions are reflected in the biases of officers on the streets. Training and cultural diversity must reflect the values and viewpoints of the local community in which the officer operates. For instance, diversity and cultural awareness and programs must reflect the minorities that are present within the community. They must specifically address issues that concern the dominant minority culture within the area.

Law Enforcement and Community Relations

Law enforcement must abide by certain standards and principles that are designed to make certain that every one is treated equally in the eyes of the law. However, the law tends to reflect the culture of those that wrote it. Many times minority cultures may have practices and customs that appear to be in violation of the predominant law. As police officers one must learn to make the distinction between what is against the law in what is merely a cultural difference in interpretation. The ability to do this is often difficult and it is the responsibility of every officer to educate themselves about other cultures and customs so that their judgment will be fair and equitable in their daily practice.

Lawsuits over racial discrimination have a high price for law enforcement officials. It is the job of the police officer to make certain that civil order is maintained. The main concern is that human lives are protected and that the people can remain free from personal injury or property loss. Maintaining the balance requires training and management of cultural diversity issues (Coderoni, 2002). Cultural diversity is an issue that affects every branch of the legal justice system. However, the police officer on the street is what the people see on a daily basis. The police officer on the street presents the image that the public will hold in their minds when they think of the law. The police officer must hold themselves to higher standards than those in other parts of the legal justice system. What they do and how they act influences how the public perceives the government, and society as a whole.

Racial profiling has become one of the hottest topics in the subject of cultural diversity and law enforcement. Racial profiling occurs when a police officer makes a judgment about an individual without any reason for suspicion other than the color of their skin or other clues about epic background or socioeconomic status. As America becomes more culturally integrated the importance of recognizing our sameness rather than a differences becomes more important (Coderoni, 2002).

Racial profiling damages the relationship between the police and the community. It damage is public trust and confidence in the ability of officers to maintain the peace (Coderoni, 2002). Racial profiling makes innocent citizens fearful of the law and law enforcement officers. Racial profiling builds animosity towards law enforcement, even among races that are not typically the target of profiling activities.

The African-American community has been the most obvious victim of racial profiling. This is largely because they can be easily distinguished by the color of their skin. There are many social prejudices that are imbedded in our society dating back to the days of the civil war. Although the 1964 Civil Rights Act made it illegal to discriminate based on the color of a person's skin, but it is difficult to erase 200 years of social memory. Often officers are unaware of these hidden biases within themselves (Smith, Makarios, and Aplert, 2006).

Perhaps one of the most important events to draw attention to the problem of racial profiling is the Rodney King case. It is difficult to understand how the officers could be acquitted of such a senseless act. However, more importantly, is the negative impact that it had on minority relations, not only in the Los Angeles area but across the entire country (Coderoni, 2002).

Public trust is hard to attain and maintain. One must constantly to work at maintaining a good public image. It is easier to lose public trust and even harder to get it back once it is lost (Coderoni, 2002). The Rodney King case did more to destroy public trust than any single incident in the history of law enforcement. After this important case became public knowledge more people started speaking out in cities across the nation about similar incidents. It soon became known that…