How behavioural science can help make police forces more diverse

Many police departments — including in Ontario — struggle to reflect the diversity of their communities in their ranks. But a U.K.-based company wants to change that
By Kara Sherwin - Published on March 3, 2017

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It’s been nearly 40 years since an Ontario task force on race and policing called the lack of diversity in the province’s police departments an “obvious challenge” with an “obvious solution”: reach out to visible minority candidates in “unique and creative ways.” Yet decades of academic research and policy interventions addressing the issue have produced underwhelming results — just one in five Peel Region officers, for example, comes from a diverse background.

Now, research and pilot projects — conceived by the U.K.’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), a company that reports to the British cabinet and uses principles of behavioural science to improve public services — are showing that seemingly unimportant details can have a major impact on diverse hiring.

In partnership with What Works Cities, an initiative to increase the use of data in public-service delivery, BIT’s North American branch produced four recruitment postcards for the police department in Chattanooga, TN. Each highlighted a different aspect of the job: public service, community impact, challenging work, and career benefits.

BIT found that people of colour were particularly responsive to the postcards focused on career benefits and the challenges of the job — not particularly surprising results, said Constable Andy Pattenden of York Regional Police, north of Toronto. “The ‘join an elite team’ message will resonate well with some people but not everybody,” he explained.

Given that visible minorities earn less and are more likely to work in precarious labour than their non-minority peers in Ontario, the stability and regular promotion schedule of law enforcement careers have an understandable pull. Research also shows people of colour tend to perform better when, for example, tests are framed as challenges.

“What we really learned is that it is important to test efforts and messaging,” said Chattanooga’s police chief, Fred Fletcher, in an emailed statement. “It also taught us that direct engagement produces results more quantifiable than a wide audience marketing.”

“If we take a wait-and-see approach, we just don’t get the applicants,” said Pattenden. A quarter of York's successful recruits are visible minorities, which mirrors the number of minority applicants the force sees but is much lower than the proportion of people of colour in the local population. Pattenden added: “If you don’t have people from diverse groups applying, it’s very difficult to be reflective of the community.”

“Organizations need to approach their workplaces like scientists, experimenting with changes until they find some combination that works,” said Sonia Kang, a professor of management and innovation at the University of Toronto.

Generally, visible minority applicants are more likely than non-visible minorities to be disqualified during the application and written examination stages — not because they fail, but because they fail to complete the process, says Anne Li Kringen, a criminal justice professor at the University of New Haven. (Her work stopped short of identifying the causes of this phenomenon.)

In the U.K., BIT suspected "stereotype threat" — the fear of reinforcing a negative stereotype of one’s group — was at play in two forces where people of colour were more likely to drop out of the recruitment process when asked to take a situational judgment test.


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The team reworded a standard email to applicants, reminding them to complete the exam, to make it friendlier, in hopes that this would avoid putting people of colour off. “Sentences that you wouldn’t even notice if you were a white male, like, ‘Please note there is no appeal process,’ might actually be a cue that says, ‘We don’t think you’re going to make it,’” said Elizabeth Linos, BIT’s North American head of research and evaluation.

BIT’s email intervention increased the probability that applicants to the two British forces passed by more than 50 per cent — effectively closing the gap between them and non-visible minorities.

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a U of T sociology professor, said the application of these results may encounter some resistance. “I wouldn’t say there is any one police culture, but the features of traditional police culture — being macho, sexist, conservative — still exist,” he said, adding that diversity-related initiatives are often viewed as “soft.”

The York force has shifted over time from the “police as warriors” to a “police as guardians” approach, Pattenden said: “Advertising that showcases the toys, the helicopters, the SWAT teams, is a thing of the past.” York now emphasizes the benefits of the job and the different skills successful applicants can acquire. “It’s showing the career in a different type of way,” Pattenden said. “It’s not kicking down a door. It’s about communication — because that’s what modern-day policing is.”​

These tweaks to recruitment practices aren’t a silver bullet, said Kang, but merely part of the solution to this longstanding problem: “If there is still inequality in the process via which candidates become qualified, such as inequality in access to education or training, there will definitely be a limit to the effect that these interventions can have at this stage.”

In Chattanooga, BIT’s work was just one component of the force’s wider strategy, which includes outreach at malls, work expos, and colleges. Still, Linos said, even small initiatives can be important: “While we’re thinking about broader institutional reforms, we also need to think about micro-behaviours, or those individual points in the process, where we can do better.”

Over the next two years, BIT will expand trials to new cities and will address the issue of police-community relations more broadly — including the basic problem of regaining the public trust. “We’ll have to replicate [these trials] in a lot more police forces to know for sure [they work],” Linos said. (BIT declined to say which cities these trials would take place in or what the trials will entail — for fear of skewing the results.)

“The more attention and care we can pay to this process,” Kang said, “the better off we will be as individuals and organizations.”

Kara Sherwin is a Munk fellow in global journalism at the University of Toronto.

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