Affirmative Action and Cops

In the furor that followed a daring and allegedly deadly Atlanta courthouse escape March 11, some pointed to the differences in strength and size of the suspect and the female deputy guarding him as a key factor that allowed the man to get a gun.

But what has been ignored in the case of Brian Nichols is the role that affirmative action has played in hiring standards for police.

There are extremely important benefits to having police departments that mirror the characteristics of the general population. Females and minorities are important for undercover work. A female victim of crime might feel more comfortable talking to another woman. Women might be particularly useful in domestic violence cases.

The same holds true for minority victims of crime. Minority officers who come from the local communities they are policing might also bring knowledge about the area that makes them more effective officers.

The problem is that because of large differences in strength and size between men and women, different standards are applied to ensure that there are more female officers. In the Nichols case, the difference was stark: the suspect was 33 years old and 6 feet tall; the female sheriff’s deputy guarding him was 51 years old and 5-foot-2.

Similarly, the intelligence tests used to screen officers have produced different pass rates for different racial groups. To eliminate those differences, there has been a strong move to stop giving these tests over the last 30 years.

Some argue that these criteria were not important in picking officers, or that intelligence tests are culturally biased — or worse, that the screening criteria exist primarily to ensure that women and minorities are excluded from the profession. There is possibly some truth to this, but there is still the question about how far one goes to ensure that a police force mirrors the community it is protecting.

Some of these differences are fairly large. For example, in a study I published in 2000 examining the effect of affirmative action on police hiring, a comparison of male and female public safety officers found that female officers had 32 percent to 56 percent less upper-body strength and 18 percent to 45 percent less lower-body strength than male officers.

In New York City, because the physical strength rules were so weakened during the 1980s, a former NYPD personnel chief complained at one time that many police officers “lack the strength to pull the trigger on a gun” and do not have the physical strength to run after suspects.

Part of these differences between men and women can be offset by changing technology and operating procedures. Cars can replace foot and bicycle patrols. Two-officer units can replace single-officer units, though these changes mean less contact between officers and the public and less area covered.

Officers can also be issued more protective gear. Indeed, my own published research finds these exact changes in police departments when hiring standards are changed for women.

We also see that as a greater percentage of a department is made up of women, the competition among men for the remaining slots increases and the average strength and size of men admitted actually rises, partly offsetting the weaker strength of the newer female officers.

The net effect of changing hiring rules for women is mixed. I couldn’t find any significant overall change in crime rates when more female police officers were hired (though rape rates did decline). There were some less desirable consequences, and they fit in with the recent experience we have just seen in the Atlanta courthouse attack.

Increasing the number of women officers under these reduced strength and size standards consistently and significantly increases the number of assaults on police officers. In general, every 1 percent increase in the number of women in a police force results in a 15 to 19 percent increase in the number of assaults on the police, because women tend to be weaker than men.

Why? The more likely that a criminal’s assault on a police officer will be successful, the more likely criminals will do it. The major factor determining success is the relative strengths and sizes of the criminal and officer. The 200-pound Nichols might have decided not to try to escape had his guard been closer to his own size.

My research uncovered another interesting finding. Female officers are more likely to accidentally shoot people. Each 1 percent increase in the number of white female officers in a police force increases the number of shootings of civilians by 2.7 percent. Because of their weaker physical strength, female officers have less time to decide on whether to fire their weapon. If a man makes a mistake and waits too long to shoot a suspect who is attacking him, the male officer still has a chance of using his strength to subdue the attacker. Female officers (as was the case in Atlanta) will lose control of the situation at that point.

While creating a more diverse police force may produce some benefits, we still shouldn’t forget the differences between men and women. Just as women officers are better suited for some jobs, there are other jobs that simply call for large men.