In a recent article on the Washington Post blog, “Monkey Cage,” Zachary Oberfield ’98 — noting the disparity between the population of Ferguson, Mo., nearly two-thirds black, and the police force, over 90 percent white — asked: “Should such statistics make us uneasy? The answer depends on two questions. Does officer representativeness affect how communities perceive police? And do minority police understand their jobs and behave differently than white police? The answer to both questions is: yes.”
Oberfield’s recent book, “Becoming Bureaucrats: Socialization at the Front Lines of Government Service,” takes on some of these questions to address how public servants, including police officers, develop. Oberfield, an assistant professor of political science at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, shares some of his research findings — and what they suggest about Ferguson and the future of community/police relations.
Your Haverford faculty profile lists “organizational Your Haverford faculty profile lists “organizational change, organizational socialization, and street-level bureaucracy” as your research interests, and you’ve published scholarship about leadership theory and the ways police officers develop their attitudes about using force. What potential do you see for the events of Ferguson to change the bureaucratic procedures of police departments?
I think it’s important to start off by recognizing that bureaucracies — like police departments or any other government organization — are very hard to change. There are various reasons for this but I’d just note that inertia results partially from the continuity of personnel, culture, and standard operating procedures (SOPs). So there’re a lot of reasons to expect that nothing much will come of this — elected officials and police departments around the country will choose to weather storm, wait for attention to fade, then go back to business as usual. That’s the pessimistic view.
The optimistic view is that if there is a seriousness of purpose among elected officials, and within departments themselves, it is possible to change. My research suggests two possible avenues for creating change. First, leaders can try to change the hearts, minds, and behaviors of the people who are in the organization. In other words, they can try to change the culture of the organization or the default behavioral responses of employees. Second, they can gradually replace employees used to doing things “the old way” with new employees. My research suggests that both ways are possible, but in the short term, the former is probably going to be a faster, if less complete, solution. In other words, Ferguson isn’t going to fire half police force and hire a new flock of police. That’s just not the way civil service systems work. So in the near term, change will need to come from the top.
On Monday, Dec. 1, President Barack Obama called for a multi-million dollar program to encourage police forces to outfit officers with body cameras. As the StarTribune wrote, “The White House has said the cameras could help bridge deep mistrust between law enforcement and the public. It could also help resolve the types of disputes between police and witnesses that arose in the Ferguson shooting.” How big a difference do you think body cameras would make? Does it address the same concerns that a more representative police force would?
There is some evidence that cameras could decrease the use of force by police and minimize the number of complaints they receive. On the other hand, there are human beings operating the cameras, which means problems will arise: the cameras can malfunction; the memory might be full; the recordings might be lost or altered. Whoever we put at front lines of government, we give them a certain amount of discretion. At some point, there’s going to be a human being charged with making a decision. So cameras may affect how the police act, and how we understand what they do, but police are still going to have discretion and power in the moment. Also, there are instances in which recorded police misconduct – the Rodney King beating comes to mind – did not appear to affect disciplinary action, at least initially, against particular officers. So in my view the cameras are intriguing as a policy option – and I’m in favor of experimenting further with them – but I’m skeptical that they’ll have a radical effect.
Also, to the second part of your question, it does nothing to ameliorate the concerns that have been raised about the demographic disparities between the police department and the community. As I argue in my Monkey Cage piece, the representativeness of the police force affects how people see the police and interpret the fairness of their actions.
What other changes, beyond leadership and body cameras, might bolster relations between communities and police?
Though it isn’t a quick fix, I think the most fundamental way police departments might change is via the recruiting and selection process. There’s this pretty prevalent idea that police departments, like the military, have a major effect on cadets — that once cops go behind the curtain, they become a different person, they’re no longer connected to communities. From this perspective, it wouldn’t be particularly important to hire minority police because they’d act just like white police. But perhaps the most important finding from my book is that who you hire on Day 1 really matters for how they act even after they’ve gone through this long training process.
My book investigates three different areas of bureaucratic personality: motivation (why you’re there to do this job), identity (who you are and how you see yourself on the job), and attitude (your perception of why people in society do what they do). The point of the book wasn’t to examine differences between minority bureaucrats and white bureaucrats, but those differences kept coming up. Minority police, for example, were less confident than white officers that force would be effective in keeping the peace. Minority police early on in their careers were more motivated by the chance to treat all people equally.
All of this is to say that who enters police departments is tied to larger social trends. For lots of cops, there’s this very seamless entry tied to family and friends. Also, many police come out of the military, which has been a historically effective way for young soldiers to transition into civilian society. So to the extent that departments want to make significant change, they’ll want to reexamine how and where they draw officers from in society. If they look outside traditional channels, and use a diverse set of recruitment strategies, departments can attract and groom officers who understand their work differently than the current generation of police.
Oberfield has previously taught at the City College of New York, Temple University and University of Wisconsin-Madison. His book, “Becoming Bureaucrats: Socialization at the Front Lines of Government Service,” was published this summer by the University of Pennsylvania Press. His previous works have been published in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, Public Administration Review, and American Review of Public Administration. At Haverford, Oberfield teaches courses on American politics, public policy, bureaucracy, the presidency, and Congress. He is currently working on projects about public service delivery, privatization, and education policy.
Oberfield earned his B.A. in political science. As a Hobart student, he was a member of Kappa Alpha society, Chimera junior honor society, and the cross-country team. He was a Hobart Scholar during his sophomore year, studied abroad in Geneva, Switzerland and participated in the Washington, D.C. semester. Additionally, he interned for former Senator Tom Daschle. He went on to earn his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His dissertation won the American Political Science Association’s 2009 Leonard D. White award for the best dissertation in the field of public administration.