It is ordinary to think of ethnic bias in law enforcement as largely a case of officers profiling, targeting, and/or generally discriminating against African Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities. This is, of course, an ongoing and enormous problem within the criminal justice system itself. At the same time, however, ethnic bias extends beyond this, and minority police officers also consistently suffer from abuses from their white peers and superiors within police departments. This is documented to a significant degree in regard to Latino and Latina police, just as greater media attention is being generated by Hispanic officers more resisting the bias publicly. In the following, the realities of this particular problem of Hispanic police officers as unjustly treated is examined, as the modern resistance to discrimination from this population indicates the most effective solution, through overt action generating awareness.
Ironically, another form of bias impedes efforts to comprehend how discrimination has affected Hispanic officers, in that the majority of research on racial injustices within law enforcement focus on a white/black binary approach (Urbina, Alvarez, 2015, p. 4). Moreover, and as with any law enforcement bias based on ethnicity, it is virtually impossible to distinguish how the minority officers are treated from how the police deal with the minority as citizens. Historically, and reflecting African American oppression, Hispanics have typically been the victims of a system unwilling to perceive them as entitled to basic rights. In American history, for example, the lynching of Hispanics was long on a parallel with the lynching of blacks; the criminality of such mob actions aside, the underlying belief was that they did not deserve the justice provided for whites (Urbina, Alvarez, 2015, p. 10). If there has been progress in how diversity is both legally promoted in police department recruitment and widely recognized as an innate reality of American society, nonetheless, it remains true that Hispanic officers usually lack the opportunities, and the internal respect, given to white officers. As noted, documentation here is minimal at best, but there seems to be a trajectory of bias dating to the earlier 20th century and ongoing. For example, Hispanic officers in the past and today express that, when their fairer complexions lead peers to perceive them as white, they are exposed to slurs against Hispanics. Then, a 2007 survey of 1,100 Milwaukee Police Department officers reveals that Latinos and Latinas far more frequently repost sexual harassment, overt racism, and fewer opportunities for advancement (Urbina, 2012, p. 38). It is as well arguable that in the modern climate of social divisiveness generated by political behaviors and administrative expressions easily perceived as racist, the historical bias experienced by Hispanic officers is exacerbated.
In terms of effects of this problem, the first is the inevitable weakening of law enforcement itself. This is a system in place to ensure protection to all and, when there is evident bias within its ranks, it must follow that the fundamental goals of law enforcement are lessened and tainted. More exactly, and despite a significantly high number of Hispanic officers nationally, Hispanic public perceptions of the police reflect nearly the same levels of mistrust as seen in black populations. Again, the relationships between the Hispanic officers and the system is similar to how Hispanics are as disproportionately arrested and sentenced as blacks (Lopez, Livingston, 2009). These negative effects are certainly explicable, as both scenarios support a dominant white power structure in place. Put another way, if Hispanic officers do not experience senses of empowerment as do white officers, it follows that Hispanic citizens feel equally at risk, or unempowered. A further irony exists in that, in large cities like New York and Chicago, departments emphasize “colorblindness” within operations, but still engage in discriminatory practices denying Hispanic officers due consideration. There is also little evidence that large numbers of Hispanic officers have any real impact on the bias (Urbina, Alvarez, 2015, p. 114).
Not unexpectedly, solutions to this problem are elusive. Racism in multiple forms is so embedded within the society, alterations in law and departmental policy are typically inadequate to address it. At the same time, however, and as historically validated, one response may be effective, in that increased and overt resistance from Hispanic officers suffering from discrimination likely leads to revised policies and the broader social awareness of the problem necessary for real change. In 2014, for example, several Hispanic officers, filing suit against their department in California’s Orange Country, were awarded $3.5 million in damages by a federal court upholding their charges of having been consistently denied promotion opportunities (Flores, 2014). Simply, more Hispanics in law enforcement who have been victimized by bias must speak out, and increase the public’s knowledge of a problem harmful to the entire society.
When ethnic and cultural diversity adversely affect how any aspect of law enforcement functions, two realities: the society is engaging in self-destructive behavior, and it is defying its own, most basic ethics. Compounding the problem is how racism is so deeply ingrained in the society, even those organizations, like police departments, in place to promote security and justice, are severely weakened. This is the unfortunate reality facing Hispanic police officers.
As with all racist agendas and practices, no single solution may be identified. Nonetheless, resistance from those officers victimized by bias appears to be the most rational, ethical, and effective means of response. Ongoing resistance to discrimination from this population of Hispanic officers, ultimately, indicates the most reasonable course of action, as such resistance must encourage greater social awareness of the problem.
- Flores, A. (7 Mar. 2014). “Westminster police officers get $3.5 million in discrimination suit.” Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/
- Lopez, M. H., & Livingston, G. (7 April 2009). Hispanics and the Criminal Justice System: Low Confidence, High Exposure. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewhispanic.org/
- Urbina, M. G., & Alvarez, S. C. (2015). Latino Police Officers in the United States: An Examination of Emerging Trends and Issues. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publishers.
- Urbina, M. G. (2012). Hispanics in the U.S. Criminal Justice System: The New American Demography. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publishers.