Breaking the Brass Ceiling: Do Female and Non-White Police Chiefs Change Police Behavior?

Awarded Scholars:
Anna Gunderson, Louisiana State University
Laura Huber, University of Mississippi
Project Date:
Jun 2021
Award Amount:

The first Black police chief of a major metropolitan area was appointed in Newark NJ in 1975; the first woman chief, in Portland in 1985. These events were viewed as a sea change in police diversity, but diversity among chiefs remains low. As calls for police reform have increased, a common proposal is to increase diversity under the assumption that female and non-white police chiefs act differently than their male, white counterparts. Political scientists Anna Gunderson and Laura Huber will create a dataset of police chiefs and police scandals for all cities since 1980. They will explore whether female and non-white chiefs are more likely to be appointed in response to accusations of corruption or scandal, and the extent to which they alter police behavior. They hypothesize that cities with larger non-white populations and departments that support community policing will be more likely to hire female and non-white chiefs. However, they expect female and non-white candidates to be less likely to be appointed in jurisdictions with high levels of crime since threat of violence may be associated with a preference for white male leaders. They also expect that departments in cities with higher levels of gender equality will be more likely to appoint female police chiefs and that those in cities with higher levels of racial equality will be more likely to appoint non-white chiefs as gender and racial biases may be lower, making these appointments less controversial, both among the public and within the police department. They will explore the relationship with other factors that may impact racial and gender diversity, such as the size of the department, its budget, region, and accreditation. They will also explore the extent to which events trigger the appointment of diverse chiefs. For example, when there is turmoil in a department that leads to public criticism, the department and local political leaders may hope that appointing a female or non-white chief might moderate calls for reform, punishment, or accountability. As a result, female or non-white chiefs will be more likely to be appointed in response to police scandals. Finally, the investigators will examine the effect of diversity. They hypothesize that female chiefs will prioritize the interests of women and be associated with increased reporting rates and arrests for sexual assaults and rapes; and non-white chiefs will be associated with lower racial disparities in arrests.


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