Mar 26, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Asian Americans are underrepresented in law enforcement

An Asian American police officer walks through New York's Chinese American community during an annual parade on February 17, 2019.

An Asian American police officer walks through New York's Chinatown during an annual parade on Feb. 17, 2019. Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Asian Americans make up only about 2% of the nation's law enforcement officers — an underrepresentation that ripples through small towns and major cities.

Why it matters: The consequences have been amplified over the past year, as violence and acts of racism grew against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Now, law enforcement agencies are facing criticism for not adequately reporting hate crimes and not having enough Asian American officers on staff to to adequately investigate cases.

By the numbers: The demographic is vastly underrepresented among sworn officers in police departments, even in cities with sizable Asian American populations.

  • A 2016 report found only 7% of the Seattle Police Department's sworn officers — but 14% of Seattle's population — were Asian American.
  • Around 8% of the New York Police Department's officers — but 12% of the city's population — are Asian American.
  • The San Francisco Police Department, which boasts an aggressive recruitment program, has grown its share of Asian American officers to 23% of the force. But one-third of the city's population is Asian American.

The big picture: Experts say the shortages of Asian American officers hurts efforts to engage communities with a history of language barriers and distrust of the police.

  • "When you don't have a clear representation of people who have been hired to serve and protect you, there's a fear of reporting," said Janet Ahn, chief behavioral science officer at Mind Gym, a company that works with businesses on shifts including toward diversity, equity and inclusion. "Some people think: Are you even going to take my case?"
  • Asian Americans with language barriers often need to enlist other family members or neighbors as translators to report crimes, discouraging many from even trying, Ahn said.
  • Asian American police officers can help identify racial stereotypes or bias in cases, said NYPD Captain Jackson Cheng, vice president of the NYPD Asian American Police Executives Council.
  • It "only makes sense" that police officers reflect the communities they serve, Cheng said.

Don't forget: The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University found that anti-Asian hate crimes reported to police in America's largest cities jumped nearly 150% in 2020.

  • In 2019, around 88% of law enforcement agencies reported no hate crimes or ignored requests to submit data, Brian Levin, the center's director, told Axios.

Be smart: Asian American officers often have to confront their employers' own histories of discrimination.

  • A group of current and former police officers of Asian descent recently settled with the San Gabriel Police Department following a 2017 lawsuit. The lawsuit alleged that other officers frequently used racial slurs and disparaging language about Asian people.
  • In 2009, a jury found systemic discrimination in the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey against Asian American officers around promotions.

Between the lines: Some police departments have launched campaigns to recruit and retain Asian American cadets to solve shortages. But the term Asian American itself is broad, encompassing vastly different cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

  • Cities must consider recruiting from within their local communities — or reflecting the makeup of those communities — if, for example, they are predominately Korean Americans or Vietnamese Americans.
Go deeper