Police–Community Relations

IV. Conclusion: Public Opinion and the Police

As police–community relations have become more of a concern in recent decades, police departments and social scientists have become more systematic in measuring and assessing these relationships. These assessments have increasingly been made through public opinion polls in which residents are asked about their relationship with the police and their level of satisfaction with police service. Understanding public opinion concerning the police is important for at least two reasons. First, as an outcome, public opinion can help police departments gauge how they are doing in terms of police–community relations. Monitored over time, public opinion can be used to evaluate specific programs designed to improve police–community relations. Second, public opinion research can be used strategically by police departments to identify areas that are a direct impediment to better police–community relations. In this way, police departments can use this information to help inform the approaches they take and to better address the needs and concerns of communities. This research has explored a variety of dimensions of public support and satisfaction and has revealed a number of important characteristics and determinants associated with both positive and negative police– community relations.

A. Dimensions of Public Support

In general, public opinion research has distinguished between general or global attitudes towards the police and specific satisfaction with direct experiences and interactions citizens have had with police officers. Surveys that have addressed the first outcome variable have asked residents to report general impressions of or attitudes toward the police. These surveys have measured citizen trust of the police, perceptions of police responsiveness, confidence in the police, general satisfaction with police service, and perceptions of police misconduct and other problems associated with abusive police behavior. Other public opinion surveys have assessed direct interactions that citizens have had with the police. These surveys have addressed interactions that citizens have initiated (e.g., crime victims who call the police) as well as interactions that the police have initiated (e.g., citizens who have been stopped for a traffic violation). This research has measured citizen satisfaction with the police response; citizen perceptions of police effectiveness in handling the situation and whether the police were fair, polite, and helpful in their interaction.

B. Individual-Level Factors

According to public opinion research, citizens are for the most part supportive of and satisfied with the police. However, this research has also revealed a number of individual citizen characteristics that have been shown to be related to differences in support and satisfaction with the police. Some of these factors are related to demographic characteristics, and others are related to the nature of the direct experiences citizens have had with the police. In addition, some research has demonstrated the importance of vicarious experiences reported by friends and family members who have interacted with the police. Some of the most important demographic characteristics that have consistently been shown to be related to public opinion of the police are age, socioeconomic status, and race. Older adults and senior citizens generally hold more favorable opinions of the police compared with young adults and teenagers. Individuals who earn more income, have higher levels of education, and who own their homes are generally more satisfied with the police. One of the most consistent findings is that an individual’s race and ethnicity are strong predictors of his or her satisfaction with the police. White community members are generally more supportive and hold more favorable views of the police compared with African American and Hispanic community members. Some research has suggested that these race/ethnicity differences are due to differential experiences of minority members as well as differences in communitylevel characteristics. If minority citizens are more likely to have negative interactions with the police (e.g., the focus of a police-initiated stop or investigation), differences in their satisfaction with the police are only indirectly related to race and ethnicity. Likewise, if minority citizens are more likely to live in communities experiencing high levels of crime and disorder, differences in their confidence in the police are only indirectly related to race and ethnicity. These important community-level factors are discussed next.

C. Community-Level Factors

Much of the individual-level differences in citizen satisfaction with the police can be explained by community-level factors; in other words, where people live is a more powerful predictor of satisfaction than individual demographic characteristics and at least as important as direct experiences residents have with the police. Some of the community-level factors that appear to contribute to differences in public opinion include neighborhood-level poverty, perceived neighborhood disorder or incivilities, violent crime, and perceptions of social disorganization (e.g., willingness of neighbors to collectively address public safety concerns). Residents who live in neighborhoods experiencing high levels of poverty, neighborhood disorder, violence, and limited collaboration between residents generally report lower levels of satisfaction and attitudes less favorable to the police. This suggests that residents place a high degree of responsibility on the police for the physical and social conditions of their neighborhoods.

D. Implications for Police Service

The research reported in this paper has a number of implications for police departments seeking to address and improve police–community relations. First, it suggests that an important first step is to decrease the number of negative interactions between police and community members and provide avenues for more positive interactions. This applies to both voluntary citizen-initiated interactions as well as involuntary interactions initiated by the police. Research suggests that the on-scene behavior of officers has an important influence on citizen perceptions of the police (Skogan, 2005). Ensuring that officers take steps to explain their actions, respond in a fair and polite manner, and provide opportunities for citizens to express themselves represent vital steps to improve citizen satisfaction. The second important implication of this research is that the police need to understand that the community context of these interactions matters greatly. Regardless of the demographic characteristics of communities, the presence of visible social and physical incivilities limits the quality of police–community relations. Police departments must address these concerns in ways that are visible and transparent to community members. In this way, police can improve public satisfaction to the extent that community members perceive the police to be seriously addressing these order maintenance problems. Increasingly, the real challenge for the police is to find ways to engage in aggressive order maintenance activities while not jeopardizing the quality of interactions they have with members of those communities.

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