When someone is assaulted by a family member, has his or her identity stolen, or arrives home to find the home burglarized, that person’s first contact with the criminal justice system often begins with the police. The nature of this interaction is influenced by what the victim and the police officer each bring to the encounter, including contextual, experiential, and demographic factors. Any resulting attitudes the victim may come away with are likely impacted by these same factors. This article explores the elements that influence victims’ attitudes toward the police. It also examines the development of surveys and other research methods used to assess victim attitudes and perceptions, and includes a discussion of the impact of the victim rights movement on raising the profile of crime victims.
Measuring Victim Attitudes toward the Police
Beginning in the 1970s in the United States and the United Kingdom, we began learning more about victimization in part as a result of the use of general citizen surveys to assess police-citizen interactions. Until this time, we knew little about the extent to which victims reported crime to the police or about their attitudes toward police. Now, surveying residents about their perceptions and experiences with police has become a regular endeavor around the world.
The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) has measured the prevalence and nature of victimization in the United States since 1973, although it does not include questions on victim satisfaction or attitudes. To supplement the NCVS, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) teamed up with the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and conducted a study of victimization and community perceptions in twelve American cities. The study found that of the crimes measured by the survey, roughly a third were reported to police. The British Crime Survey (BCS), which was first instituted in England in 1982, collects similar information on prevalence and on victim attitudes and satisfaction with police. According to the 2004 BCS, 42% of crimes were either known to or reported to the police. The International Crime Victim Survey is another source of information on victimization and victim attitudes toward police. Beginning in 1989, the survey has been conducted three times across fifty-six countries. In addition to these national and international surveys, research on citizen perceptions has been carried out by academics, practitioners, and government officials in cities across the United States and in other countries.
General opinion and perception surveys have consistently demonstrated that a majority of people are supportive of the police and satisfied with the way they perform their duties. This is true particularly during voluntary encounters when residents have called the police for help (see, for example, Homant, Kennedy, and Fleming 1984; O’Brien 1978; Skogan 2005). Most citizen surveys focus broadly on citizen perceptions and encounters with police and not specifically on victim experiences and attitudes, though researchers may be able to glean information on victims from select questions.
Generally, victimization surveys have shown that victims are less satisfied with the police than nonvictims. Victims were also more likely than nonvictims to rate the police poorly or believe that they were unfair. Research suggests that this is because of the way in which people envision the role of the police as protectors. When someone is victimized they may believe that the police have failed to uphold this pledge (Homant et al. 1984).
Nonetheless, overall surveys have shown that most victims (ranging from 50% to more than 75%) are satisfied with the police (Poister and McDavid 1978; Ringham and Salisbury 2004; Shapland 1984). As noted earlier, a series of factors influence victim attitudes: variables relating to the experience of dealing with the police, contextual variables relating to the situation itself—such as the type of crime, and finally demographic variables relating to victim characteristics.
The most important determinants of victim satisfaction and attitudes toward police are related to how the victim experiences the encounter with police. One of the most consistent findings is that response time is important to victims. Central to satisfaction is not whether the police arrive as fast as possible, but in an amount of time that is consistent with how long the victim expects it to take (Brandl and Horvath 1991; Percy 1980; Poister and McDavid 1978; and Shapland 1984). In some departments, dispatchers provide victims with an estimate of response time. There is some indication that if officers arrive sooner than expected, victims are likely to be more satisfied (Percy 1980).
In addition to response time, the way in which victims are treated by police during the encounter has a significant impact on victim satisfaction. Overall, the literature suggests that police professionalism—as measured by courtesy, concern, understanding, and competence—is a key factor influencing victim attitudes and satisfaction. Skogan (2005) found that the most important predictor of satisfaction among people who called the police for help was how they were treated. Qualities such as the officer’s perceived level of concern, helpfulness, politeness, fairness, or interest in the victim’s situation all greatly influence victim satisfaction.
Expectations: The Importance of Process
At a time when people may be feeling the most violated and vulnerable, the degree to which the responding police officers can treat them with dignity and respect greatly influences victim attitudes. Beginning with the earliest studies, researchers have identified that meeting victim expectations around the process and nature of the police response is more important than having favorable criminal justice outcomes. In fact, the fulfillment of expectations appears to be more important than victim characteristics such as age, race, and gender. Victims seem to care more about being given a voice in the process and treated with respect than whether an arrest was made or a sentence handed down. A few studies, which looked specifically at domestic violence victims, found that victims were most satisfied with police responses when expectations around being heard and given the opportunity to express their concerns were met (Robinson and Stroshine 2005). Studies by Tom Tyler (2005) in particular have shown that procedural justice has a greater impact on victim attitudes and satisfaction than outcomes or distributive justice.
Of the crimes reported to police, victims of violent crime are more likely to report than victims of property crime. Early victimization surveys suggest that along with differences in reporting, there are differences in attitudes and levels of satisfaction. Research has shown that victims of serious personal crimes are more satisfied overall with police performance than victims of property or less serious crimes (Poister and McDavid 1978). Scholars have hypothesized that this may be because victims of serious personal crimes are likely to be victimized by someone they know, and therefore are less likely to blame the police for any perceived lack of protection. In contrast, victims who finds their homes burglarized are likely to have been victimized by strangers and may feel the police could have done more to protect their belongings. For property crimes, because there is little relationship between police investigative activities and the likelihood of arrest, victims of property crime may find their expectations are unmet more often than other victims.
In England, results from the 2002/2003 British Crime Survey showed that victims of stranger violence were more satisfied with the way their case was handled than people who were victimized by an acquaintance (Ringham and Salisbury 2004).
Building on early victim satisfaction studies, Brandl and Horvath (1991) examined the determinants of satisfaction by type of victimization. For victims of personal crimes, response time and professionalism were the most important factors. For property crimes, victims were more satisfied when officers behaved professionally, but were more concerned with investigative effort rather than response time.
Citizen surveys have found that satisfaction with the police varies according to demographics. In contrast, evidence of a link between victim demographics and satisfaction is mixed. Some surveys have found that victims’ socioeconomic status shaped how they viewed the police. An early study reported that victims with higher incomes were less satisfied with how police handled the incident (Poister and McDavid 1978), whereas a British study, which included an analysis of neighborhood characteristics, showed that poor residents or victims from lower income areas were less satisfied (Coupe and Griffiths 1999). Subsequent analysis illustrates that, in general, there is no consistent support that income affects victim attitudes or satisfaction with police.
Similarly, some studies have shown that older victims are more satisfied with the police; this is consistent with findings that demonstrate differences in attitudes toward police between older and younger people in the general population, with older people expressing more confidence in and greater satisfaction with the police (Coupe and Griffiths 1999; Percy 1980). Nonetheless, across-studies findings have been fairly consistent that characteristics such as age, race, and gender do not play a significant role in victim satisfaction.
General citizen surveys reaching back to the 1960s have found that African Americans evaluate the police more negatively than whites (for example, Brown and Benedict 2002; Scaglion and Condon 1980; Schafer, Huebner, and Bynum 2003). However, like income, the race of victims does not appear to be a strong determinant of satisfaction with police services. Though race appeared to influence attitudes on the surface, Skogan (2005) found that these characteristics mattered only in that they were linked to how police officers themselves treated victims during calls for service, which in turn, affected the victim’s experience.
Though it seems that demographic characteristics such as age, race, and gender have limited impact on victim satisfaction with police services, we know little about immigrant victims. Studies that have examined immigrant victims suggest that immigrants confront a range of barriers when victimized. Different cultural expectations about what law enforcement can or should do may make it hard for immigrants to understand the reasons why police officers do or do not take particular actions (Laster and Taylor 1994; Shebanyi 1987).
Empirical evidence is mixed on how immigrants, compared to native-born citizens, view police. In Chicago, Skogan and his associates found that Spanish-speaking Latinos (a better proxy for immigrant status than simply Latino ethnicity) who called the police for help were the least satisfied. Of course, not all Latinos are immigrants, and even those who are do not represent the diverse cross section of immigrants in the country. On the other hand, a study that surveyed strictly immigrants found very positive perceptions of the police among immigrants. Davis, Erez, and Avitable (1998) reported that Latin American and Asian immigrants who became victims were as or more satisfied with how the police handled their case than native-born victims.
There is clear evidence that immigrants avoid contact with the police to a far greater degree than other Americans. Davis and his colleagues studied six ethnic communities in Queens, New York. Some were well established while others consisted overwhelmingly of foreign-born residents. Davis and Henderson (2003) found that members of longer established communities were more willing to report crimes to the police than members of largely immigrant communities. In a study of abused immigrant women in Canada, Wachholz and Miedema (2000) found that women would not seek police assistance if it meant interacting with law enforcement. Immigrants’ reluctance to contact the police has been attributed to experiences with the police in their birth countries (Wachholz and Miedema 2000) and to fear of deportation (Menjivar and Bejarano 2004).
In a recent study of police public contacts in Seattle, Davis and Henderson (forthcoming) observed that immigrants rated officer handling of voluntary contacts more positively than nonimmigrants. Early studies of victimization did not include measures of citizenship or immigration status. There are reasons to believe that immigrants may hold lower opinions of the police, be less willing to use the police in instrumental ways, and be more likely to have unsatisfactory experiences with the police than other members of society. Future victimization research should include key demographic variables involving immigrant status.
During the last several decades, there has been a tremendous expansion in the rights of victims and a significant change in the way criminal justice officials treat victims. In addition to activists calling for greater involvement, national crime victimization surveys were instrumental in raising awareness among practitioners, policy makers, and the public that there were surprisingly high rates of crime, yet low levels of crime reporting by victims. Over time, we began to learn from citizen surveys that victims are generally satisfied with the way they are treated when they call for help, with some variation across crime types. We also know that victims care a great deal about how they are treated by police, particularly during the initial encounter or call for help. As Brandl and Horvath (1991, 118) conclude, “victim demographics explain less of the variation in satisfaction with police performance than does the nature of the criminal offense and the behavior and activities of police officers.”
Given that the degree to which victims trust in the legitimacy of the criminal justice process influences whether they will or will not report crimes in the future, police officers play an important role as first responders. Victims are more likely to trust and demonstrate willingness to cooperate with the police when the police can respond within the parameters of what the victim expects in a respectful way, showing concern and willingness to listen. By fostering a relationship of trust, law enforcement can gain the cooperation of citizens to develop effective crime prevention strategies and to increase the availability of information needed to solve and prevent crimes.
See also: Attitudes toward the Police: Measurement Issues; Attitudes toward the Police: Overview; National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS); Victim Rights Movement in the United States
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