Public Opinion of Police Departments

When a police department is not living up to what the citizens believe is an effective level of service, there are a number of things that law enforcement can do to bolster its image in the community. First of all it must survey the community to discover where its faults lie and where its strengths are to be found. What does the community want and need that it is not presently receiving from law enforcement? This paper offers a literature review of many problems other police departments have encountered, of the inherent, build-in prejudices that citizens have toward law enforcement per se, and it offers a proposal for a survey of citizens that can be used to improve police services and build a sense of trust in the community.

Introduction

Law enforcement departments in cities large and small always face enormous challenges in protecting the public from violent criminals, rip-off artists, pickpockets, white collar criminals, gangs, drunk drivers, child molesters, drug dealers, and more. But on top of that, police departments also have to contend with how the public perceives its work. When a controversy is created by a situation that may involve racial issues, or other social flash points, the police often find themselves on the defensive. This paper points out some of ways public opinion can turn against the police department, how those opinions can harm the reputation of local law enforcement, and the paper also offers solutions -- among them, a survey template -- for police when public relations is needed to mend a tarnished image.

The Literature -- Citizen Perceptions / Racial Profiling / Police

An article in the journal Social Forces presents information from a national survey of citizens' views of perceived bias on the part of police when it comes to racial issues. The three main issues that seem to occur (as reported by the survey) are the racial profiling of motorists, racial prejudice by police officers, and "discriminatory treatment of minority individuals and minority neighborhoods" (Weitzer, et al., 2005, p. 1009). The article reports that while African-Americans "are significantly more likely than whites" to be suspicious of police and hold "negative views," very little is apparently known about the view of Latinos towards police (1010).

That may surprise some, given that the Latino community is the fastest growing segment of the American population that data vis-a-vis Latinos and police is not available. But Weitzer claims that "few studies" have delved into the a comparison of the attitudes of Latinos, whites, and blacks with reference to their relations with police departments. The authors go on to explain that there are even "larger" gaps in the empirical literature when it comes to the question of why "racial differences exist" in police-citizen relations (1010). In attempt to explain the previous question, the authors reference the "group-position thesis," which posits that "intergroup competition over material rewards, status, and power" plays a role.

That is, racial attitudes often reflect not necessarily individual concerns but rather a group position with reference to other racial groups, Weitzer continues on page 1010. To wit, "dominant group members" (think Caucasians) fear that their group may lose "privileges or resources to competing racial groups" (think African-Americans); and minority group members tend to believe that the best interests of their group may be "enhanced by challenging" the status quo (1010). Taking that a step farther, Weitzer explains that the group-position thesis can be applied to group relations with "social institutions," and in this case, the institution is the law enforcement community.

In the typical American community today, dominant racial groups see police as their allies, Weitzer asserts. In fact in the U.S., "white support for the police has traditionally been robust" and that said, whites "tend to see blacks as inclined to criminal or violent behavior" (1010). In the General Social Survey taken in 2000, for example, about fifty percent of whites viewed African-Americans as "violence-prone" and hence whites more often than not have a "tendency to condone police suspicion and disparate treatment of blacks as 'rational discrimination'" (2010). Hence, to follow up on the group-position thesis, when police receive criticism, the white community "may perceive" that the best interests of their group is "indirectly threatened" (1011).

Meanwhile, in 2002 the authors contracted with the research firm Knowledge Networks to survey 1,792 white, African-American and Latino "adult households" in American cities with a population of at least 100,000. The survey tapped into respondents' views of police, and also asked about their personal and vicarious experiences with the police. The results showed that 75% of black respondents and 54% of Latino respondents believe that "…police in their city… treat blacks worse than whites" (1017). Nearly the same percentages (74% of blacks and 53% of Latinos) believe that Latinos are treated worse than whites (1017).

As for whites in the survey, the "overwhelming majority" (between 75 to 77%) of white respondents believe that police in their community treat whites, blacks, and Latinos "equally" (1017). Another aspect of the survey was to ask if police provide the same quality of service to all ethnic communities within the city limits. A majority of both black and Latino participants believe the police offer "worse" services to their neighborhoods; and 77% percent of blacks (and 61% of Latinos) believe that Latino neighborhoods are treated worse than white areas.

Racial profiling (police stopping a car simply because a minority is at the wheel albeit no flagrant violation was witnessed, for example) is "widespread" in the U.S., according to 70% of whites, 83% of Latinos, and 92% of blacks (1017). But interestingly, only 33% of whites believe racial profiling is "pervasive" in their own community, while 59% of Latinos and 80% of blacks believe racial profiling is indeed pervasive in their city (1017).

On the subject of racial profiling -- which nearly every law enforcement agency in the U.S. At some time is accused of -- an article in the International Journal of Police Science & Management explains that there is "an abundance of scholarship" that investigates whether traffic stops and searches are conducted in a "discriminatory manner" (Higgins, et al., 2010, p. 13). The article's three authors are all professors in university criminal justice departments; the theme of their research is by way of delving into public perceptions of racial profiling. They echo earlier polling data when they report -- based on results of their research -- that respondents that felt unsafe in their communities "were also critical of police performance" (15).

The authors did not conduct their own poll; they used the Gallup report (2004) called Minority Rights & Relations / Black-White Social Audit, and from that they juxtaposed their main hypothesis. Their hypothesis was an inquiry into whether those respondents "who felt that race relations were bad would believe racial profiling is both unjustified and widespread" (16). This hypothesis was only "partially supported," they explain. Indeed race relations were linked to the perception that "racial profiling was widespread but not justified" (albeit 20% of blacks and 27% of Latinos did believe racial profiling was justified due to the high crime rates in their neighborhoods) (18). These data may potentially add up to public relations problems for police departments, the authors imply.

Another poll conducted by Gallup and reported by Shaw, et al., showed that from 1998 to 2005, the respondents' responses didn't change much when asked if they had "a great deal" of confidence in police effectiveness. In 1998 it was 19%; in 1999 29%; in 2000, 20%; in 2001, 25%; in 2002, 19%; and in 2003, it was 18% (Shaw, et al., 2009, p. 205). As for those respondents to the Gallup research who said they have "quite a lot" of confidence in police effectiveness: In 1998 it was 36%; in 1999, 41%; in 2000, 42%; in 2001, 41%; in 2002, 39%; and in 2003 it was 35% saying they have "quite a lot" of confidence in police effectiveness (Shaw, 205).

The Literature -- Citizen Perceptions / Factors Influencing Public Opinion of Police

William G. Bailey's book, The encyclopedia of Police Science, offers other factors that police departments are aware of -- or should be aware of -- in terms of public opinion and law enforcement's important duties and responsibilities. For one thing, confidence in law enforcement can lead to "…public support of the police" and it promotes "citizen cooperation in crime prevention, order maintenance, and criminal investigations" (Bailey, 1995, p. 680). The fact that people who live in smaller cities are more likely to have favorable attitudes toward police is not surprising, Bailey writes (680). Greater peace and quiet (in small towns) adds up to greater confidence in police services, the author continues. Whether in a small town, medium size city or large city, research referenced by Bailey (682) indicates that the uniform worn by police affects citizen attitudes, and not always in a positive manner.

The military-style police uniform give many officers "…a sense of increased power over civilians," Bailey writes…