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Many would say that public opinion is in the eye of the beholder. In most cases, it is, as some might believe that the perception of how the police behave when they make contact with a citizen is largely a subjective account of how that particular citizen felt that particular day, towards that particular officer, during that particular contact. Others perceive that the police behave poorly on almost all occasions, especially whenever a minority is involved, particularly an African-American individual. Skogen (2006) identifies this perception as the “collective insecurity” of African-Americans, positing that the statistical effect of dissatisfaction by race disappears when controlling for perceived levels of crime and disorder.
Numerous studies have been conducted examining public opinion against the attitudes and behavior of the police. According to Skogen (2006), all research on American’s views of the police begins with race. As with most studies, some find overwhelming evidence that the police are disproportionately stopping, questioning, mistreating and arresting young, poor, minority males. Other studies provide mixed results, especially when comparing the socioeconomic status of the person contacted to satisfaction. Skogen (2006) asserts that many middle-class African-Americans are more attuned to racial discrimination believing it to be an abstract concept that impedes their class-based aspirations. Brown and Benedict (2002) assert that confidence in the police is higher for higher status whites, yet lower for higher status African-Americans.
The concept that seems to surface and resonate in all the studies is that people who are contacted by the police are by and large dissatisfied with the attitude and behavior of the police, whether it be a citizen requested contact or a police-initiated contact. Why are the police viewed so unfavorably in so many instances? Are the police really behaving badly in the majority of their contacts with citizens or have we come to expect too much from fellow human beings who we as a society have forced onto a pedestal of higher expectations that simply cannot be met in some instances? To me, they are important questions to answer. Police derive their legitimacy by striving to be just that; being those in society who do rise a level above the rest, to instill confidence in society that the police are competent and efficient in protecting the public and that they can do so without the suggestion that they lack procedural fairness, are discriminatory, intimidating, brutal and lacking responsiveness to the concerns of those they are sworn to protect.
What doesn’t help is the current media trend of spinning half-truths based in one-sided conjecture and negative innuendo, designed to sensationalize a story, and further erode the legitimacy and confidence that the public has for the police. Sadly, it has become more popular to vilify the police and aggrandize the perpetrator. The result of this phenomenon is the creation of a self-fulfilling prophecy, which causes many honest, virtuous, incorruptible officers to flee the perlustration and constant media assault of public service, to take a less provocative career path.
It boils down to the theoretical frameworks mentioned by Van Craen (2012). In order to maintain legitimacy and solidify a basis for people to build their level of confidence and trust in the police, they must embrace and employ the concepts of Social Capital Theory, Performance Theory and Procedural Justice. Proactively and aggressively pursuing criminal activity through evidence-based and focused patrol is only part of the larger puzzle. For policing to be successful there must be a fair and accurate portrayal of law enforcement by the media, as well as, the added components of making connections with citizens through civic engagement, building confidence by meeting citizen’s expectations by maintaining accountability by meeting performance expectations and through the consistent, fair treatment, of everyone, and through respect and responsiveness to the concerns and priorities of citizens.
Brown, B., & Benedict, W. (2002). Perceptions of the police: Past findings, methodological issues, conceptual issues and policy implications. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 25(3), 543-580.
Skogen, W.G., (2006). Asymmetry in the Impact of Encounters with Police. Policing and Society, 16(2), 99-126.
Van Craen, M. (2012). Determinants of Ethnic Minority Confidence in the Police. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 38 (7), 1029-1047.
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