Police Encounters are Key to Public Perceptions
Despite what one might be led to believe from following social media, watching television coverage of protests or reading newspaper commentaries, for the most part, the general public tends to view the police positively. In fact, research indicates there is a long history of the majority of Americans having confidence in the police and ranking them highly on their honesty and ethical standards. It is a simple truth that most people view the police as playing an important, and even indispensable role in society.
This high level of public support and confidence, however, is not uniform across all communities, demographics or law enforcement agencies. While the research on popular attitudes toward the police is extensive, I would like to examine two essential and interrelated points that can be gleaned from this literature.
First, every police-citizen interaction matters in shaping the public’s opinion and attitudes toward the police. The police come into contact with large numbers of people each year as a result of traffic violations, arrests or efforts to assist the victims of crime. Research shows people often voice more dissatisfaction with police after these types of encounters. In other cases, police officers provide citizens with an array of services, which result in positive outcomes.
While less is known about which type of contact has the greatest impact, some research finds that positive contact has a stronger relative influence. The context of police-citizen interaction also tends to impact public perceptions.
Research shows that satisfaction with police is based on peoples’ expectations. If police actions meet their expectations, they are satisfied. But if the police provide an inadequate level of service or exhibit what is perceived as demeaning behavior, members of the public often become disgruntled. For example, crime victims often voice dissatisfaction with the police when they believe officers do a poor job of investigating their victimization. Police service, rather than victimization, determines their attitudes. Likewise enforcement action taken by police seldom results in serious criticism if it is carried out in a professional manner. Even though officers may be making an arrest or issuing a citation, they can do so with respect and civility. This would lead to fewer confrontations and improved community relations.
Second, major police incidents receiving national media attention, can have a dramatic affect on public perceptions of the police. I will not dwell on these incidents other than to simply say that questionable police shootings, brutality, corruption, sexual misconduct and racist behavior all take a toll on local support. Studies indicate such incidents undermine public trust and cause the public to question police integrity. Moreover, such incidents have a global effect, resulting in a general decline in support across the country. When such incidents occur, people begin questioning whether similar events could occur in their own communities. Police leaders understand that incidents in the national spotlight, even though they may take place in other states, have ripple effects in their own communities, and that they must respond to them to maintain local support.
What determines how well a police agency weathers a national incident depends not only on how well the event is managed in its aftermath, but also how an agency approaches the less sensational, everyday encounters that form the basis of police-community relations. The goodwill built up by properly managing local everyday police-citizen encounters helps insulate police from negative public perceptions, even in the face of detrimental national events.