Section 3.2: Perceptions of the Police

Police Methods by Adam J. McKee

In “Section 3.2: Perceptions of the Police,” you are presented with a comprehensive analysis of how the public views law enforcement and the impact of community policing strategies on these perceptions. This section is vital for understanding the complex relationship between police and the communities they serve, and it highlights the importance of marketing and public relations in shaping the image of law enforcement.

The section begins by discussing the strategic selection of messages and images in communicating the concept of community policing. It emphasizes the need for consistency in messaging to various stakeholders, including police personnel, community members, political and business leaders, and the media. This approach helps in building a coherent and unified perception of the police department’s role and objectives in community policing.

As you read, pay close attention to the survey findings on factors influencing public opinion of the police. These include the importance of informal contacts between police and citizens, the role of neighborhood characteristics in shaping opinions, and the impact of media portrayal on public perceptions. The survey results provide crucial insights into how different demographic groups and communities perceive law enforcement, and how these perceptions are influenced by their interactions with police officers, neighborhood cohesion, and experiences of crime and disorder.

This section also underscores the challenges police face in managing public expectations and communicating the limitations of community policing in addressing broader societal problems. It highlights the importance of setting realistic goals and objectives in community policing and the need for clear and effective communication strategies to manage these expectations.

As future law enforcement professionals, understanding these dynamics is critical. It will help you appreciate the nuances of public perception and the significance of building positive relationships with the community. This section will equip you with a deeper understanding of the factors that influence how communities view the police and the strategies that can be employed to improve these perceptions, ultimately contributing to more effective and community-oriented policing practices.

Marketing: Selecting a Message and an Image

Before implementing a community policing strategy, the agency should communicate the concept of community policing to its own personnel and to the community, including political and business leaders and the media. Different emphases and images may be appropriate for different audiences; however, a message to one group should not contradict or neutralize an equally valid message to another.

For example, messages to officers focusing on problem solving and arrests might conflict with images directed at the general public showing officers distributing teddy bears to preschoolers. Both messages and roles are valid; one emphasizes problem solving as a valuable anticrime tool, while the other shows the benefits of trust-building and partnerships with the community.

To avoid sending contradictory messages, agencies should settle on a dominant theme and communicate it consistently both internally and externally. For example, the theme might emphasize a new “customer-service” orientation to policing, focus on partnership building, or highlight the prospects community policing holds for creating secure neighborhoods. Subsidiary points—problem solving, community contact, or ridding neighborhoods of signs of neglect or disorder—could be grouped under the umbrella of this central theme. An excellent example of a central theme is the “Together We Can” slogan that will steer the marketing of community policing efforts in Chicago.

Marketing involves communicating through symbols, stories about real-life situations, and testimonials by those whom the community and officers respect. Marketing messages are conveyed internally through memos, roll-call briefings, newsletters, and special videos, and in person by command staff and chief executives, among others. Externally, they are publicized through public forums, posters, flyers, meetings, public service announcements, and the officers’ personal contact with community members.

Although the use of a label or acronym to help market community policing seems a small matter, it needs careful consideration

“If employees are generally supportive of the change, then the label provides a positive rallying symbol….If, on the other hand, there is substantial resistance to the change, then the label becomes a negative rallying symbol….People begin to play games with the acronym. Neighborhood-Oriented Policing becomes ‘Nobody On Patrol’ or ‘NOPE’.”

The media must be included early in the implementation process to market successfully the idea of community policing. Media involvement ensures a wide dissemination of the community policing message and encourages the media to stay involved in future community policing efforts; the media also will be less apt to “derail” if there is a bump in the crime statistics or if some community policing policies are less effective than hoped. If the budget allows, media consultants can be useful. The agency’s internal media relations unit should thoroughly understand the chief executive’s vision of community policing and communicate it clearly in news releases and interviews. All who are marketing the concept must be careful not to claim more for community policing than it can deliver.

Source: Understanding Community Policing:  A Framework for Action. p. 41 – 42.

Factors That Influence Public Opinion of the Police

Police can improve public opinion by increasing their informal contacts with citizens. According to a survey of Los Angeles residents’ opinions of police job performance and officers’ demeanor, police can increase residents’ approval of their job performance by participating in community meetings, increasing officers’ visibility in neighborhoods, and talking with citizens. Such informal contacts had a positive impact on job approval ratings even when other factors associated with lower approval ratings—such as residents’ perceptions that their neighborhoods are crime ridden, dangerous, and disorderly—were present.

Informal contacts with police also lessened the negative impact of residents’ formal contacts with police (such as being arrested or questioned by police). Residents with both types of contact reported higher approval ratings than residents with only formal contact. Race and ethnicity were not found to be as important as neighborhood characteristics or personal contacts in determining the public’s satisfaction with police, although race and ethnicity did seem to play a role in residents’ assessment of officers’ demeanor. The media were also found to have little influence on public opinion of the police.

What did the survey reveal? 

  • Residents’ perception of the level of crime and disorder in their neighborhood was a significant factor shaping their opinion of the police. 
  • Residents with informal police contacts had more positive perceptions than residents with formal contacts. 
  • Residents’ opinion of police performance did not vary by race or ethnicity in disorderly neighborhoods. 
  • Media did not affect residents’ approval of police job performance or their perception of officers’ demeanor.

Factors That Influence Public Opinion of the Police 

A new study has found that neighborhood characteristics and interactions with police are the factors that most influence public opinion of the police. The study, conducted in Los Angeles, found that residents from neighborhoods perceived to be crime ridden, dangerous, and disorderly were less likely to approve of the police.1 In contrast, residents who had informal personal contact with police were more likely to express approval. Race and ethnicity, factors cited as influential in other studies, were not found to be as important as community disorder in determining the public’s satisfaction with police. Race and ethnicity did affect assessment of police demeanor. The media were found to have little influence on public opinion of the police.

Perceptions of the Neighborhood 

As might be expected, residents expressed less approval of officers and the way they do their job when residents perceived problems with disorder or violent crime in their neighborhood or reported being fearful.

The level of social cohesion and informal social control present in a neighborhood also influenced residents’ assessments of the police. This characteristic describes residents’ sense of mutual trust and responsibility.3 To determine the level of neighborhood cohesion and control, residents in this survey were asked, among other questions, whether people in their neighborhood got along with each other, shared the same values, could be trusted, were willing to help their neighbors, and could be counted on to intervene in neighborhood problems, such as children skipping school or the potential closing of a fire station because of budget cuts. As indicated in exhibit 1, residents who responded positively to these and related questions were much likelier to approve of police performance and demeanor.

Public opinion was associated with neighborhood cohesion and control for two reasons. First, residents who reported living in neighborhoods where neighbors got along, shared similar values, and could rely on each other were likelier to have informal contacts with police officers than those who reported living in neighborhoods where these traits were less common. Second, these respondents are likelier to believe that the community shares responsibility with the police for a safe and orderly neighborhood. They are therefore less likely to judge police officers harshly when crime and social disorder occur.  

Contacts with the Police 

The survey captured two kinds of contact with officers: formal and informal. Fortyeight percent of the respondents reported some type of formal contact with local police. These formal contacts included residents’ calls to police stations requesting service and police questioning of residents regarding possible crimes. These formal contacts also included arrests of 1 percent of the respondents.  

Forty-seven percent of the respondents reported informal contacts with police. These informal contacts included conversations with police officers on patrol and interactions with police at community meetings, police sponsored youth activities, and community safety fairs. Although almost half the respondents reported informal contacts with police, less than one in five residents said they knew or recognized police officers who worked in their community.

Those with only informal contacts hold the highest opinions of police performance and officer demeanor. Those with only formal contacts hold the least positive attitudes toward local police on these two measures. Individuals with no contacts with police have high opinions of job performance and officer demeanor.

Informal contact with police had a significant effect on job approval ratings, even when considering residents’ perceptions of the level of disorder in their neighborhood. For residents who reported low levels of disorder, job approval ratings ranged from 71 percent for residents with only formal contact with police to almost 90 percent for those with either no contact or only informal contact. Residents who reported high levels of neighborhood disorder had a wide range of opinion about job performance—35 percent who had only formal contact, 49 percent who had both formal and informal contact, and 85 percent who had only informal contact approved of police performance.

Prior Crime Victimization 

Prior victimization, especially violent crime victimization, significantly lowered residents’ approval of the police. Fifty seven percent of respondents who were violent crime victims and 70 percent who were property (but not violent) crime victims approved of police performance. In comparison, 85 percent of residents who were not crime victims approved of the job their local police were doing. This pattern held for respondents’ opinions of officer demeanor, although the difference in perceptions between crime victims and nonvictims was not as great. The lower approval ratings for crime victims are consistent with past research.

Demographic Characteristics 

Much past literature focuses on the association of race and ethnicity with public opinion of the police. Studies have found that ethnic minorities, particularly blacks, report less favorable attitudes toward the police than whites, possibly because of their perception that minorities are mistreated more often by police. At first glance, the results of the current study seem to confirm the findings of these studies. Whites express higher opinions of police performance and demeanor than any other race/ethnic group. 

However, once respondents are categorized further by the level of perceived disorder in their neighborhood, the racial/ethnic-based differences in approval of job performance disappear. Although whites in low-disorder neighborhoods appear to have a higher opinion of police performance, disorder is clearly the main influence. Conversely, residents’ opinions about officer demeanor were more affected by their race and ethnicity, even though disorder remained important. Blacks were less likely to think that local police were trustworthy, fair, helpful, concerned, and respectful of others in both orderly and disorderly neighborhoods.

Role of the Media 

Police are particularly concerned about the media’s influence on attitudes toward them. Several Los Angeles police supervisors who were interviewed before the survey was conducted stated that they believed that a few highly publicized incidents might have a widespread negative influence on residents’ view of the police.

In this survey, 65 percent of the respondents indicated that personal experience (including respondents’ experience with other police agencies and their secondhand knowledge of the experience of others) most shaped their opinions of the LAPD. Thirty-five percent were most influenced by mass media (including newspapers, radio, and television). The study found that residents who rely most on the media did not report less favorable opinions regarding the overall job performance and demeanor of the police than those most influenced by personal experience.

Implications for Police Practice 

According to this study, disorderly neighborhoods and neighborhoods with poor social cohesion and control present a challenge for officer-community relations. Local community surveys can help police to identify and address residents’ situations and concerns. Communities also may benefit from community policing strategies that increase informal contact between local officers and residents.

The findings confirm and expand on earlier studies that suggested informal contact raises public opinion of the police. In this survey, speaking to officers on patrol or at community events was associated with a positive opinion of police performance, whether or not the resident lived in a disorderly neighborhood. It could be that those predisposed to be more favorable are likelier to initiate informal contact with officers. In any event, it seems likely that promoting informal social contact may favorably influence public opinion. Police departments may want to evaluate the ways that they encourage or discourage informal contact with residents. Police-community partnerships are more effective when they incorporate greater informal contact with residents. 

Although past literature relies heavily on demographic characteristics to explain public opinion, this study found that the most important factors influencing favorable opinion of the police were greater informal contact with police, less victimization, less fear of crime, lower perceived level of violent crime, lower perceived disorder in one’s neighborhood, and higher neighborhood cohesion and control. Race and ethnicity were not shown to significantly determine public opinion of police performance once other factors (such as perceived neighborhood disorder) were considered. Residents’ trust in the police, however, was influenced by race and ethnicity.

Police and others often perceive the media as having a significant effect on the public’s opinion of police performance. According to this study’s findings, the media did not appear to be a source of negative opinion of the LAPD. Instead of relying on the media for their opinions, respondents appeared to react primarily to their own experiences and expectations in forming opinions of their local police.

Source:  NIJ. Factors That Influence Public Opinion of the Police.


Modification History

File Created:  08/10/2019

Last Modified:  01/11/2024

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