Police play an essential role in maintaining peace in society. Yet police officers face multiple job related challenges. Although police officers strive to maintain an ethical, just image, multiple factors may infringe on how the community perceives police officers. The relationship between police officers and the community is complicated. The United States Department of Justice (2010) further concurs in arguing that the community’s relationship with police officers is influenced by multiple variables. The role of the media, crime within the community, national accusations of police misconduct, the history of policing in the community and the actions taken by the police department to promote a positive image are all factors that can positively or adversely affect how the community perceives police officers (Baker & Hyde, 2011; Wooden & Rogers, 2014).
Furthermore, the time, police departments take to establish and maintain positive community relations is another attribute that affects the relationship between police officers and the community (United States Department of Justice, 2010). The role of the community’s relationship with police officers will be explored in order to determine what factors positively influence or hinder the relationship between police officers and the community.
The Importance of Police/Community Relations
The importance of police departments maintaining a positive relationship with the community has been well established (Jones & Supinksi, 2010). According to the United States Department of Justice (2010) a positive relationship between the police and the community they serve is an essential element in solving problems within the community. Wooden & Rogers (2014) further concur in arguing “community policing, ‘seeks to form partnerships with the community to identify and arrest offenders, prevent crime and disorders, recognize and solve problems, and foster and maintain mutual respect and trust’” (p. 186). Police officers that work in conjunction with the community and respect residents often find that people are inclined to report information that could lead to an arrest in a case (Baker & Hyde, 2011).
In contrast, communities that have strained relationships with police officers may be more likely to withhold information, due to the lack of trust ascribed to police officers (Weitzer, Tuch & Skogan, 2008). Yet, communities that fail to provide information to police often have more unsolved crimes. As a result, these communities are often perceived as less safe than communities that have a positive relationship with police officers.
The Role of the Media in Influencing the Police’s Relationship With the Community
The media plays a vital role in influencing how communities perceive police officers. The United States Department of Justice (2010) expands on the role of the media in influencing the community’s relationship with police officers in stating, “everyday, tens of thousands of law enforcement personnel throughout the United States perform honorable and conscientious police work, but irreparable damage may be done to the entire profession from even one story of police misconduct” (p. 5). Chermak, McGarrell & Gruenewald (2006) further sought to explore how reading or watching a story in the news affect the community’s perception of police officers. The results determined that the more exposure the story had the more likely people were to have seen it multiple times. In relating this to the results, the researchers concluded that the more frequently community members saw the news story, the more likely they were to believe that the police officer had abused his powers.
The results of this study are problematic, as police departments work hard to establish positive relationships with the community. However, this research demonstrates that a high profile story can easily strain a police department’s relationship with the community. The Role of Race, Socio-Economic Status & Affects on Community/Police Relations The roles of race, socio-economic status, and education have all been shown to influence how the individual and community perceive police officers. Dowler (2002) found that communities with higher rates of crime and violence are more likely to believe police officers are not doing their job effectively.
However, areas with a higher socio-economic class are less likely to have a high proportion of violent crime. The differences in crime ascribed to each region based on the community’s socio-economic status directly influences whether or not the community will perceive the police positively and form a relationship with police officers. Race is another variable that directly affects the police’s relationship with the community. Previous research has established that African Americans are more likely than other minorities to report a higher distrust in police officers (Dowler, 2002). However, other research has shown that Muslims are also likely to have unfavorable opinions of police officers. Jones & Supinski (2010) further argues that the measures taken after September 11th directly affected how Muslims perceive police officers.
However, the role of victimization and perceived victimization may further influence why African Americans and Muslims have less favorable perceptions of police officers. Historically, African Americans are more likely to have been discriminated (Weitzer, Tuch & Skogan, 2008). As a result of this discrimination, African Americans may be more apprehensive about forming relationships with police officers. Similar to African Americans, Jones & Supinski argue that societal perceptions of Muslims changed after September 11th. As a result of this change, Muslims are equally likely to be victimized by members of society and more likely to be perceived as terrorists. Yet, it could further be argued that the stereotypes ascribed to Muslims after September 11th caused this group to be more apprehensive about forming relationships with non-Muslim communities, including police officers.
The Role of the Department in Strengthening Community Relations With Police Officers
Police Departments that value community relationships often strive hard to ensure no official misconduct occurs within the department (United States Department of Justice, 2010). Even with this hard work, in some cases, allegations may arise pertaining to police misconduct that impair the community’s relationship with police officers. The credibility of these allegations may influence how the community perceives police officers. Despite this prospect, it is critical that police chiefs take the time to repair the damage done to the relationship between police officers and the community with allegations or occurrences of official misconduct occurs. In reestablishing the trust the community ascribes to police officers, the United States Department of Justice recommends police chiefs be “transparent (i.e. clear, concise, and open about their department’s internal affairs process) with their constituencies, acknowledge misconduct, appropriately deal with misconduct and include the public in the response will not only obtain but also sustain respect and confidence” of individuals in their community (p. 13).
The relationship police officers have with the community is an important attribute in effective policing. Communities that enjoy a positive relationship with police officers have been shown to have lower levels of crime and are more likely to cooperate with police investigations when a crime occurs. However, multiple factors influence the relationship a community has with police officers. The media and allegations of police misconduct have been shown to adversely affect how the community perceives police officers. The role of crime within the community and socio-economic status were also shown to play a critical role in determining the relationship police officers have with the community. Yet, the way the police department handles allegations or occurrences of police misconduct have a significant impact on the relationship the community has with police officers. As a whole, the relationship the community has with police officers is a complex dynamic, influencing by multiple variables.
Baker D., Hyde M. (2011) Police have customers too. Police, Practices and Research 12 (2) 148-162. Building Trust Between the Police & The Citizens They Serve (2010) United States Department of Justice. Retrieved November 30, 2014 from: http://nccpsafety.org/assets/files/library/Building_Trust_Between_Police__Citizens.pdf Chermak S., McGarrell E., Gruenewald J. (2006) Media coverage of police misconduct and attitudes toward police. Journal of Policing 29 (2) 261-282. Dowler K. (2002) Media Influence on Citizen Attitudes Toward Police Effectiveness. Policing & Society 12 (3) 227-239. Jones C., Supinski S.B. (2010) Policing and Community Relations in the Homeland
The quality of police–community relations often contributes to the ability of the police to accomplish goals of public safety. When the public is satisfied with and has confidence in the police, they are more likely to contribute information that may assist the police in solving crimes. When community residents trust the police, they are more willing to work collaboratively with the police to make improvements to neighborhoods.
II. Modern Police History and Police–Community Relations
A. The Political Era (1840–1930s)
B. The Reform/Professional Era (1930s–1980s)
C. The Community Era (1980s–Present)
III. Strategies to Address Police–Community Relations
A. Public Relations
B. Community Service
C. Community Policing
IV. Conclusion: Public Opinion and the Police
A. Dimensions of Public Support
B. Individual-Level Factors
C. Community-Level Factors
D. Implications for Police Service
Police in any democratic society are faced with an inescapable dilemma: Their role requires that they adequately balance the legal authority they have been granted by the public (through government) with their responsibility to protect individual rights and contribute to public safety. Police officers are a walking symbol of government authority. They have the power to stop, detain, question, arrest, and even use deadly physical force when necessary. At the same time, police have to be responsive to the wishes of the public. They must carry out complex tasks while respecting important legal and constitutional protections. The police are occasionally called upon to enforce unpopular laws while attempting to foster or maintain public support. How the police balance these concerns often determines the quality of the relationship that they have with the public. The actions of individual police officers (e.g., the use of excessive force), or policies enacted by a department that emphasize the coercive legal authority of the police (e.g., zero-tolerance policing) may jeopardize public satisfaction. In addition, the quality of police–community relations often contributes to the ability of the police to accomplish goals of public safety. When the public is satisfied with and has confidence in the police, they are more likely to contribute information that may assist the police in solving crimes. When community residents trust the police, they are more willing to work collaboratively with the police to make improvements to neighborhoods. Therefore, there are very real and practical concerns that should serve to encourage police departments to work on improving the relationships they have with local communities.
This research paper examines these police–community relations. It begins by examining police–community relations from a historical perspective. This discussion centers on an understanding of how the relationship between the police and the public has changed over time. Next, specific approaches that police departments have used to improve police–community relations are explored. Some of these approaches have included specialized police–community relations units, public relations campaigns, and community policing models. Finally, this research paper discusses what is currently known about the state of police–community relations in the United States with a particular focus on resident- and community-level surveys that examine public satisfaction with police service.
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