Public Opinion of Police Departments essay

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But, many citizens respond more favorably to "civilian-style uniforms" and in line with that, Bailey asserts that civilian attitudes towards police (ATP) are the "most positive" when in the presence of "non-authoritarian police officers" (682). Whether a police chief in a medium size city could undertake a transformation from a military-style police uniform -- the style used almost universally in the U.S. And elsewhere -- to a more civilian-formatted uniform is problematic, but the idea is worth pursuing.

Authors Hahn and Jeffries explain -- through the research they accumulated -- that most people tend to "…shun or avoid individual contact with police officers" (Hahn, et al., 2003, p. 103). Why do people shy away from on-duty police officers? Hahn asserts that the hesitancy may be the result of "a general perception of police officers as agents of social control," which of course, in a way, is exactly the task of law enforcement (103). Moreover, citizens are understandably reticent to get "personally enmeshed in the punitive aspects of law enforcement," Hahn goes on (103).

Hahn's research reflects the results of surveys from Boston and Chicago; for example, people living in "high-crime areas" that had been "compelled to call on the police" for help were "not inclined to interact closely with police officers" (103). About one-third of the respondents in the survey Hahn references reported they had "never had social contact with employees of the police department." In addition, 41% of respondents in this survey "asserted that they had experienced some official contact with the police during the past year -- usually in the role of complainant -- and 45% said they did not know any police officers personally" (103).

From the other side of the equation, a survey of police officers in Boston and Chicago that Hahn references showed that "61% of police respondents claimed the public rarely or never cooperated with law enforcement officers by giving them needed information" (104). Police that responded to this survey believe that citizens aren't always cooperative because they either "fear" or "dislike" police -- or indeed they may fear "reprisal" and resist getting personally involved in others' problems (104). Some members of the public may be reluctant (in Chicago, Boston, and elsewhere) to cooperate with police, but Hahn's research reveals that only 10% of citizens that officers come into contact with are "antagonistic" and just 30% seem "agitated" (106).

The great majority of citizens can be characterized "as calm and deferential in encounters with police," Hahn continues, and when a citizen is in fact respectful and calm, those emotions "are often reciprocated by law enforcement," the author explains on page 106. In fact, the data from surveys Hahn presents shows that in nearly three-fourths of all their interactions with the public, police behaved "in a businesslike or routine civil fashion toward citizens" (106). In 15% of the encounters with citizens, officers were "more personal in demeanor, expressing humor or joviality" and in just 11% of the encounters with citizens officers were reported to be "hostile, authoritarian, or derisive of citizens" (106).

Regarding the public's perception of potential corruption by police, Hahn (108) reports the results of a national survey that showed 59% believed "almost all" police officers were honest." Another survey from Brooklyn New York found that 70% of citizens believed officers were "mostly honest with a few whom are corrupt"; and a third survey referenced by Hahn (from Detroit) reflected that "63% of residents believed law enforcement officers 'sometimes break the rules for their personal gain'" (108).

The Literature -- the "Blue Code of Silence"

Barry Wright delves into the "Blue Code of Silence" -- officers with knowledge of the improper behavior of a colleague and yet they refuse to report improper behaviors to superiors -- in his peer-reviewed article in the International Journal of Police Science & Management. The author posits that officers of course have "a moral and legal duty" to ensure all compliance with the law, by the public and by officers. But the literature in England, Wales, and abroad, indicates officers are reticent to "blow the whistle" on their peers (Wright, 2010, p. 341).

The reluctance to "blow the whistle" on another officer is not just the result of "loyalty and solidarity," Wright concludes (342). In fact "fear" plays a role, because there are unpleasant consequences for whistleblowers: an analysis shows that whistleblowers can experience (and have experienced) "social, career, physical and psychological costs" (342). Wright references a survey (Klockars et al., 2004) that was conducted in 14 countries, and in every country there was a "code"; a small minority of officers, it was revealed, "would not report even the most serious misconduct, whilst a significant proportion of officers" said they would not even report "minor" incidents (342). A very interesting survey that Wright conducted in England was done online; a total of 1,591 police officers and 1,494 police staffers were emailed questionnaires (only 723 were completed and emailed back), and the results showed: a) 25% of police officers were not aware of the unit in their department -- Professional Standards Intelligence Unit, PSIU -- that specifically is established to handle covertly reported internal misconduct; b) 33% of staff were ignorant of whom to report misconduct to; and c) 41% of officers and 39% of police staff reported that being friends with the individual who was engaged in misconduct "would affect their decision to report" (Wright, 348-49).

Police and the Media

Author Jack Greene reminds readers in his book that historically police departments' relationships with the media tended towards "antagonistic, adversarial, and strained" (Greene, 2007, p. 776). Moreover, in the past police resisted giving out information to media members due to the need for secrecy in an investigation, due to concerns that giving out information would "create fear" in the public -- or otherwise might endanger the public. More recently, law enforcement has generally established far more cooperative relations with the media, and police do understand they need the media in order to be effective in the community.

Since media depend on "timely, newsworthy information," so reporters can get their stories on the air and in print under deadline, it behooves law enforcement to designate a staff person -- sometimes called a "public information officer" (PIO) -- to provide the details that are able to be released to members of the media, Greene writes. In fact many medium and larger law enforcement agencies have had PIOs for many years; the job of a PIO isn't just to disseminate information, but to "build relationships with the media," Greene explains on page 776. This kind of professional interactions between police and media members is very useful when there is a murder suspect, for example, who may be threatening other citizens and police need the eyes and ears of the community to help bring him to justice. A photo of the suspect is provided to journalists, who disseminate that image quickly, and the community can be on the alert for him.

A Survey Proposal for a Police Chief in need of Public Support

Prior to conducting the survey in the community, it would be a good idea to proactively launch a "community policing" program, where the "entire police organization, all government agencies and the community actively co-operate in problem-solving" (Polis, 2008, p. 1). A community policing program has as its objective -- besides fighting crime -- to integrating the police into the community to form a partnership that can "reduce fear, physical and social disorder, and neighborhood decay" (Polis, p. 1). Through this effort the community will clearly see the police are making an effort to utilize local resources to improve effectiveness.

The Survey - How vital are these issues to you and your neighbors?

[Name, age, gender, ethnicity, rent / own home, children, years lived here…]

Indicate: a (poor); b) (okay); c (pretty good); d (excellent)

How would you rate the attitude of police officers in this community?

How do you rate the way police supervisors manage their officers?

How well does the police department respond to the safety needs of the community?

How would you rate the relationship between the police and ordinary citizens?

How well does the police department handle citizen concerns and complaints?

Indicate: a (not safe); b) somewhat safe); c (very safe); d (extremely safe)

Do you feel safe walking around in your neighborhood in the daylight?

Do you feel safe walking in your neighborhood after dark?

Being downtown at night, does that feel safe to you?

Having your children walking home from school -- do you believe they are safe?

How safe is the neighborhood around your children's schools?

Indicate: a (not vital); b (somewhat vital); c (very vital) d (extremely vital)

Having officers patrol in your neighborhood more often

Having a police officer visit your school, club, or church organization, to hear your concerns and explain policing policies in the community

Being able to complain about police to a specific department and not to a receptionist

Being on first-name terms with an officer

Indicate: yes…[continue]

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