Improving Police-Community Relations by Anthony Bartolomei


Abstract: Considerable controversy surrounds the relationship between community members and the officers who police them. While many studies are being conducted to determine how to improve police-community relations as a whole, the current study specifically explores the adolescent and young adult population. It is imperative to identify how youth respond to officers in their community (i.e., schools and neighborhoods) and how to achieve mutual respect and improve future communications. The aim of this paper is to evaluate the core issues that shape the attitudes of adolescents and young adults regarding the police. To better understand the relationship, the current study surveys approximately 100 college students to 1) measure their attitudes towards police and 2) identify what factors influence their opinions (i.e., media, direct contact, indirect contact). The survey also includes targeted questions to find out what type of police sponsored program may have influenced them, such as youth police academy, D.A.R.E., School Resource Officer, or other community-based programs. Program and policy implications to improve attitudes and respect for police are discussed and suggestions are made regarding future research in this area.


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Considerable controversy surrounds the relationship between community members and the officers who police them. Moreover, recent incidents involving altercations between citizens (in particular people of color) and police officers, combined with social media accessibility have placed issues like police brutality, selective enforcement, and racial profiling at the forefront of nationwide debates. One study shows that in 2017 less than half (44%) of individuals between 18 and 34 have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police, which has fallen more than 10% since 2014 for this age group (Nathan, Finklea, Keegan, Sekar, & Thompson, 2018). While there is considerable work to be done to repair strained relations between police and community, researchers suggest that younger generations need to be an integral part of reform efforts. Scholars also point out that a successful approach must involve reciprocity between youth and police agencies. In other words, police and youth need to be receptive to change and then mutually “buy in” to proposed solutions. Furthermore, law enforcement officials, community activists, and politicians believe if the attitudes of young individuals towards police and the attitudes of police towards youth can be improved, appreciable strides can be made.


The purpose of the current study is to 1) explore which factors contribute to young people’s attitudes towards the police and 2) explore how law enforcement can encourage more positive attitudes within their communities. The following literature review reviews scholarship on the relationship between the community and the police as well as policed based programs that target strained community relations. Next, the methods explain the participants, procedure, and survey questions. Then, results analyze participants’ experiences with the police and their subsequent attitudes about law enforcement. Finally, the discussion includes limitations, future research, and provides program suggestions to ameliorating strained relationships between youth, communities, and law enforcement agencies.


Literature Review


The following literature review aims to: 1) identify factors that correlate with negative attitudes towards police and 2) examine programs designed to improve relationships between a community and its law enforcement agency.


Factors Correlated with Negative Attitudes Toward Police


In order to mend a police-community relationship that is struggling, the root of the problem must first be established. This can be achieved by understanding the factors that may influence a youth’s attitude toward law enforcement. Findings in the literature suggest that age, social interaction, personal experiences, race, and media coverage all play isolated as well as collective roles in forming youths’ attitudes towards police. For example, prior research concluded that age is an important factor when it comes to predicting negative attitudes towards police (Borrero, 2001). Young people tend to have rebellious attitudes, which in turn may create tension between youth and police officers that patrol local communities. Borrero (2001) also states that youth tend to see police as less competent and give them lower performance ratings than adults, perhaps due to a lesser understanding of the difficult duties of a law enforcement officer. Where there is a lack of understanding and respect, there is also potential for negative attitudes.


In addition to age, personal interactions can also be predictors of negative attitudes towards law enforcement. Since attitudes can be the result of and a determinant of the nature of personal experiences with police, it is important to know what other influences are present in young individuals’ attitudes. According to Leiber, Nalla, and Farnworth (1998), the social environment in which juveniles are socialized can also develop certain attitudes towards police. For those who grow up in households where the police are disliked, they are at risk of adapting those attitudes themselves without ever having any experiences with a police officer. Further, hearing about friends and acquaintances negative experiences with a police officer can also cause one to develop a negative perception of police (Pettersson, 2014). Unfortunately, this misconception occurs often. When a young individual’s friend shares they were harassed, that individual will more often than not, develop negative feelings towards the police without knowing the context of the alleged harassment. Thus, there may be various incidents where the police have been guilty of wrongdoing. However, when someone is caught breaking the law it is common for that individual to develop a negative attitude towards police even if officers were doing their job correctly. In scenarios like the one mentioned above, the negative feelings towards police are often projected into that person’s inner circle.


Race is a silent factor when it comes to distrust and negative feelings towards the police. Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) is present in the criminal justice system, from juvenile court to adult court, and people of color are visible as the system progresses (Piquero, 2008). The African American population comprises less than 15% of the overall population. However, African Americans accounted for roughly 28% of arrests between 1980 and 2009 (Nordberg, Twis, Stevens, & Hatcher, 2018). While research shows valid explanations for why DMC is present, efforts should be made to reduce this phenomenon, rather than accepting it as a trait of the justice system today. For example, neighborhoods with a large population of minority youth are often targeted for proactive policing (Nordberg, Crawford, Praetorius, & Hatcher, 2015). Proactive policing may have an end result of more police contacts for the population of that community and in turn lead to more arrests. While crime may be either prevented or stopped with this method, youth attitudes tend to be overwhelmingly negative when they feel as if the police are targeting them. (Nordberg, Crawford, Praetorius, and Hatcher, 2015) concluded that many minority youth’s experiences with police are in fact dangerous, controlling, and prejudiced. One may argue that the youth population in the study could be exaggerating the experiences they had, but there would be no need for them to do so if they had any positive experiences with police. Few youths in the study reported that they had any positive experiences involving a type of service or protection from police. This study does not suggest doing away with proactive policing in those communities but it does touch upon the issue of DMC in a negative context rather than providing those youths with positive experiences with police.


As stated previously, the experiences of others may have an impact on an individual’s view of police. For instance, the media plays a considerable role in the development of opinions and attitudes towards police officers. If print and news media report mostly negative police interactions with the public and portray officers in a bad light, it seems logical that viewers may be conditioned by these messages over time. Also, viewers may develop their own negative feelings based on the news coverage or have their pre-existing unfavorable attitudes about the police confirmed. For example: in a study of attitudes towards police based on the experiences of young African American students, these respondents admitted that the media definitely play a role in contributing to their fear of police officers (Nordberg, Crawford, Praetorius, & Hatcher, 2015). The media’s impact on the feelings of the community is often overlooked and can also be used as a tool to mend the current relationship if used correctly. If the media can influence individuals to fear police, it might also be used as a tool to promote positive public attitudes. If the media featured campaigns that promoted respect toward police and acknowledged positive stories of policing, perhaps there would be less ambivalent and negative public perceptions of police and an increase of favorable attitudes.


Programs Designed to Improve Police-Community Relations


Several programs have attempted to address the conflict between police and youth but not all have been effective. For example, many young individuals have not had enough positive experiences with police officers in an informal setting. According to Lee, Heafner, Sabatelli, and LaMotte (2017) youth participants greatly enjoyed having experiences with police officers out of uniform and conversing with them in a friendly, informal way. In addition, young individuals are considerably less likely to feel threatened or nervous around off-duty officers. A simple and casual exchange between plain-clothes police officers and youth could be a potential solution to the ongoing divergence between police and youth. As a result, youth may realize that police officers are just like anyone else and not a force that should be feared or rebelled against. Giwa, James, Anucha, and Schwartz (2014) explored how youth feel about improving police-community relations and found that youth recommend that officers should take time to socialize with younger individuals in a community and to learn more about their culture. The more involved the police are with youth in a community, the more likely it is for there to be increased trust between parties. Conversely, there also needs to be participation on the youths’ side as well. If both sides do not make an effort for change, it is very unlikely that the relationship will improve over time. For instance, police officers suggest that youth should treat them with respect and understand that they are human as well (Giwa, James, Anucha, & Schwartz, 2014).


One Connecticut community program, called the Side-by-Side Program, had a successful result in decreasing negative youth perceptions towards police. The goal of the project was to increase interactions between community youth and officers in an attempt to increase the number of police officers who are comfortable interacting with youth and improving youths’ attitudes toward police (Lee, Heafner, Sabatelli, & LaMotte, 2017). Not only did youth show an increase in positive attitudes towards police, but the study showed that police displayed an increase in positive attitudes towards youth as well. The relationship between these two groups is a two-way street; effort and improvement must be shown by both the police and the youth to improve the relationship.


Another common program seen in communities is a junior police academy or cadet program. Youth are placed in a modified police academy, which demonstrate what officers’ experience regarding police training and job duties. In one cadet program, cadets reported seeing a different side of officers and described them as being in a “laid back” state (Pepper & Silvestri, 2016). Seeing a different side of officers and gaining an understanding of their duties can help build a familiarity that can help youth respect officers for the various services they provide.


School Resource Officers (SRO) can also be utilized to mend the relationship between youth and police by interacting with young students on a daily basis. One of the main goals of a School Resource Officer Program is for officers to improve and develop better relationships with youth (Kelly, 2017). While their main concern is safety, an SRO can interact with students on a regular basis and should be seen as a friend by the students. Having some positive interactions with a police officer, whether they are on the street or through school based programs, may greatly assist in building trust between police officers and the juveniles in their community.


The main purpose of the current study is to expand on the above literature and explore which factors contribute to young people’s attitudes towards the police and, ultimately, how more positive attitudes can be promoted among a college student population. Ultimately, it is important to develop a positive attitude among youth and police officers when they are in childhood. However, understanding past experience among the current population (i.e., late adolescent, early adulthood) can assist in recommendations for future programs that specifically focus on younger generations.


Methods


Participants


The participants in this study were sampled from a small, private Northeastern college (N=59). Of the participants, 55.9% were female and 42.4% were male. The academic standing of the participants varied from freshman to graduate student. The senior class represented the majority of the participants at 52.5%, 16.9% were juniors, 15.3% were sophomores, and 13.6% were freshmen. The lowest percentages were graduate students representing 1.7% of the participants. The age of the participants in this study ranged from 18 to 43 years old. The average age of respondents was 22.8 years old. Additionally, approximately 76% of the participants were between 18 and 22 years of age, which represents the traditional college aged student. Also, 50.8% of participants were White/Caucasian, 32.2% were Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin, 11.9% were Black or African American, and 1.7% reported Asian. In addition, 3.4% of the participants reported that they were of a different racial background or preferred not to disclose their race/ethnicity.


Of all the majors reported, the three most common majors included Nursing, Criminal Justice, and Athletic Training. Specifically, nursing majors made up of 30.5% of the participants, Criminal Justice majors were the second most common group at 20.3%, and Athletic Training majors made up 10.2% of the total participant group. Furthermore, most students (66.1%) reported living in a suburban area. See Table 1 for all descriptive statistics.


Questionnaire


The purpose of the current study was to measure students’ attitudes towards police and to determine the development of those attitudes. After receiving IRB approval, a survey was emailed to students asking participants to complete informed consent forms prior to starting the survey. The first part of the survey consisted of general feelings and attitudes towards the police. A rating scale provided respondent views on various statements about police. One example of a statement used in this section is “police officers protect me”. The participants responded to this statement by stating whether they strongly disagree, disagree, are neutral, agree, or strongly agree.


The second part of the survey consisted of personal experiences with police. For example, participants were asked if they had ever attended a police sponsored community program and, if so, what type of program did they participate in. This question determined how common it is for a juvenile to have access to these types of programs. The final part of the survey included demographic questions.


Analysis


This analysis explores the relationship between the several predictor variables and the outcome variable in the current study. The outcome variable is an index titled Police Fairness, which, was created by aggregating responses to questions regarding general attitudes and feelings toward the police. Each item had response categories that ranged from 1 to 5 with 1 indicating “Strongly Disagree” and 5 indicating “Strongly Agree”. To prevent more frequent items from dominating the scale, each item was standardized prior to averaging. The Police Fairness scale was developed from three items: police officers treat all people fairly, the police do not discriminate, and police officers are unbiased (Cronbach’s Alpha = .86). Cronbach’s alpha is a measure of internal consistency or scale reliability measuring how closely related a set of items is as a group. The alpha coefficient for the three items is .86, suggesting that the items have relatively high internal consistency. A reliability coefficient of .70 or higher is considered “acceptable” in social science research.


Several predictor variables will be explored to examine if there is a relationship with Police Fairness. The predictor variables include: relatives in law enforcement, Friends in law enforcement, involvement with police sponsored community programs, negative experience with police, gender (male vs. female), race (white vs. nonwhite), major (criminal justice vs. other majors), and neighborhood type (urban vs. other). The variables race, major and neighborhood type were recoded into a bivariate measure (also known as a dummy variable).


Results


The first part of the results explores factors that may impact an individual’s opinion of police officers, such as having friends or family in law enforcement and involvement with a community based police program. The second part focuses on personal experiences, such as having been pulled over or having a friendly conversation with an officer that may affect one’s view of the police. In addition, several independent sample t-tests were conducted to determine which factors significantly impact attitudes towards police.



Table 1: Descriptive Statistics


Table 2 includes results from questions focusing on prior experience with law enforcement. Of the 59 respondents 50.8% reported having relatives in law enforcement and 49.2% reported not having any relatives in law enforcement. In addition, 52.5% percent of respondents reported having friends in law enforcement and 47.5% percent of respondents reported not having friends in law enforcement. Students were also asked about their involvement with police sponsored community programs and 84.7% percent reported never having been involved with a police sponsored community program and 15.3% were involved in at least one of these types of programs. If respondents reported yes they were then asked to specify the type of program. The responses included: D.A.R.E., Youth Police Academy, and Police Athletic Leagues.



Table 2: Experience with Law Enforcement (n = 59)

A majority of respondents (88.1%) have a “mostly positive” view of law enforcement officers. Only 11.9% percent of respondents reported having a “mostly negative” view of law enforcement officers. When asked where their views of police came from the top three responses included: personal experience, media coverage, and family member’s experience. Specifically, 67.8% of respondents reported personal experience, 15.3% developed their view of police officers through media coverage, and 10.2% reported family member’s experience.


Next, participants were asked about negative personal experience with police officers and the majority of respondents (61%) have not had a negative experience and 39% percent of respondents reported having a negative experience with a law enforcement officer, such as an unjustified citation or arrest.


In addition to the close-ended questions, there was one open-ended question, which asked respondents to describe their most memorable experience with a police officer. The responses included both positive and negative experiences as well as neutral experiences, such as getting pulled over and receiving a citation for breaking a traffic law. Approximately 43% percent of responses were positive, 40% percent were negative, and 17% percent were neutral.


Some of the positive response included:


A police officer once saved me from a potential date rape situation…and drove 20 minutes to my home to make sure I got there safely.


When my little brother had to be taken by ambulance to the hospital. The police officer stayed with my family until we knew he was going to be okay even after his shift ended.


A police officer giving me a ride home from an unfamiliar area that I was in my first year of college. I didn't know where I was, and was with people I didn't feel safe with from a job I just started.


There were also a number of negative responses, which included:


Being racially profiled while walking a neighborhood where my mother lives. I was targeted and detained because I looked like someone who was buying drugs. It all happened at my mother’s building lobby as I was waiting for her to unlock the door. Over 30 minutes later I was let go because I had nothing on me and no criminal record…


The above respondent also went on to state that this was just one of many negative encounters.


A police officer asked to search my vehicle at a regular stop because he recognized one of the passengers in my car, which [sic] apparently had a history of drug use from over two years ago. It was MY vehicle and I was driving home. I have never heard of any drug use from him and I was not under the influence of any kind so this was extremely irrational.


Finally, several independent samples t-tests were conducted to examine if police fairness and several predictor variables. Only two variables were found to have statistically significant results: law enforcement friends and race. An independent samples t-test was conducted to examine if police fairness differed for participants who reported if they have a friend who is a police officer and those who did not report having a friend who is a police officer. The results found a statistically significant difference between participants who reported they have a friend who is a police officer (M=.22, SD=.77) and those that do not have a friend who is a police officer (M=-.24, SD=.95); t (55) =2.04, p=.05. The results show that having a friend who is a police officer does have an effect on participants’ view of police fairness.


The next independent samples t-test examined if police fairness differed for participants who reported being White and those who reported being Non-White. The findings showed there was a statistically significant difference between participants who reported being White (M=.28, SD=.88) and those that reported being Non-White (M=-.27, SD=.81); t (55) =2.47, p=.02. The results show that race has an effect on participants’ view of police fairness.


Additional analyses were conducted to examine the strength of the relationship between the variables that illustrated a significant effect. Eta is the appropriate measure of association when examining the relationship between interval and nominal data. When examining the strength of the relationship between police fairness and having a friend who is a police officer, the eta statistic (.27) indicated a moderate association. When examining the strength of the relationship between police fairness and race, the eta statistic (.32) also indicated a moderate association.



Table 3: Independent Sample T-Test between Predictor Variables and Police Fairness

Discussion and Conclusion


The main purpose of the current study was to explore which factors contribute to young people’s attitudes towards the police and ultimately how those attitudes can be influenced to be more positive towards law enforcement. Based on the results of the questionnaire, two factors had a statistically significant effect on attitudes towards police: having friends in law enforcement and race.


The result of having friends in law enforcement influencing positive attitudes towards police is also found in previous research (Lee, Heafner, Sabatelli, & LaMotte, 2017). Having someone one would consider a friend in law enforcement could influence an increase in positive interactions with a police officer. Kelly (2017) suggests that positive interactions have a beneficial impact on attitudes towards police. This finding is important because it demonstrates that adding a “friend” aspect to the relationship between police and youth could potentially improve overall attitudes towards police. Prior research states that there is a desperate need to bridge the gap between these two groups (Kelly, 2017). Having friends in law enforcement could potentially make it easier to bridge that gap. Ideally, a sense of friendship would give each side some sort of understanding of the other and most importantly cause each group to respect one another. Mutual respect is an important aspect of mending a relationship. If becoming friendly and building a relationship with youth also helps build respect, then it is a step worth taking by law enforcement officers to promote happiness and satisfaction in the community.


Race also had a statistically significant effect on attitudes towards police officers. The literature supports that youth of color often have conflict with the police and these incidents typically receive the most media attention (Nordberg, Twis, Stevens, & Hatcher, 2018). From juvenile court all the way up to adult court, the representation of youth of color is more visible as the system progresses (Piquero, 2008). Higher crime areas tend to have higher populations of youth of color, which in turn flags those areas as target areas for proactive policing. Unfortunately, this may lead to more arrests of youth of color for petty crimes that typically are not taken seriously in other neighborhoods. Law enforcement officers are then focused on preventing and stopping crime rather than building relationships and educating youth on how to protect themselves by staying away from the dangerous lifestyle so many of their peers have fallen into. In addition to the race of the youth, the race of officers can play a role in how youth feel about them as well. Research shows that young individuals feel more comfortable around people who have a similar background as the one they do (Borrero, 2001). To clarify, in this instance the term background refers to characteristics such as race, ethnicity, culture, and socioeconomic status. For example, Giwa, James, Anucha, and Schwartz (2014) suggest that officers should take time to socialize with youth in their community and learn more about their culture. Cultural understanding is important when improving attitudes towards police. Even if an officer is from a different background than the youth in the community, it is extremely beneficial for them to take the time to learn about the culture they have been brought up in. An understanding in that area may result in less conflict between youth of color and law enforcement officers.


Program Suggestions


The enormity of creating a police sponsored youth program is way too vast to accomplish within the current study. That being said, with the research conducted there are multiple suggestions that can be made towards such a program. Before making any program suggestions, it is important to note the results of this study’s survey reflect the attitudes of college age participants after their opinions have already developed. The following suggestions have been developed with the intention of implementing them before the youth population has developed their attitudes towards police. Among those suggestions is having an open forum available between youth and the officers in their communities. It is also important for schools to invite officers in to build relationships from a young age. While inviting officers into the schools will be beneficial, the right type of officers must be implemented in programs involving youth. The goals of such a program should be twofold: to build respect between youth and the officers of their community and to promote and foster friendships where youth can feel comfortable reaching out to law enforcement as a resource, rather than an authority figure.


Open forums are a very valuable resource to clear the air of all issues that may make individuals uncomfortable or uneasy about a situation. Anecdotal evidence from an officer, who worked patrol for over 15 years and was recently hired as an SRO in his community’s high school, suggested that one of the main issues between juveniles and police right now is that both groups do not have a good understanding of how the other feels. An open forum would encourage dialogue between officers and the juveniles in their community. It is in this type of setting that each side could freely express their concerns and take strides to improve their relationship. According to Lee, Heafner, Sabatelli, and LaMotte (2017) youth participants greatly enjoyed having experiences with police officers out of uniform and communicating with them in a friendly, informal way. These are the types of exchanges between law enforcement officers and youth that will likely yield the best results because neither side feels threatened. Rather, they are simply talking and getting to know one another. These open forums can be held in community centers, public parks, and schools.


In addition to an open forum, it is important that communities are receptive to the idea of law enforcement becoming more involved in the school system. While some neighborhoods offer opportunities like this, studies show that more than half do not. Building a relationship is much easier when respect is present at an early age. A grade school opening itself up to police officers where they can interact with youth in a friendly way can have a considerable impact on a young person’s perception of officers. When a youth sees an officer driving down the street and can actually name who is driving the car rather than seeing an anonymous cop behind the wheel, they may feel much more comfortable interacting with them. This is what could be accomplished by opening up schools to police officers. Additional anecdotal evidence shows that officers’ top priorities in schools are to protect students if something were to happen, educate them on how to protect themselves from bad influences such as drugs and violence, and build relationships that will promote better community-police relations. Based on what has been found in the literature and in this study, successful SRO should have enthusiasm, knowledge, and affinity for the students they interact with which can successfully bridge the gap between law enforcement and youth. Moreover, an ideal officer for a youth program must be personable, friendly, and have an understanding of the sociocultural and socioeconomic differences that impact teen lives. In addition, SROs need to be cognizant that racial differences between the SRO and student body can impede communication at first. However, an effective SRO can bridge the racial divide by capitalizing on common interests like sports or fitness. For example, anecdotal evidence from the SRO mentioned above uses his knowledge of sports as a former high school football player and current coach and his passion for fitness and nutrition to connect with the students. He is often seen in the high school or local gym training with students and watching their sports games on the weekends to show his support. The above suggestions are essential to not only foster and promote respect between law enforcement officers and juveniles but also to encourage friendships that are intended to bridge the gap between the two groups.


Limitations and Future Research


There were several limitations of the current study. One limitation was that the study used a small, convenience sample. The study was made up of less than 100 students from a small, private Northeastern college and therefore, the results are not generalizable to the larger population. The attitudes reflected in the questionnaire were also taken at one point in time and could have been affected by recent events in the media, or even human error. Response bias is another limitation to this study as participants could have altered their responses on the questionnaire.


Future research should conduct a pilot study of a police sponsored youth program with the provided program suggestions. This pilot study would hopefully yield positive results and lay the groundwork for a program that will bridge the gap between law enforcement and youth. In addition, it is suggested to conduct longitudinal research to determine which factors affect youths’ view of police over time. Since this study examined attitudes at only one point in time, it would be beneficial to explore how attitudes develop and change over time.


It is clear that there are steps that can be taken to help build a positive relationship between the police and the community as a whole by placing a priority on law enforcement’s relationship with the younger population. Young people are easily influenced and rely heavily on social media and their friends for their “news”. Appreciable gains in public safety and community trust of police can be made if both police and community pull their weight to reach mutually agreed upon goals. Additionally, a symbiotic relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve is warranted to promote forward thinking and progressive changes that could dramatically shape the nature and extent of future community-police relations.


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