Attitudes toward police: A cycle of distrust

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By: Briana Jefferson, MI-YVPC Intern

Growing up, I remember my biggest heroes were police officers. I admired the crisp uniforms and hats, but most of all the shiny badges each police officer wore. I also felt grateful for the sense of protection they provided when I saw officers patrolling my neighborhood.

Unfortunately, not everyone has favorable attitudes toward the police. The Michigan Youth Violence Prevention Center has started looking at attitudes towards police officers, what can influence these attitudes, and what the effects of these attitudes are. To begin answering these types of questions, we have started to look at previous studies and their findings.

As most of us might guess, race is the biggest predictor of attitudes toward police. The relationship of race to attitudes towards police has been extensively studied.   Research has shown that minorities tend to have less favorable views of the police when compared to whites. African Americans have the least favorable views, followed by Hispanics, although less research has been devoted to Hispanics.

Although race is an important predictor of attitudes toward the police, and this makes sense in light of experiences of discrimination, other factors have been shown to influence attitudes as well. Neighborhood context, socioeconomic status, and personal encounters are other important dynamics that can affect individual attitudes toward police. Neighborhood context could include the amount of economic disadvantage in a particular area, crime rates, and other characteristics.

Studies have shown that neighborhoods with higher crime levels have less favorable opinions about police officers. This could stem from the belief that police are not doing a good job controlling crime, longer response times, or lack of visible police officers. Mistrust in the police may make residents reluctant to call for assistance, which may ultimately lead more crime.

In addition, we know that people living in neighborhoods with high crime rates usually have more personal encounters with the police. Studies have shown that police officers are likely to stereotype members of high-crime  communities, thus creating more police-citizen encounters. These encounters are more likely to be perceived as unjust and discriminatory in nature. Ultimately, a cycle begins. Citizens who are unhappy with the police have a discriminatory personal encounter with a police officer, creating further dissatisfaction. Situations such as these raise questions of police legitimacy and of procedural justice (which is the idea of fairness in processes that decide disagreements and distribute resources).


Where do we find a balance between citizen attitudes and police performance? Is it possible to change negative attitudes towards police in communities with high rates of crime?

Although there are many constraints that affect how police officers do their jobs, additional training in community relations might make a difference.  We can also look at how we can make individual and community-level changes in our own neighborhoods.  While each community is different, starting community discussions and engaging neighborhood associations is one way to begin the conversation about improving relationships among police and community residents.

Have you had experiences that have shaped your attitudes towards the police for better or for worse?  What would you recommend?