One of the hottest topics in our country within the last few years has been about the policing of communities and the officers that serve in these areas. This has ranged from the use of body cams, “stop and frisk tactics”, resisting arrest, illegal search and seizures, and finally abuse of power by police.
The most important piece of information however, should be how police officers are perceived today in their communities due to all the recent backlash surrounding many of the negative social, racial, and unethical practices that have taken place recently, sometimes resulting in numerous wrongful incarcerations, police brutality, and sometimes even the death of suspects held under suspicion.
This paper will discuss certain key areas that help to shape public perception of police in communities, police integrity in the community, and ways to improve it, and finally whether or not the police community relationship is beyond repair in today’s society.
First and foremost, I believe that that there are three main areas that help to shape the current perception of police in our communities; personal interactions, the media, and racial profiling. Personal interactions normally seem to have the strongest impact on what we perceive. People form opinions of the police based on their own interactions with them or the experiences they hear from trusted friends and family. People tend to focus on how police treat them (the process and interactions) rather than the final outcome of those interactions.
For example, people will more than likely report positive impressions of an officer who treated them fairly and respectfully even if the officer gave them a speeding citation. Another important aspect to this perception is that of an officer’s demeanor, candor, and actions which are crucial to perceptions of police legitimacy. If a police officer is able to communicate clear as well as effectively, listen, and treat all citizens with respect, citizens will reciprocate and respond in kind. People who perceive that they received “procedural justice” will also perceive the police as legitimate and trustworthy and are likely to comply in any future scenarios.
Procedural justice is the idea that a process is just and fair, people have the opportunity to be heard, will be treated politely, respectfully, and finally will be judged by a just system free of any biases or preconceived notions. The second part which helps to shape our community’s view of the police is the influence of the media. The media plays a vital role in exploiting and ramping up the negative aspects of police work such as police corruption, violence, and ongoing scandals. The current and ongoing Media accounts of police misconduct also influence perceptions of the police, however not as much as that of personal interactions. Frequent exposure to media reports of police abuse or corruption is a strong predictor of perceptions of misconduct and supports the belief that police corruption is inherent, and therefore a part of all policemen and policewomen.
A prime example would be African-Americans who live in high-crime areas and who regularly hear others talk about police misconduct, and due to the notoriety NYPD has, are more prone to believe that misconduct is the cultural norm for police in New York. On the other hand, a nine-month study of five precincts in New York City found that in the absence of major scandals, news coverage of the police did not have a significant effect on citizens' views of the police; perhaps because there are already pre-conceived beliefs already in place.
Finally, the third area that continually shapes a community view of the police is the ongoing issue of racial profiling. Racial profiling has damaged much of the credibility of police, specifically in urban communities. Within the last decade, numerous law enforcement agencies have gone through expensive litigation over civil rights concerns of police brutality and use of excessive and deadly force, which has on occasion led to the deaths of many minorities of minor infractions, where it sometimes seems that other ethnicities are treated and handled much differently.
Police-citizen relations in these communities have been strained, making policing and keeping close knit ties within the communities all the more challenging. Most importantly, racial profiling is unlikely to be an effective policing strategy as criminals can simply shift their activities outside the profile. For example, if racial profiling begins with police stopping black males in their teens and twenties for being drug carriers, criminals will simply employ other demographic groups; such as Hispanics, children or the elderly to continue their nefarious drug operations. Even though police today receive extensive human resource training to avoid discrimination, officers may still occasionally rely on cultural stereotypes and act on their perceptions of a person's characteristics (such as age, race or gender). Community trust and police integrity is an established and highly honored relationship between the police department and the citizens it has been entrusted to serve.
This is one of the major keys to effective policing, and law enforcement executives must bear the primary responsibility for their departments’ honesty, integrity, and legitimacy. It is imperative that Police departments adhere to the principles of integrity and professionalism as cornerstones of community trust-building. Because officers occupy a position of trust and confidence in their communities and are afforded awesome authority to carry out their duties, any excessive use of that authority, abuse of power, or failure to fulfill their duties will in almost all cases erode public trust and will ultimately destroy any shred of credibility within the communities that the police serve. Every member of a police department must understand that he or she represents the entire their entire department, that personal conduct is his or her own responsibility, and that he or she will be held accountable for all conduct, positive or negative. Ideally, a policeman’s integrity should have little room for misconduct or corruption within the communities in which they serve.
Previously the general public would view the problem of misconduct as one of individual problem officers, ala “the bad apples of the bunch.” However, when broken down by community and racial barriers, whites generally see misconduct as episodic and confined to individual officers, while blacks tend to see misconduct as a more entrenched aspect of policing based on the community and cultural makeup. In regards to integrity, how a department is managed dramatically affects how officers behave toward citizens. This will affect whether citizens view law enforcement as an institution with integrity in their neighborhoods.
Community trust must be built on the foundation of a strong police culture that values integrity and holds individuals accountable for their behavior and actions. This culture must be modeled by the administration and reinforced by supervisors to be effective. All these elements must work together to establish and reinforce that organizational culture. When all elements are in place for a culture of integrity, a department can be more transparent with its community, and this will help to build a trusting relationship between the two. I believe that in order to maintain integrity, and continue a sense of transparency within the community, there are certain things that should take place.
First, a valuable and effective way to engage the community would be through Community Oriented Policing. All that is required is for citizens and police to collaborate to proactively increase public safety within the community. This is a policing philosophy that runs on the tenets of promoting and supporting organizational strategies to address issues within communities, reduce the fear of crime and social issues through the use of problem solving techniques between the community and the police. It would also help if the disciplinary process was more open to public scrutiny, thereby showing there is nothing to hide since there is the myth of “cops looking for each other.” Another good idea would be to rotate officer assignments in surrounding communities, in order to discourage the formation of bonds that lead officers to cover up the misconduct of others.
Training as well as holding refresher courses for officers in ethics and cultural awareness can go a long way to help dispel a lot of stereotypes that may still exist. Collecting data to track traffic stops and other encounters with citizens is a good form of metrics to see unforeseen problems in communities.
Finally, soliciting community input through citizen review boards, ombudsmen or community problem-solving initiatives goes a long way to cementing a good base of integrity with people in the community. All of this is good on paper, but with the current climate today can it even be accomplished? The safety of both citizens as well as officers depend on the strength of the relationship and bond that should exist between the police and the public. Public distrust of the police can decrease cooperation with law enforcement, which can, in turn, lead to an increase in violent crime and resistance. Police distrust of the public, in turn, can lead to an increase in officer misconduct and the use of force, as well as the adoption of more combustible and aggressive, “zero tolerance” tactics that further exacerbate the tension, perpetuating a downward spiral.
A prime continuing example of this would be the immediate and long term effects of the Michael Brown shooting that happened in Ferguson, Missouri. People in the community and across the nation failed to believe the original police version of events; one in which it was implied that Brown was moving forward aggressively towards an officer he “assaulted”. The “real” version of events that a majority of people believe is that he was shot while surrendering with his hands up in the air while trying to comply with police.
This boiled down to an issue of trust, which was eroded due to many similar events where minorities were killed in one too many a similar situation. This is not just one isolated incident. Police shootings, especially in the age of the Internet and viral video, echo far beyond the communities where they take place.
The death of Brown as well as countless others, has dramatically reinforced the perception that law enforcement too often tends to use overly aggressive tactics, and are seen to have a “shoot first mentality” which is in direct contrast to using their weapon as a last and final resort. The feelings of mistrust are also mutual when it comes to police officers who are shot in the line of duty. The attack that took the lives of five Dallas officers last years will continue to haunt police, which helps to fuel the narrative that police are constantly besieged by a hostile populace, and must always be on the ready at a moment’s notice. The trust between the police and many of our neighborhood communities seem to be at an all time low.
However, I don’t believe that this relationship is beyond hope or repair. Now more than ever police are being held to a higher standard thanks in no small part to social media and basically the whole public being able to record misdeeds at a moment’s notice. Police departments are being compelled to deal with these incidents or be forced to find employment elsewhere. And regardless of all this negativity, there are actually still good police officers serving our communities, and doing what they swore an oath to do: To serve and protect citizens.
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