The influence of attitudes and stereotypes on police-public relations in the United States

| November 12, 2015

The influence of attitudes and stereotypes on police-public relations in the United States
The influence of attitudes and stereotypes on police-public relations in the United States
Research topic and questions
The field of political science involves itself with the analysis of politics and power, and the units of analysis range from domestic to international as well as comparative perspectives. It delves on political ideas, institutions, policies, law and order, behavior, diplomacy, among others. There is a consensus that in the maintenance of law and order, institutions such as the police are vital since they influence the justice system ranging from the arrest, collection of evidence to the prosecution of law violators. In the United States, there are allegations of police misconduct and this brews mistrust between the public and the police (Brewer and Grabosky, 2014). Throughout the media, the public has been treated to news police officers using excessive force and often using their power to harass and occasionally kill unarmed civilians. Although the role of the state is to ensure security to the citizenry, the killing of innocent civilians by police officers raises concerns on whether the state can guarantee security to its citizens.
Although the United States has made major milestones in the development of laws to ensure freedom and non-discrimination against all Americans, there is resentment amongst minority groups who feel that police officers discriminate against them (Beletsky, Macalino and Burris, 2005). Although such feelings are common among ethnic groups such as Black Americans and those of Latino descent, the authors also observe that police officers have negative attitudes against other groups such as the drug users. The result is that even when these groups approach the police for help, police officers turn them away and blame them for their woes. While the police are supposed to protect and serve communities, there exist difficulties in interactions between the two. This proposal investigates the influence of attitudes and stereotypes on police-public interactions in the United States.

This study will be guided by the following research questions;
1. What is the role of communication in ensuring effective police-public relations in the United States?
2. What are some of the attitudes and stereotypes of the police against the public that jeopardize police-public relations?
3. What are the attitudes of the public towards the police that influence police-public relations?
Literature review
There is a wide research knowledge that details the nature of relations between the police and the public in the United States. In general police-public relations refer to the aggregate sum of attitudes between the police and the public they serve. Police-public relations can range from being positive to being negative. The relationship can also lie anywhere-in-between depending on the particular things done by the police. The measurement of police-public relations has often been measured using proxies such as community service, public participation and the general ease with which the public can report crime-related activity to the police (Breen and Johnson, 2007). Although the public often complains of police discrimination with respect to race, other differences such as sex orientation have also risen to the fore. The negative attitudes of the police towards some groups conversely invoke negative attitudes of these groups towards the police, and the result is negative police-public relations (Menjívar and Bejarano, 2004). Such relations jeopardize the possibility of these groups volunteering information to the police, and this makes it harder for the police to execute their mandate.
According to Weitzer, Tuch and Skogan (2008), most of the research finds a relationship characterized by suspicion between the police and immigrant groups. As a result, most Blacks and Hispanics in cities where police departments are predominantly White feel that they have little chances of just and fair treatment. Although the changes in demographic constitution has resulted in some cities being majority Black and others majority Hispanic, research has remained fragmented and does not clearly highlight the public’s attitudes on the effects of racial composition of police departments. Nevertheless, there is agreement that racial diversity among police departments yields positive outcomes for the public although the actual effects of the diversity remain obscure.
Attitudes of the public towards the police and vice versa affect the nature of relations between the two parties and this affects the willingness of the public to assist police officers by reporting crime as well as serving as witnesses. Unfavorable attitudes can also affect compliance with the demands of an officer and this could have larger political ramifications and challenge the very legitimacy of the police department (Weitzer, Tuch and Skogan, 2008). It is in the best interest of police officers not only to reduce misconduct but also the negative attitudes and perceptions from the public since this makes the work of the police less controversial and more effective. Racial differences and immigration status often put the public and the police on loggerheads. According to Menjívar and Bejarano (2004), the experiences of many immigrant families in the hands of the police discourage them from seeking police assistance even when such assistance is necessary. The authors argue that the immediate deportation of their kin forces many women to suffer in silence as they feel that the security of their families will be put to jeopardy if they seek police attention.
Apart from the racial background, age is another predictor of police perception. There are numerous research findings to the effect that youths have greater contacts with the police in comparison to older age groups. All gender is often insignificant when studied as a stand-alone variable; it gains explanatory power when studied in the context of age and race. In this context, young Black men have negative experiences with police officers. Neighborhood and social order are other aspects that influence the publics’ attitudes towards the police and vice versa. Prospects of police misconduct are higher in communities characterized by high crime rates and social disorder (Brunson and Weitzer, 2009). Since the numbers of police officers patrolling these areas are high, this raises the likelihood for acrimonious encounters.
On the side of the police, there is a tendency to typify some neighborhoods as problematic, and this leads to stereotyping of residents as crime prone or uncooperative. The effect of such stereotyping is that police officers approach residents of such neighborhoods with greater suspicion and are more aggressive and punitive. Research findings reveal that verbal and physical abuse from police officers as well as unjustified street stops more prevalent in disadvantaged areas. Apart from giving police officers the opportunity to mistreat the public, disadvantaged areas also constrain the capacity of residents to voice out abusive police practices. There are reports of scenarios where police officers stop Latino immigrants, and the immigrants just run away not because they have committed any crime but because they fear being deported. “They don’t get a chance to explain why they run and the police just shoot them” (Menjívar and Bejarano, 2004, p. 136). In such an environment, it is impossible to expect such groups to voice their discontent with police actions and the only option they have is to keep off from the police, even when they are victims of police abuse.
Explanatory framework
Attitudes and stereotypes influence the nature of police-public relations and this in turn may influence how well the police undertake their work. There are many independent variables that influence the outcome of these relations. Since the police work with communities, community participation is one of the independent variables that influence their interaction with the public thus enhancing their chances of getting information from the public. The police can interact with the public in community service, social work and recreation such as through games and athletics. Depending on the needs of an area, the police can devise ways of interacting with the public. Involvement of the public through community policing is another independent variable that influences police-public relations (Breen and Johnson, 2007). The assumption is that the relations are warmer where the police involve communities in policing matters.
Communication is a crucial aspect in policing and security management. There are arguments that police officers are not the best communicators hence the need for them to improve communication skills so as to improve their relations with the public (Brewer and Grabosky, 2014). Knowledge of civil rights among the public is another variable that determines whether individuals stand up to voice concern over violation of their rights by the police. Other variables include the existence of racial, age and social status stereotypes against either of the groups towards the other influences police-public relations. For instance, stereotyping Blacks and Hispanics as criminals jeopardizes police-public relations as it prejudices how the concerned party views the other (Menjívarand Bejarano,2004). Lastly, inadequate police training on the importance of police-public relations and how to undertake the same is a variable that influences police-public relations.
The unit of analysis is the police department. An evaluation of the effects the independent variables on the dependent variable is possible if the study is done on a comparative basis. This means that carrying out the study on a single police department cannot help the researcher conclude on the effects of the independent variables on the dependent variable. In undertaking a closely related study, Weitzer, Tuch and Skogan (2008) argue that it is not possible to undertake a direct test on the influence of racial composition on police-community relations since this is only possible when a study involves systematic comparative analysis of several cities. It is also necessary to note the racial combinations of the police departments and the surrounding public since racial differences affects the attitudes of each group towards the other.

Hypotheses
There is a consensus that the establishment of cordial relations between the police endears the public to the police, and this enables the police to gather intelligence and empowers them to perform their work easily (Beletsky,Macalino and Burris,2005). The police often profile people as criminals and harass innocent people who in turn develop negative attitudes towards the police and reduce the possibility of sharing intelligence with the police. This informs the first research hypothesis thus;
H1: Public perception of the police as abusive and misusing their power causes the public to shy away from sharing intelligence on crime with the police negatively affecting police-public relations.
While the public develops attitudes towards the police, police officers also develop attitudes towards the public, and this can make officers more suspicious of some groups over others (Brewer and Grabosky, 2014). When this happens, police have a tendency to use stereotypes in screening people and this brews feelings of discrimination and consequently affects police-public relations. This informs the second research hypothesis thus;
H2: Police stereotyping of people from disadvantaged backgrounds as crime-prone and uncooperative leads to aggression thus lowering the possibility for such groups to interact with the police.

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