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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Public Perception of Scioto County Law Enforcement

"You never change things
by fighting the existing reality...
To change something, build a new model that
makes the existing model obsolete."

 -R. Buckminster Fuller

People tend to have very strong feelings about law enforcement in Scioto County. What shapes the public attitude toward law enforcement?  Many things.

The law enforcement profession has always been a tough business. Over the course of a career, law enforcement officers see the best and the worst in humanity. They may be thanked for what they do and then be spit upon not an hour later. Sometimes this leaves officers confused as to how the public they serve feels about them—and consequently, how they feel about the public.

It seems that some stereotypes about the police are resistant to change. (Dennis Rosenbaum, Amie Schuck, Sandra Costello, Darnell Hawkins, and Marianne Ring. "Attitudes Toward the Police: The Effects of Direct and Vicarious Experience" Police Quarterly September 2005 8: 343-365)


Discovering what shapes attitude
toward law enforcement
is crucial to addressing the problem of fixing it.

Some of the Attitude Shapers

1.  Direct encounters with the police.

Unpleasant contacts with the police tend to have a stronger effect than positive contacts. The former tend to lower opinions of the police, while the latter may or may not engender favorable views of the police. Positive contacts with officers do not necessarily translate into favorable attitudes. Newer studies, however, have found that pleasant experiences have a greater influence than researchers originally thought. (D.P. Rosembaum et al. “Attitudes Toward the Police: The Effects of Direct and Vicarious Experience,” Police Quarterly 8. September 2005)

The implication: Every encounter—both pleasant and unpleasant—with the public can greatly affect the community’s level of satisfaction with the police.

When people form opinions of the police based on their interactions, they tend to focus on the process more than the outcome. Impressions of police encounters are influenced by the demeanor as well as the actions of the officer. People pay close attention to the “neutrality of decision making, respectful and polite interpersonal treatment, and … opportunities for input into decisions,” says Tom Tyler of New York University. Researchers often refer to this as a person’s sense of “procedural justice.” (T.R. Tyler.“Policing in Black and White: Ethnic Group Differences in Trust and Confidence in the Police,” Police Quarterly 8. September 2005)

Researchers found that negative encounters have a greater tendency to erode satisfaction with the police when they are citizen-initiated.(D.P. Rosembaum et al. “Attitudes Toward the Police: The Effects of Direct and Vicarious Experience,” Police Quarterly 8. September 2005)

This finding raises the possibility that individuals’ unmet expectations of how the police could or should have assisted them during an encounter may be as influential in forming opinions as the experience itself, regardless of whether citizens or police initiate the contact

2.  Vicarious experience  (i.e., learning that someone else has had a good or bad encounter with the police).

Because most Americans do not directly interact with the police in any given year, they are forming their opinions on the basis of word-of-mouth accounts from others.

Some persons who have had no contact with officers still view police negatively. For example, far more people believe that police verbally and physically abuse citizens than the number who report a personal experience with these actions

An individual’s knowledge of other persons’ encounters with the police may be internalized and vicariously experienced by an individual and may be communicated to yet other friends, family members, and acquaintances amplifying the effect of a initial experience and perhaps reinforcing larger (neighborhood, subcultural) beliefs about the police.

Researchers have rarely explored the frequency and effects of such vicarious experience, but it is likely that minorities are more likely than whites to know someone who has had a negative interaction with the police. (Ronald Weitzer and Steven Tuch. "Rethinking Minority Attitudes toward the Police." National Institute of Justice. Final Technical Report. August 1 2001-October 31 2003)

3.  Residents' initial attitudes about the police

Some people who have had a good interaction with the police still hold very critical views of the police, and experiences themselves may be colored by preexisting opinions of the police (Brandl et al. "Global and specific attitudes toward the police." Justice Quarterly 11:119-134. 1994).

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that residents’ initial attitudes toward the police play a critical role in determining their judgments of subsequent experiences and in the formation of future attitudes toward police. (D.P. Rosembaum et al. “Attitudes Toward the Police: The Effects of Direct and Vicarious Experience,” Police Quarterly 8. September 2005)

The challenge for law enforcement officers is to treat each encounter—whether with a suspect, witness, or complainant—as if it is that person’s first contact with police. If he or she believes that the officer was fair and professional, then that person is more likely to have positive impressions of future encounters with police. Making this effort with each and every interaction is an important investment in building goodwill within the community. (Jake Horowitz. "Making Every Encounter Count: Building Trust and Confidence in the Police." NIJ Journal No. 256. January 2007)

4. Mass Media Reporting

Some research has found that attitudes toward police appear to be influenced by media coverage of incidents of police misconduct. These studies document an increase in negative views of the police immediately after news coverage of brutality incidents such as Rodney King or corruption scandals such as the Rampart Division scandal in Los Angeles. (Robert Kaminski and Eric Jefferis."The effect of a Violent Televised Arrest on Public Perceptions of the Police." Policing 21:683-706. 1998)

5. Neighborhood Crime Conditions

Neighborhood crime conditions may affect at least some types of citizen attitudes toward the police—such as overall satisfaction or assessments of the job performance of the police in one’s city and neighborhood. Such conditions include the amount or seriousness of crime, residents’ fear of crime, and personal victimization.

People in low-crime neighborhoods tend to credit police officers with securing and maintaining low crime rates. As a result, perceptions of the police in those neighborhoods are mostly positive.

Living in a high-crime community lowers residents’ approval of the police—whether the measure is residents’ perception of neighborhood crime. (Michael Reisig and Roger Parks.  "Experience,
Quality of Life, and Neighborhood Context." Justice Quarterly 17:607-29. 2000)

In high-crime neighborhoods people who believe that the police are performing their duties with professionalism and integrity are more likely to obey laws and support the system by acting as witnesses.

6. Juvenile Attitudes

Findings support predictions that juveniles’attitudes toward parents and teachers will accurately
forecast attitudes toward police. Understanding juvenile attitudes toward police is a very vital, yet often neglected, area of crime reduction strategy. If law enforcement agents better understood the causes and nature of juvenile attitudes toward police, they may be able to positively influence the outcome of interactions with youths more often and, subsequently, reduce the disproportionate amount of juveniles involved in the criminal justice system.

7. Integrating the "Thin Blue Line" Into General Society

In most parts of the United States, law enforcement officers tend to associate only with other law enforcement officers and their immediate families. Even their families associate mainly with other law enforcement families. The result is a unique societal group with its own norms and practices—one that is susceptible to the phenomenon described by social norms theory.

Knowing this fact gives police administrators the opportunity to take advantage of social science to improve morale within their departments, which in turn positively affects their service to the public.

Understanding that a nationwide misconception exists is the first step toward eliminating it and boosting morale within law enforcement agencies. One concept that can help this cause is called the “science of the positive,” the aim of which is to promote authentic community transformation through the adoption of a portfolio of applied strategies. This concept offers a new twist on social norms theory that may be appropriate for use in law enforcement agencies.

A social norms campaign challenges people’s commonly held perceptions about the environments in which they live and the behavior of their peers, as well as their beliefs about how problems should be confronted. A campaign of this sort informs line officers, supervisors, and administrators of the realities of their respective positions within their communities.

Agencies can improve the reception of such a campaign and reduce the inevitable criticisms of it if they educate key stakeholders and community members about social norms theory and win stakeholder and community support before the campaign begins.

My Bottom Line

The police cannot fully control some of determinants of public satisfaction, trust, and confidence. But, some of the factors are a direct consequence of an individual officer’s actions and demeanor. Therefore, officers should focus their efforts where they can have the most direct impact: in each day-to-day interaction with the public.
The first step in building good relations with the community is to understand and respond to the expectations of people across a range of possible police encounters. Departments might also consider tracking the level of satisfaction through community surveys. This feedback could be used to design police training and intervention programs. It behooves Scioto County police officers to pay close attention to developing what might be called their “bedside manner.”

Many people are dissatisfied with the operations of the Scioto County Sheriff's Office. I believe most of this dissatisfaction is based upon a serious lack of communication. This seemingly lackadaisical attitude permeates attempts to contact appropriate people at the office, then receive a prompt, courteous response to problems that plague our neighborhoods. Phone calls that are not returned and gruff treatment of those in need of help are unacceptable. For too long, citizens have faced frustration when simply asking questions, getting answers, and being served by the Sheriff's Department.

Public image for law enforcement is very important to reducing crime. Granted, nice words and receptive attitudes do not necessarily solve crimes; however, they encourage the public to join in efforts to support the department. Given the opportunity, the public will also become more active themselves with efforts to prevent crime. Citizens expect law enforcement to work with them as part of an important team, not to belittle them or ignore them.

Anyone who knows of Charles "Chief" Horner's activities and service in the Scioto Action Team's efforts to eliminate prescription drug abuse knows he is approachable, understanding, and extremely active. He wishes to create a responsive county law enforcement team, a team that is open and interested in listening to all concerns. He makes no outlandish promises of adding gigantic numbers of deputies or securing a magic means to end all crime because he understands being elected Sheriff as an Independent candidate puts him in a unique position of depending on public input.

I, for one, support Horner because he believes in the teamwork of the community to effectively fight crime. He is open to suggestion, and he listens to people. He understands how crucial interdependence between citizens and enforcement truly is. We can grow a new sheriff's department together that better serves the public and the common good.

A Brief Questionnaire

1. Have you been treated poorly in your direct encounters with the current sheriff's department? If yes, in what manner?

2. Do you hear stories by vicarious experience that the current sheriff's department is not doing its job? If so, what do people say?

3. In a few words, what is your initial attitude towards the current sheriff's department?

4. Have you ever had the current sheriff's department investigate a crime involving physical harm, theft, or property damage?  If yes, how do you evaluate their willingness to solve the crime?

5. We in Scioto County understand we face a serious crime problem. Have you seen a concerted effort over the last four years (not just the 9 months before election time) to solve the problem? If no, why do you think that is?

6. Do juveniles in Scioto hold a healthy anxiety of the current sheriff's department and respect their ability to control the actions of delinquents? If no, why not?

7. Do you feel "the blue line" or a "good old boy" mentality in the current sheriff's department? If yes, in what manner?

8. Do you believe the current sheriff's department does a good job improving conditions overall in our county or "barely enough to get by"? Why? 

9. Do you think its time for a change in the Scioto County Sheriff's Office? If yes, why?

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