Differences in citizen perceptions of interactions with police officers

AuthorRobert Werling,Sriram Chintakrindi,Nick Clark,Blake Randol
DOI10.1177/0032258X19826855
Published date01 March 2020
Date01 March 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Article
Differences in citizen
perceptions of interactions
with police officers
Nick Clark
California State University, Stanislaus
Robert Werling
California State University, Stanislaus
Sriram Chintakrindi
California State University, Stanislaus
Blake Randol
California State University, Stanislaus
Abstract
The topic of this study is how different demographics and crime rates in police beats
differ in their perceptions of interactions with police officers. The research questions for
this study are: ‘Do citizens of a mid-sized city in California differ in their perceptions of
interactions with police based on demographic?’ and ‘Do differences in neighbourhood
crime rates affect different perceptions of the police?’ The participants in this study were
307 residents from households of an anonymous city in California, chosen through
stratified random sampling. Mailed surveys were sent out to 1,500 households, with
canvassing done several months later to increase response rate. The results of the study
were determined using frequency distributions to determine the descriptive statistics of
the study, Kruskal–Wallis H tests and Mann–Whitney U tests for determining differ-
ences in predictor variable groups, and crosstabs and Spearman’s Rho to determine any
correlations between the predictor and outcome variables. The results show that,
outside two weak correlations, demographics and crime rates do not cause differences
in people’s perceptions of interactions with the police.
Corresponding author:
Sriram Chintakrindi, California State University, Stanislaus, 1 University Circle, Turlock, CA California 95382,
USA.
Email: schintakrindi@csustan.edu
The Police Journal:
Theory, Practice and Principles
2020, Vol. 93(1) 3–41
ªThe Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
sagepub.com/journals-permissions
DOI: 10.1177/0032258X19826855
journals.sagepub.com/home/pjx
Keywords
Policing, survey
Introduction
Citizen’s perceptions of the police are important for determining whether someone sees
the police in a positive or negative light. Over the past several decades, many studies
have been conducted on different aspects of citizen perceptions of the police to deter-
mine what makes up these perceptions and opinions on the police, looking at biological
and socioeconomic factors civilians can have for themselves, and how the police officers
themselves might influence these opinions. Studies have been conducted that have found
that particular perceptions play an important role in how citizens see the police, such as
perceptions that a person is being treated fairly by the police (Sunshine and Tyler, 2003;
Wentz and Schlimgen, 2012), the perception that you can trust the police (Sunshine and
Tyler, 2003; Tyler, 2005), the perception that the police are concerned about community
problems (Goldsmith, 2005; Hinds, 2009), and the perception that the police are respect-
ful of citizens (Tyler, 1997; Tyler and Wakslak, 2004). These perceptions have been
found to be influenced by what the police do when they directly interact with citizens, yet
these perceptions can also be influenced by demographic factors of the citizens them-
selves. The main demographic variables that have been shown to have noticeable effects
on perceptions of the police have been the race of a civilian (Lai and Zhao, 2010; Weitzer
and Tuch, 2005), household income level (Frank et al., 2005; MacDonald and Stokes,
2006), level of education (Chu et al., 2005; Reisig and Parks, 2006) and employment
status (MacDonald and Stokes, 2006; Wu, 2014). Crime rates have also been known
to affect perceptions of the police as well (Schafer et al., 2003; Wu et al., 2009). Two
research questions will be answered by this study, the first being: Do citizens from an
anonymous city in California differ in their perceptions of interactions with police based
on demographics? The second research question is: Do differences in neighbourhood
crime rates affect different perceptions of the police? The hypothesis based on the first
research question is: Demographic differences are associated with different perceptions
of interactions with the city police. The hypothesis based on the second research question
is: Neighbourhood crime rates affect citizen perceptions of city police.
While race’s effect on perceptions of the police has been documented in numerous
studies (Lai and Zhao, 2010; Weitzer and Tuch, 2005; Wu, 2014), these and other studies
have not been conducted in the mid-sized city we collected data from in California,
which will be the focus of our discussion. It is important to know how race plays a role in
perceptions of the police as it can give researchers a starting point on how to change
perceptions. Depending on the results of this study, researchers can help create new
policies or programmes for police departments to help their officers be more mindful in
their interactions with citizens of different races, especially in heterogeneous neighbour-
hoods. Since you cannot change a person’s race, knowing how a person’s race can
correlate with their perceptions of the police lets us know how race interacts with other
determinants of perceptions of the police, and how we might better control for race in
future studies.
4The Police Journal: Theory, Practice and Principles 93(1)
A citizen’s household income level and employment status are important factors to
study for their effect on perceptions of the police because they give potential insight on
how citizens are living their lives. Those with low income levels and who are unem-
ployed may be living in more socially disorganized areas of the cities they are living in,
and see the cops more often, probably in more negative encounters. Knowing how these
two factors affect perceptions can allow programmes targeted at those with low incomes
or who are unemployed to better get to know their police officers, so they can be more
confident in the police and lessen one stressor in their stressful lives. For citizens who
have an employment status that stops them from being employed, such as being retired or
homemaker, knowing how these citizens perceive the police can allow researchers to
begin to study how these groups come to form their perceptions of the police if they are
not in the workforce. Studying these groups of citizens will let researchers know if they
have significantly different perceptions of the police since they are not employed.
Knowing how citizens with high household incomes might differ from those with low
household incomes can allow researchers to study what these different groups might
have in common about their perceptions of the police, and how lessons from one group
can be applied to the other to potentially create more positive perceptions of the police.
There are several reasons why studying the effects that educational achievement have
on perceptions of police is important. Studying this factor will add to past research on the
topic (Schafer et al., 2003; Sunshine and Tyler, 2003; Thompson and Lee, 2004; Weitzer
and Tuch, 2002), which has mixed results, with the results likely to tip this factor into
playing either a positive or a negative role when it comes to determining police legiti-
macy. This will further spur research on the subject to see how this independent factor
can be accommodated or worked with to improve a person’s perception of the police so
they are more likely to view the police as legitimate. Having resolved any ambiguity
about education’s effects on perceptions of the police, it will allow for researchers to
properly account for education in future studies and allow future researchers to consider
how other uncertain variables might influence perceptions of the police now that edu-
cation has a known, stable effect. If education has a positive effect on perceptions of the
police, then research can be done to see what specifically makes having a higher edu-
cation lead to more positive perceptions of the police. When this factor is determined, it
can then be extracted and tried on its own outside an educational setting to see if it will
improve perceptions of the police in those who do not have a high level of education. If
police departments know the effects of education, they may be able to change their
policing tactics based on demographic data of certain neighbourhoods, to deal more
effectively with high or low clusters of highly educated people in their cities. Since the
sample for this study will be from a mid-sized city’s anonymous citizens, further
research can be done in different cities in California to see how they are similar and
different to city in terms of population and perceptions of the police.
Studying crime rates’ effects on perceptions of interactions with the police will let us
know if actual crime rates make a difference in how people see the polic e. Studies
(Bradford et al., 2009; MacDonald et al., 2007) have shown that signs of physical and
social disorder in a neighbourhood are the most likely neighbourhood-level variables to
affect how citizens perceive the police. Crime rates have also been included in past
studies (Reisig and Parks, 2000; Wu et al., 2009), but these usually look at how one
Clark et al. 5

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