The Negative Perception of Law Enforcement and Why is Law Enforcement Important

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Table of Contents

  • Contact with the Police
  • Prior Contact, Victimization, and Trust and Confidence in the Police
  • Demographic Characteristics
  • Role of the Media
  • Discussion

What is promoting this perception of law enforcement? How can society’s perception of law enforcement as a whole be improved? Law enforcement as a whole can improve the opinions formed by society through their contact with the public. This chapter will take a look at how different forms of contact, prior crime victimization, demographic characteristics, and the role of the media have on society’s perception of police. With this in mind, not all officers behaviors fall into the category of ‘negative’; however, when you hear the negativity of police officer’s behavior it generally falls under the umbrella of law enforcement as a whole. It is broadly agreed upon by police executives that public support is important to the legitimacy of police officers and ability of the police to fight crime effectively (Miller, Davis, Henderson, Markovic & Ortiz, 2004).

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Contact with the Police

On a day to day basis police have contact with the public on informal (meaning they were in a neighborhood patrolling or at some type of social event) and formal (meaning they were dispatched or requested to the location for some reason, making arrests, and/or questioning citizens) basis. Informal basis should be more community oriented. Informal contact with police should lessen the negative perception of police more so than what formal contact would or does. The informal contact should lessen the negative impact when the formal contact with police is required. The greatest challenge is decreasing the negative impact during formal contact with police.

There have been studies concluded that indicate it is the negative contact with police that drives the negative perception of society. This includes contact they experienced personally, or knowing a friend or relative who experienced negative contact with the police. The negative impact not only impacted the perception of that particular officer(s) but impacted their perception in a negative manner towards law enforcement as a whole. An example provided by Johnson (2015) was, it is like going to a restaurant and receiving poor service then telling your friends and family about your experience and never returning to the restaurant; this is the same concept that negative contact with the police promotes.

Traffic stops are an example of “unwanted” contact with the police. As Johnson (2015) states, no one enjoys being stopped and receiving a citation for a traffic code violation. However, it is not the citation that necessarily leaves a negative impression on the driver and/or occupants of the vehicle, it is the treatment received by the officer during the traffic stop that matters. There was a study performed in various states; “Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan among 1,386 drivers that had recently been stopped for a traffic violation”, according to Johnson (2015, p. 2). While individuals most likely know what traffic code offense they have committed when they are stopped by a police officer, there is a certain way that drivers want and expect to be treated during the encounter with the police officer. There were specific officer behaviors during this study that resulted in higher citizen satisfaction, according to Johnson (2015):

  • The officer introduced themselves
  • The officer explained the reason for the stop
  • The officer listened to the driver’s excuse or reasoning and verbally empathized with them
  • The officer explained their options for handling the citation
  • The officer answered the driver’s questions
  • The officer helped the driver merge back into traffic
  • The officer was courteous and polite or handled themselves in a businesslike manner
  • The officer was fair
  • The officers address the driver by “sir”, “ma’am” or by their last name (p. 2).

As there were officer behaviors associated with higher citizen satisfaction, there were also behaviors provided that was associated with lower citizen satisfaction, according to Johnson (2015):

  • The officer presented a tone of voice that was perceived as yelling or an angry tone
  • The officer was sarcastic
  • The officer addressed the driver by their first name
  • The officer addressed them by a slang term (dude or bro)
  • The officer remained mostly silent
  • The officer issued them a citation (p. 2)

During this study human characteristics; driver sex, age, education level, and race did not have a significant influence on the satisfaction of the citizen with a positive or negative perception of the police officer (Johnson, 2015).

It is also important to realize citizens will often have “unrealistic expectations” of the police and what they can (should) do during disturbance calls, what should be noted is the perception of the officer trying to help as opposed to them actually helping the situation that influences the satisfaction (Johnson, 2015). The response time is also weighed in the satisfaction of the citizens.

Prior Contact, Victimization, and Trust and Confidence in the Police

This section of chapter 2 will research the relationship between prior contact, victimization, and the trust and confidence in the police. It is paramount that citizens are able to have trust and confidence in the police. Individuals who cannot/do not have this trust and confidence will not seek help from the police, instead they may or do resort to “violent street justice” when they are victimized (Slocum, 2017, p. 536).

There have been studies performed which examines whether previous contact with the police are linked to the trust and confidence in the police. During one study mentioned by Berthelot, McNeal and Baldwin (2018) by Frank et al. (2005) there was a relationship established between citizens which had police encounters such as “arrest, witness to a crime, victim of a crime, traffic violation, reporting something “suspicious,” reporting a crime, and contacting the police for information” which had lower levels of trust and confidence in the police (p. 771). Additionally, contact with police that resulted in lower levels of trust and confidence were “unsatisfactory contact” which related to the quality of service provided (Berthelot et al., 2018, p. 771). This same study established there was no relationship discovered between “general prior police contact” and trust in the police (Berthelot et al., 2018, p. 771) it was only the relationships employing more subtlety measures.

According to Berthelot et al. (2018) there is limited research focusing on the relationship between victimization and trust and confidence in the police. In general, research has documented victimization to be related to more negative perceptions of the police. Individuals that were victims or had family members victimized resulted in lower assurance in the police (Hawdon, Ryan & Griffin, 2003). Berthelot et al. (2018) states that victimization has “only been marginally addressed leaving a dearth of knowledge on relationships between prior victimization and trust and confidence” in research performed (p. 773). Therefore, these characteristics of victimization are important in auxiliary understanding perceptions of law enforcement and what is triggering those perceptions and then determine whether the treatment of victims need to be improved upon (Berthelot et al., 2018).

Demographic Characteristics

There are a number of researchers which have taken into consideration how members of society perceive police and the security of their neighborhood. Research neutrally decisively demonstrates that explicit elements influence citizens’ perceptions about police and the neighborhood security (Payne & Gainey, 2007). As an example, research demonstrates that younger individuals and minorities are more likely than nonminority to have negative attitudes toward the police (Payne & Gainey, 2007).

It is well known that neighborhoods which are disorderly with poor social cohesion and control have presented a challenge for officer-community relations for centuries now. Research on attitudes concerning the police has commonly shown that individuals living in poor, high-crime neighborhoods are incline to have less positive views of law enforcement than other city residents (Rengifo & Fratello, 2015). Additionally, race and ethnicity have frequently been the emphases in the trust and confidence research. Through a great deal of research on race and ethnicity and trust and confidence in police officers has produced mixed results. Berthelot et al. (2018) state, that many studies have “indicated lower levels of trust and confidence in minorities in comparison to Whites” (p. 774). In comparison to Whites, Hispanics, and Asians research has found that Blacks have lower levels of trust and confidence in police officers (Berthelot et al., 2018). Additionally, limited research has shown that Hispanics have lower levels of trust and confidence in police officers than Whites do.

Consistent with these findings, several researchers have suggested a “racial hierarchy” in relations to the “nature of citizen–police contacts and citizen-based insolences toward the police, with African Americans in one end of this continuum—that is, more intense contacts, more negative views— White Americans at the other end, and Hispanics in the middle” (Rengifo & Fratello, 2015, p. 214). Aside from the research that has been performed, “crucial” interactions among police-citizen encounters, race, and other key factors of stratification such as immigration or ethnicity continue to be underexplored. There is contradictory evidence on the connotation of encounters with the police amongst these and other subclasses of individuals, and how forms of contact might form views of the police athwart multiple domains of perceived performance—such as; trust, sense of effectiveness, and likelihood of cooperation (Rengifo & Fratello, 2015). There is even less research on the link concerning immigration and attitudes toward the police. A few studies indicate the ratings of local law enforcement by immigrants have a tendency to be even more negative than the native populations, to include native minorities (Rengifo & Fratello, 2015).

Sindall (2017) states, that “It is widely recognized that trust and confidence in the police are more fragile amongst young people than amongst adults” (p. 344). Additionally, it has been unexplored what role the parents of these young people might play in shaping their views. Sindall (2017) further states that “given that many young people will not have experienced direct contact with the police; the influence of parental attitudes on confidence in the police could be substantial and long lasting” (p. 345). The views and attitudes of young people toward police tend to be more negative (Hurst & Frank, 2000) and as they move towards their teenage years the levels of negativity increase (Fagan & Piquero, 2005). Reports over the last several years demonstrate instances young people not trusting the police; especially for suspects, victims of crime and detainees in police cells, who regularly experience violation of their rights and the lack of concern for personal welfare (Sindall, 2017). As young people develop into teenagers they start to socialize more with their peers in public places away from parental scrutiny, as a result contact with the police is usually increased (McAra & McVie, 2005). McAra and McVie (2005) found in the study they performed that the initial contact with police during teenage years (approximately age 12 onwards) coupled with frequent subsequent interactions actually increased offending, promoting further hostility and insolence towards the police. They also demonstrate that police enforcement among poor neighborhoods prodigiously leads to a focus on the lack of respect among youth as a precondition of distrust, replicating an unblemished social class prejudice in policing. As a result the core groups of young people receive repeated contact with police and the youth court system, increasing the menaces of conviction and postponing the processes of desistance (McAra & McVie, 2010).

Role of the Media

This section of chapter 2 will take a look at how the media influences the perception of police officers or law enforcement. As Dowler (2003) there is still much needed research on the relationship between society’s perception and punitive attitudes towards police. While generally speaking, society’s attitudes toward police are positive, there are some studies that have examined media’s influence toward the police effectiveness (Dowler, 2003).

Elements regularly identified as contributing factors of perceptions of police include “quality of personal experiences with police (Donner et al., 2015), neighborhood context (e.g. Reisig and Parks, 2000), and race-ethnicity (Peck, 2015)” (Graziano, 2018). Frequently unnoticed is the role of news media, in spite of an ever-growing body of work representing a relationship flanked by negative news coverage and negative attitudes about police (Graziano, 2018). Information gained by the public concerning crime and justice is derived from the media.

Demonstrations of police are too often extremely over-dramatized and romanticized in fictional television crime dramas (i.e. CSI) while on the other hand; news media portrays the police as heroic, professional crime fighters (Dowler, 2003). In these fictional television shows the majority of crimes are solved and the suspect is apprehended all in sixty minutes. Similarly, the news media have a tendency to exaggerate the offenses resulting in arrest projecting an image that police are “more effective than official statistics demonstrate” (Dowler, 2003, p. 112).

The public has little contact with the police from day-to-day; the media naturally plays an important role in forming the perceptions of police. Through the cultivation theory, Graziano and Gauthier (2018) point out that Gerbner and Goss (1976) argue “as consumption of mass media increases, consumers are more likely to adopt perceptions of crime and justice mirroring the media portrayals of crime and justice they are exposed to” (p. 595). A large portion of society derives their understanding of what and how police are through the depiction of the news. Graziano and Gauthier (2018) point out that “Exposure to negative media coverage about police, however, would be expected to impact perceptions of police legitimacy” (p. 597). Graziano and Gauthier (2018) concluded through their research that overall the consumption of media is high and the respondents were all very aware of the “negative media depictions of police” (p. 599). Therefore, even though the respondents are aware of the negativity from media coverage it was not found to be related to the perception of police legitimacy; it was found to be consistent with prior research concerning the role of media shaping attitudes and supported the research using the cultivation theory that society is formed by the content of the media they are exposed to (Graziano & Gauthier, 2018).

The research performed by Graziano (2010) was a systematic review of the relationship between attitudes of police and the news media that exposed high-profile incidents or negative news coverage of policing and rates of news consumption through various mediums or self-identified important news sources. The conclusion clearly indicates the perceptions of police are impacted negatively through both high-profile cases involving contentious police actions (Kochel, 2017) and cognizance of negative news about police (Sun et al. 2013). Graziano (2010) further expresses that there has been an exceedingly consistent predictor of attitudes due to the negativity about police on the news. Graziano (2010) states “It has been found to be related to negative perceptions of police at a rate which is not only comparable to negative personal contact with police and race-ethnicity of respondents, but is greater than that of neighborhood context, such as fear of and perceptions of crime problems” (p. 13).


The results of the research done are indicative that victimization influences the citizens’ attitudes toward the police and perceptions of neighborhood safety. Payne and Gainey (2007) state there are a minimum of five reasons research on attitudes toward the police and how they are perceived by the citizens is important. The first thing they say is that “understanding how citizens perceive the police will shed some light on whether a need exists to change the way that police operate” (p. 143). Police agencies are more capable of taking measures towards improving their relationships with the community they serve by knowing that the citizens feel unsafe and/or have negative perceptions toward the police. It is also important to understand why the citizens feel this way. Knowing how the citizens feel can also help an agency improve and/or create police-citizen programs to focus on those areas.

Second, Payne and Gainey (2007) state is “process-oriented rationale is that understanding about how citizen’s perceive the police can be used to better prepare the police on who might best work with different kinds of victims” (p. 143). Just like citizens, police officers have varying points of view and different ways to handling and approaching people and citizens. It is important to and beneficial to the agency to make an attempt to place the “right” officer in areas which they are able to build repore and relationships with the citizens. In return, citizens becoming more trusting in the police increases the victims’ trust in the system which will theoretically increase the level of citizen participation in the programs offered.

Thirdly Payne and Gainey (2007) say “research on attitudes about the police is justified on cultural grounds, in that the findings of such research will be indicative of a particular culture or subculture’s norms, values, and beliefs” (p143). Huebner, Schafer and Bynum (2004) said, “The collective cultural beliefs and norms within a citizen’s neighborhood may be powerful forces in shaping and maintaining their perceptions of the police” (p. 26). The nature of a neighborhood’s subculture should be clearer by taking the steps to understanding citizens’ perceptions about the police.

Fourth, Payne and Gainey (2007) state it is “warranted on moral grounds” that the agencies understand the citizens attitudes about the police (p. 143). Additionally, it is written by Payne and Gainey (2007) that

On one hand, satisfaction with the police is tied to quality of life (Michalos, 2003), and just as researchers study quality of life in an effort to improve quality of life, so too should we study police attitudes to make similar improvements. On the other hand, if certain groups have negative perceptions about the police, criminologists have a moral obligation to understand the source of those attitudes so that those groups have access to equitable justice at the hands of law enforcement officers. (p. 143).

Lastly, Payne and Gainey (2007) write that “such research is justified on theoretical grounds when one considers the possible link between attitudes about the police and delinquent or criminal behavior” (p. 143). The rudimentary statement of Sutherland’s differential association theory, which is a foundation on theoretical criminology, is individuals come to be delinquent due to a surplus of definitions auspicious to law violations (Payne & Gainey, 2007). With that being said, by allowing for the foundations of definitions to be auspicious to law violations, it is safe to shoulder that persons with undesirable perceptions and attitudes concerning the police it may be more probable to have definitions auspicious toward law violations. 

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