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Identifying Elements of Customer Satisfaction in the Delivery of Police Service

By Jeffrey H. Witte, Grant Coordinator, Springdale, Ohio, Police Department

Successful businesses routinely solicit input from their customers to identify which elements of their product or service create satisfaction or dissatisfaction. Timely and effective use of this information allows executives to increase their firms' competitive position, customer base, profit, and market share. Because policing is a nonprofit endeavor, police executives do not always embrace the tools that profit-driven businesses managers use to evaluate or improve the performance of their departments. However, just as business executives are accountable to their investors, police executives are responsible to the taxpayers, who fund the police operation. Police executives are also accountable to the elected government for the effective and efficient operation of their agencies.

Citizens are considered the police department's customers, and in this customer base there are a wide variety of customer groups that need to be served, including different neighborhoods and demographics, crime victims and witnesses, motorists, civic organizations, and business groups.

According to the IACP publication Police Leadership in the 21st Century, available in the publications section of the IACP Web site, "Increasing public access to information, knowledge about policing, coupled with invitations to engage in community policing, create an increasingly proactive public mindset. Citizens expect to work more closely than ever with the police, including the chief, and to have their overtures acted on."1 In this environment, it is crucial that police executives explore how their agency can best respond to, and satisfy, the needs of their customers. To this end the organization must objectively evaluate its performance in delivering the end product of police service.

Springdale, Ohio
Quick Facts
  • Population 10,563
  • Median age 39.1
  • 68 percent white
  • 26 percent African American
  • 3 percent Asian American
  • 3 percent Hispanic American
  • 36 full-time police officers
  • 9 civilian police employees
  • 20,000 plus annual requests for service

  • The Springdale experience with surveying customer satisfaction of police service can provide a correlation point for other agencies. The Springdale survey measured police service in four distinct categories:

    • Response time
    • Officer attributes
    • Process-related elements
    • Problem resolution
    Measuring customer satisfaction is complex, and findings can vary considerably according to research method. A distillation of a national review of surveys addressing the public image of the police reported that most citizens are satisfied with the police service in their own neighborhood; citizens' experiences with the police affect their overall assessment of the police; and the vast majority of citizens have not had a face-to-face contact with a police officer in the previous 12 months.2

    Springdale Surveys
    In a three-year period, the Springdale Police Department used funding from Local Law Enforcement Block Grants to staff additional patrols in the city's residential neighborhoods. A major component of Springdale's LLEBG program was for uniformed officers to administer a neighborhood survey to residents randomly selected from those observed outside (walking, working in their yard, and so on) during the dedicated patrol times.

    Neighborhood Survey: The survey instrument was created in-house and contained a series of forced-choice and free-response questions to gather information on residents' feelings and experiences. Questions in the first part of the survey inquired about respondents' length of residency; feelings of safety during daylight hours and hours of darkness; feeling of security when their home or apartment is vacant; frequency of police patrols observed; desired days or times for increased patrols; neighborhood problems; and traffic problems.

    Questions in the second part of the survey inquired about respondents' participation in the Crime Watch (neighborhood watch) program; crime victimization; use of police service; general level of satisfaction with police service; and satisfaction or dissatisfaction with particular elements of the delivery of police service. Specifically, respondents were asked if they (or an immediate family member) had been the victim of a crime within the last five years, or if they (or an immediate family member) had called the police for any reason within the last year. Those who answered Yes were then asked to name two things they felt the police did well, and two things they felt the police could have done better.3

    Service Verification Reports: In addition to the neighborhood surveys conducted under the LLEBGs, Springdale routinely conducts service verification reports. Each month, for each officer assigned to a supervisor's shift, patrol supervisors randomly select citizens who have filed offense or accident reports. Supervisors telephone the citizens and ask basic questions about the service delivered. The checklist on the monthly service verification report includes many of the same elements analyzed through the neighborhood survey instrument. However, the service verification report targets a slightly different group of customers: those who have recently filed a report. The customers in the service verification reports are not necessarily residents of the city. Because copies of the completed service verification reports are provided to the individual officers, the service priorities of the department and its customers are clearly communicated to the employees.

    Springdale Responses
    Springdale collected data from 286 individual surveys. Of the respondents, 52 percent had direct contact with the police by calling the police within the last year (34 percent) or reported being the victim of a crime (in Springdale) in the previous five years (18 percent). Each of these respondents was asked to identify two things the police did well and two things the police could have done better. Not all respondents provided two items for those questions, so the final analysis was based on 135 positive responses, and 30 negative responses.

    Using a forced-choice scale, 88 percent of those who called the police or had been the victim of a crime reported feeling "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with the police service rendered. Only 12 percent reported feeling less than satisfied.

    The disproportionate numbers of positive contrasted to negative responses might be attributed to a general feeling of satisfaction among those surveyed. However, it might also be a result of the survey method. In Springdale, the surveys were conducted face-to-face by a uniformed police officer. In retrospect some respondents may not have been comfortable identifying elements of dissatisfaction with police service when faced with a uniformed officer. In fact, one respondent simply replied, "No comment," possibly indicating an unwillingness to provide the information during a personal encounter with the officer administering the survey.

    An analysis of the factors cited by respondents in satisfaction or dissatisfaction with police service tended to fall into four distinct categories: response time, officer attributes, process-related elements, and problem resolution. These four categories were further scrutinized.

    Response Time
    The relative importance of police response time has long been debated. Since offenders are often long gone before a crime is discovered or reported, response time is generally not critical in apprehending criminals. Although it is obvious that response time is significantly more important to crimes in progress and life-threatening emergencies, many police calls are service-oriented and do not deal directly with in-progress criminal offenses.

    Although most of the respondents to Springdale's neighborhood surveys had contacted the police for service-type calls or relatively minor criminal offenses, response time was identified as one of the four critical elements of customer satisfaction. In the Springdale survey, 34 percent of respondents cited response time as the most important factor in their satisfaction with police service. Of those who identified elements of dissatisfaction, 7 percent listed response time.

    Although response time can depend on a variety of factors, such as patrol staffing, volume and priority of calls for service, and even traffic or weather conditions, one fact is clear: a prompt response is important to police customers in Springdale. A quick response may well set the tone for the entire police contact as it can convey to the citizen that the police are concerned with expediently handling their individual situation.

    The Springdale Police Department has long considered response time an important priority and includes response time in the service verification report, asking if response was prompt, and, if not, whether officers explained the delay.

    Officer Attributes
    Officer attributes relate to the responding officer's attitude, demeanor, or other qualities displayed during the delivery of police service. In describing satisfaction with police service, 32 percent of the respondents cited officer attributes, while 13 percent cited it as an element of dissatisfaction. Typical factors related to satisfaction include an officer being polite, courteous, professional, respectful, responsive, caring, supportive, patient, and honest. Even attributes such as being firm or forceful could be considered as positive qualities, as cited by one respondent in the way officers dealt with her estranged boyfriend when he threatened her. Responses also included officers who were attentive to the caller's needs, had a calming influence, or agreed that the problem was important. This seems to indicate that a certain degree of personal attention or validation of their individual concerns is important to police customers.

    Responses related to dissatisfaction cited officers who were rude or disrespectful (including one respondent who said the police acted as if the complainant had done something wrong). Citing dissatisfaction in this area, respondents said officers should be more compassionate, friendly, and understanding.

    Officer attributes are also included in Springdale's service verification report, with questions asking if the employee was courteous, was professional in demeanor and appearance, showed concern, and displayed a helpful attitude.

    The results of the Springdale survey paralleled the findings reported in The Public Image of the Police-"the overall legitimacy of the police depends much more on citizens' perceptions of how the police treat them than on their perceptions of police success in reducing crime. Public confidence in and support for the police depends more on citizens' perceptions of police officers' motives than whether the outcome was personally favorable to the citizen."4

    Process-Related Elements
    In the Springdale survey, the term "process-related elements" refers to the respondents' perception of how the police performed their job or responded to the call for service. Process-related elements were cited as something "the police did well" by only about a quarter (24 percent) of respondents, but as something "the police could have done better" by more than half (53 percent) of respondents. This was by far the most heavily represented of the four categories for those who were not satisfied with some element of the police service they received.

    Whether satisfied or dissatisfied, survey respondents frequently cited communication with the police as important.

    Most responses in this category focused on communication and follow-up. Whether satisfied or dissatisfied, respondents frequently cited communication between the police and the caller (or other involved parties), the caller and the clerk or dispatcher, and even between the clerk or dispatcher and the officer. Examples include police failure to explain available options and the court process, provide feedback, and ask proper questions.

    The next most frequent element involved conducting a thorough follow-up investigation, including taking fingerprints at a crime scene and canvassing the neighborhood regarding area burglaries. Although officers may have determined that these investigative steps were not appropriate for the follow-up investigation, the citizen felt these actions were important. At a minimum, the citizen did not understand why their local police did not conduct the same crime-solving procedures often seen on television shows or in movies.

    Another element cited by respondents was police patrol. For example, one respondent was pleased that the police patrolled the neighborhood after receiving traffic complaints. Other respondents felt that the police could make a greater presence in their neighborhood, or patrol more (especially at night or on foot) to deter problems.

    It is important to note that some of the elements listed by respondents may not fit precisely into one category or may be applicable to more than one category. For example, "taking the time to talk to people" might be considered both a process-related element and an officer attribute. Also, patrolling the neighborhood where a complaint has been received may be a process-related element, but the caller may consider stepped-up neighborhood patrols part of the problem resolution (even if those patrols do not lead to apprehensions).

    There are many items that could be included as process-related elements, so this category may be more difficult to measure than the other three. In fact, the only question dealing with a process-related element that appears on the service verification report asks, "If unable to resolve the problem, did the employee refer to other agency [sic] or offer suggestions?"

    Problem Resolution
    Problem resolution simply refers to whether or not, in the eyes of the customer, the police were able to solve their problem. Examples include finding or apprehending the suspect, solving the crime, or locating and returning property. Problem resolution may not require an arrest, or a lengthy criminal investigation, and tends to be based on the caller's concept of resolution. The caller on a loud music complaint may simply want the music turned down; the caller on a trespassing complaint may just want police to contact offenders and tell them not to return.

    In the area of problem resolution, only 10 percent of respondents said this was something the police did well, whereas 27 percent cited this as something the police could have done better. Although much more in-depth research would be required to place these numbers in perspective, a partial explanation may lie in the many other factors that contribute to customer satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) with police service, the tremendous difficulty in bringing some situations to a permanent or successful resolution, and the frustration of a victim of a crime or a citizen involved in a seemingly unresolvable neighborhood problem.

    Recognizing the importance of resolving a problem but acknowledging the difficulty in achieving a complete solution in many situations, the service verification report asks, "Did the employee assist in resolving the problem?"

    Satisfaction with police service is composed of many facets, but the individual elements can be classified in four general categories important to customers: response time (how quickly police arrive), officer attributes (how the police act), process-related elements (how the police perform their job), and problem resolution (whether the police were able to solve the situation). These categories are not mutually exclusive, and their relative priority may vary according to the situation.

    Further, customers may be satisfied in one category, but dissatisfied in another. For example, a burglary victim may be satisfied in the area of problem resolution if the police apprehend the suspect and recover the property, but may be dissatisfied in the area of officer attributes if the officer was discourteous, or dissatisfied in the area of process-related elements if the police did not keep him informed of the process of the investigation or took too long to return the property. Response time may be the most important element of satisfaction when a caller reports a medical emergency or in-progress criminal activity, and officer attributes may be especially crucial, for example, when dealing with children, seniors, or those who are distraught.

    By collecting and applying in-depth information about customer satisfaction (and dissatisfaction), police agencies can identify and build upon their strengths, and correct their deficiencies, improving the delivery of police service to their various customer groups. Although this process is still relatively new in policing, it has significant benefits not only for the organization, but also for the chief executive. As Police Leadership in the 21st Century makes clear, "Once customer satisfaction becomes a driving value and is achieved, an executive is likely to be able to draw on powerful community allies to support directions and sustain tenure."5

    Although the focus on customers of police service is primarily an outgrowth of community oriented policing, the idea of customer satisfaction is also tied to the more traditional police mission of law enforcement. "Customer satisfaction and crime control objectives are reinforcing concepts, not alternatives."6 In fact, by effectively fulfilling their basic crime control and law enforcement functions, the police are striving to satisfy three of their most important customer groups: citizens as potential victims of crime, the community as stakeholder, and taxpayers as investors in the police organization.

    1 International Association of Chiefs of Police, Police Leadership in the 21st Century: Achieving and Sustaining Executive Success: Recommendations from the President's First Leadership Conference (Alexandria, Va.: 1999), 9; available at
    2 International Association of Chiefs of Police, The Public Image of the Police, a report prepared by Catherine Gallagher, Edward R. Maguire, Stephen D. Mastrofski, and Michael D. Reisig of the George Mason University Administration of Justice Program (October 2001); available at
    3 Police departments can obtain a copy of Springdale's neighborhood survey instrument by writing to the author at>4 International Association of Chiefs of Police, The Public Image of the Police.
    5 International Association of Chiefs of Police, Police Leadership in the 21st Century, 12.
    6 International Association of Chiefs of Police, Police Leadership in the 21st Century, 12.


    From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 5, May 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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