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Back to Archives | Back to December 2004 Contents 

Public Opinion on Reforms in Policing

By Ronald Weitzer, Professor of Sociology, and Steven A. Tuch, Professor of Sociology, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

hat specific changes, if any, does the public want to see in police practices? Surprisingly, this question has seldom been investigated. Rather, it is simply assumed that the public overwhelmingly favors any and all reforms—but this is an untested assumption.

It is important to examine public preferences for police reform for three reasons. First, such knowledge should be useful for administrators in developing policy and instituting new practices. Where popular support for a specific change is widespread, this may be symptomatic of a problem that needs to be addressed. If implemented, the reform may help to reduce police misconduct or improve police practices more generally. Second, certain kinds of reforms may increase public trust and confidence in the police. Third, reforms that directly affect police-citizen encounters may increase citizens’ willingness to cooperate with officers.

To investigate these issues, the authors conducted a nationwide poll of a representative sample of Americans in late 2002. The sample consisted of 1,792 adults (age 18 and over) residing in metropolitan areas of at least 100,000 persons. A special strength of this study is that it included large samples of black and Hispanic citizens, allowing an examination of racial-ethnic differences in views about policing. The survey was conducted for the authors by Knowledge Networks, a Web-based survey research firm that combines scientific sampling techniques with the reach and capabilities of the Internet to yield representative samples of respondents without sacrificing data quality. The study was funded by a grant to the authors from the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice.1
The study examined three major types of innovations in policing:(1)racial diversification of police departments,(2) increased accountability (both monitoring and sanctions), and (3) changes designed to increase police responsiveness and sensitivity to civilians. On almost every issue, blacks and Hispanics are more inclined than whites to endorse reform. Nevertheless, a substantial number of whites also favor most of these policies.

Racial Diversification

The principle of matching the racial composition of a police department to that of the city is now widely accepted in American political and law enforcement circles. The U.S. Department of Justice, for instance, holds that “a diverse law enforcement agency can better develop relationships with the community it serves, promote trust in the fairness of law enforcement, and facilitate effective policing by encouraging citizen support and cooperation. Law enforcement agencies should seek to hire a diverse workforce.”2 Nevertheless, most police departments have proportionally fewer minorities than the jurisdictions they serve.3

The survey examined whether people view racially representative police departments as a good thing in principle, and whether they believe that more minority officers should be hired. The overwhelming majority of Americans think that it is a good idea for “the racial makeup of a city’s police department to be similar to the racial makeup of that city” (see figure 1). Whites are slightly more supportive of this principle than blacks or Hispanics.
On the question of whether minorities should be given preferences in hiring to increase their representation in police departments (see figure 1), only one-fifth of whites support this notion, compared to about half of blacks and Hispanics. Whites’ reluctance to endorse this policy is consistent with their opposition to affirmative action generally, especially when the question asks about giving minorities preferential treatment in hiring and promotion.

Should more minority officers be assigned to minority neighborhoods? The overwhelming majority of blacks and Hispanics believe that such assignments would improve policing in their city. Fewer whites, however, support this policy.

Increased Accountability

Mechanisms of accountability include (1) methods of monitoring officer behavior and (2) sanctions for officers who engage in misconduct. With regard to greater monitoring, the survey asked respondents whether they favor installing video cameras in police cars,4 so-called early warning systems to flag officers who receive several complaints from citizens,5 and a policy of recording information—including race—about all motorists stopped by officers. With regard to sanctions, respondents were asked whether they supported civilian review boards to hear citizen complaints and stronger punishment for officers who engage in misconduct.

Citizens strongly approve of police accountability. Most respondents—three-fourths of whites and more than eight in 10 blacks and Hispanics—favor an early warning system to help identify officers who receive several citizen complaints. Similar majorities of blacks and Hispanics, and two-thirds of whites, want video cameras installed in police cars to more closely monitor officer behavior (see figure 2).

Majorities of all three groups also believe that racial profiling will be reduced if officers record the drivers’ race, age, gender, the reason for the stop, whether a search was conducted and arrest made, and whether the citizen resisted the officer. Interestingly, this is one of the few policies that yield greater support among whites (66 percent) than among blacks (58 percent) or Hispanics (54 percent). Minority group members may believe that such information gathering is a good idea, but they are less optimistic than whites in believing that this will help to reduce stops based on racial profiling.

Do people want civilian review boards in their cities? Two-thirds of whites, three-quarters of Hispanics, and four-fifths of blacks do. Even more respondents from each group believe that policing will be improved by “stronger punishment of officers who engage in misconduct against citizens” (see figure 3).

Community Policing and Sensitivity

Other changes have the potential to increase police responsiveness to, sensitivity to, and understanding of citizens and their communities. The survey examined several policies in this area. One involves more sensitivity training for police officers, and two fall under the rubric of community policing—more meetings between the police and community residents and more police programs in the schools. A substantial majority of all three groups favors each of these policies (figure 4). Blacks are most likely to support each policy (84 percent or more blacks do so), and Hispanics are more likely than whites to do so.

The survey also asked a more general question (not shown in figure 4) about community policing. Community policing was defined as “police officers working with community members to address the causes of crime and to prevent crimes from occurring, rather than just responding to crimes after they have occurred.” Respondents who reported that there was no community policing in their own neighborhood were asked if they wanted community policing in their neighborhood. Sixty-nine percent of whites, 73 percent of Hispanics, and 78 percent of blacks said that they wished the police practiced community policing in their neighborhood.

The survey asked two other questions related to the issue of police responsiveness toward civilians (not shown in figure 4). First, between 92 and 96 percent of the three groups agree with the following statement: “When a police officer stops a person on the street or in a car, the officer should be required to explain to the person the reason for the stop.” Although many officers do this routinely, others do not, and it is clear that this simple act can help to reduce tensions during street stops. Second, from 77 to 88 percent of the three groups believe that “When a police officer stops and searches a citizen and his or her vehicle, and finds no evidence of a crime, the officer should be required to apologize to the citizen for the inconvenience of the search.” Most members of all three groups strongly agree with each of these policies. People clearly feel that it is important that police officers treat citizens fairly and with respect, and such practices have the potential to improve police-citizen interactions during encounters.

Research Conclusion

Popular support for police reform may be useful to police executives and other law enforcement officials. If the public overwhelmingly approves of a reform, this may be indicative of a problem that needs fixing. Certain changes (such as intensive sensitivity training and greater monitoring) may help to reduce specific kinds of police malpractice or improve police practices overall, while other reforms (such as hiring more minority officers) appear to be symbolically important and may increase citizen confidence in a police department. This research shows that popular support for police reforms, though widespread, is not monolithic: support varies by the particular policy in question and, for some policies, by racial-ethnic group. Such information should be useful to practitioners in their attempts to improve police-citizen relations.

Of course, there are other, standard police practices that the public does not want changed. For instance, in our survey, 91 percent of whites, blacks, and Hispanics agree that the Miranda rights should be retained. This is consistent with another poll, which found that 86 percent of Americans agreed with a Supreme Court decision in 2000 upholding the Miranda rule.6

1 A full description of the research methods and findings is presented in U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, “Rethinking Minority Attitudes toward the Police,” by Ronald Weitzer and Steven A. Tuch, in Final Technical Report (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004).
2 U.S. Department of Justice, Principles for Promoting Police Integrity (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2001).
3 U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics, 2000 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004).
4 In 2000 the COPS Office awarded $12 million to 41 state law enforcement agencies to purchase 2,900 in-car cameras.
5 See U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, “Early Warning Systems: Responding to the Problem Police Officer,” by Samuel Walker, Geoffrey Alpert, and Dennis Kenney, in Research in Brief (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2001).
6 National poll conducted for Newsweek by Princeton Survey Research Associates (LexisNexis Public Opinion Online, June 29-30, 2000, N=752).


From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 12, December 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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