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Public attitudes to the police

What do the public think of their police? This is a rather more complicated question than it appears. When public opinion polling was in its infancy, people were asked how they felt about ‘the police’, but it was realised that this tapped only very general attitudes towards the police institution and not necessarily opinions about the behaviour of officers. The intervening period has witnessed an increasingly specific focus on how people feel about officers and their behaviour. But, whether someone is satisfied or not with how officers have behaved is not necessarily because of how they were treated: might it reveal a perceptual bias of the individual member of the public, or perhaps the peculiar circumstances under which they encountered the police?

This uncertainty can only be resolved by burrowing down to how people at large view what cops do when dealing with an incident. We aimed to answer this question by presenting 34 focus groups with video–clips lasting, on average five minutes, showing encounters between police and members of the public. These encounters involved officers acting in their law enforcement role: investigating an alleged robbery of an elderly man by a knife–wielding intruder into the man’s home; an officer dealing with a situation where three young men were breaking into a car in a supermarket car park, claiming that this was at the behest of the owner; the arrest of the young driver of what officers believed was a stolen car; and the forceful arrest of an ‘aggressive man’ outside a nightclub late at night. We played each clip in turn and invited those present to freely discuss their assessments.

Focus groups represented a broad range of interests and purposes and were drawn from throughout the ‘Black Country’ region of the West Midlands; an area of deprivation and ethnic diversity. They had no inhibitions in expressing and defending their opinions, which seemed not to fall into any of the neat categories of ethnicity, class, age, gender, etc. Indeed, within any discussion of a particular video–clip, our participants were as likely to express both positive and negative evaluations. The only topics on which our focus groups agreed were the topics that aroused controversy.

The only topics on which our focus groups agreed were the topics that aroused controversy

Those flashpoints of controversy were dominated by two themes: suspicion and use of force. Did our participants feel that officers were entitled to be suspicious of the member of the public? Did our participants feel that they used force necessarily and proportionately? Our focus groups were divided on these questions, often not only because of what they had witnessed from the video–clip, but what they imagined had happened, was happening and was likely to happen in future. Surprisingly, four focus groups of police officers (of all ranks) were just as divided as those they policed and agreed on the issues raised.

So what did we glean from our experience? The obvious conclusion was that policing arouses intense controversy. Such controversy was not aroused by incidental features of the police role, but goes to the heart of police powers — forming suspicions and using force. There was little evidence that particular groups were instinctively ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ the police. In the vast majority of groups people approved of some aspects, but not others. How they formed judgements often relied on imagination as much as upon anything the officer did or did not do.

This has profound implications for the police and the wider criminal justice system. There is no simple template that the police can follow to ensure public acceptability. There is no stable constituency who approve of what they do, nor a hard core of those who disapprove. Doing their duty is as likely to provoke animosity in some and praise in others. Instead of trying to achieve the elusive prize of increased public acceptance, police need to recognise that policing is inherently controversial, and manage it. This requires engagement and talk, which requires that police embrace the contradictions and dilemmas of policing openly and honestly. For instance, police should be more aware that investigation is never a morally neutral exercise, since police must regard an allegation of wrongdoing as sufficiently credible as to warrant investigation. ‘He must have done something to attract police attention’. Likewise, using force is rarely a clinical exercise: it is physically arduous to subdue even minimally resistant people and the struggle that often ensues often becomes an unseemly spectacle. As police focus groups agreed, ‘It doesn’t look good!’ Perhaps training could make it look better, but that takes officers off the streets where the public demands to see them. To engage with controversy could, at least, elevate public debate.

Featured image credit: London October 19 2013 078 Police BX59CHG by David Holt. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

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