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Fighting crime and gaining public support are two distinct goals for police

Fighting crime and gaining public support are two distinct goals for police
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Many people are calling for defunding the police. And it is not simply people with extreme views about the police who are doing this. The American public has been shocked at recent videos of police violence. They suspect that racial biases are deeply entrenched in policing. For the police, sudden abandonment by many of the communities that they serve must be a shock. They likely would argue that they have been effective in doing precisely what the public wants of them: controlling or reducing crime. Why isn’t there more public support for the police in this period?

Indeed, over the past four decades, the police have become much more proficient at crime-fighting. This is indicated not just by declining crime rates, but also by a large number of rigorous evaluations of proactive policing. A recent National Academy of Sciences report, “Proactive Policing,” concludes that a series of innovative policing interventions developed over the past few decades are effective in reducing crime. Many of the studies reviewed are randomized experiments, which have particular scientific credibility. In this context, the police have been shown to reduce crime.

In the mind of many police executives, this should be enough for them to gain the trust and support of the public. In our work, we often see that police believe crime control effectiveness will lead to improved perceptions of law enforcement. What surprises most police executives is that public evaluations of police don’t seem to be consistent with their improvements in fighting crime.

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In the National Academy of Sciences report, strategies that were found to be effective in reducing crime, such as hot spot policing, had little or no impact on evaluations of the police. These findings are consistent with a growing body of research that suggests that citizen evaluations of the police are more connected to the way the police interact with the public than to the effectiveness of policing on crime. Community surveys almost always show that police legitimacy — often defined as trust in the police — is more closely related to evaluations of “procedural justice,” that is, the fairness of the processes by which the police exercise their authority, than to assessments of police effectiveness in fighting crime.

Proactive policing programs that focused on community collaboration, such as community policing, were found to improve citizen evaluations of the police in the National Academy of Sciences report. But they were not effective, in themselves, in reducing crime. This suggests that there are two goals the police must pursue simultaneously, using different strategies. It is a mistake to assume that by being effective in fighting crime the police inevitably will win the hearts and minds of the public, or that by working closely with the community crime will naturally drop. Both are important, worthy goals for police in democratic societies, but, in contrast to popular arguments, the research suggests that they are not directly connected.

We have created the institution of policing in good part because police are tasked with the job of controlling crime. This is the reason we give them extraordinary powers to intervene in the lives of citizens. At the same time, in democracies, the police must be agents of the community, who operate with the support and ascent of that community. We think it is time for the police to recognize that these two key goals of policing are distinct. A failure to recognize this reality is, we suspect, one of the reasons for the present crisis in policing.

A great deal of progress has been made in the effectiveness of police strategies in reducing crime, and certainly this is an area where there should be continued development. But it is time to invest equal effort in how the police can be proactive in improving their relationships with communities. Such efforts have been hindered to some degree by evidence that such strategies may not increase crime control, or by the incorrect assumption that effective crime-control strategies eventually would lead to public support of the police. 

In short, the goal of improving citizen evaluations of the police is as important to the success of policing as is crime control.

David Weisburd is Distinguished Professor of Criminology, Law and Society at George Mason University, and Walter E. Meyer Professor of Law and Criminal Justice at the Hebrew University. He chaired the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Proactive Policing. 

Tal Jonathan-Zamir is a senior lecturer at the Institute of Criminology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and an expert on citizen evaluations of the police.