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Toward an Understanding of the Distributional Importance of Citizens’ Preferences for Police Work
By Denise Nation, PhD, Winston-Salem State University

During the past three decades a considerable amount of research has revealed disparity between Whites and minority group members in their assessments of and attitudes toward the police.  One of the most consistent findings is that African Americans hold less favorable opinions of the police than do Whites.  Although the literature has consistently demonstrated that degree of satisfaction with and attitudes toward the police varies between these two groups—Blacks and Whites—sources of racial variations are not well understood.  Researchers have specified several variables, both at the individual and contextual levels, which have contributed to the understanding of both citizens’ attitudes and assessments of the police. Although important and explaining some variation, these variables individually or in combination have not generated the greatest explanatory power. 

A central question then is why Blacks and Whites have different assessments of the police, that is, why would race explain attitudinal differences?  Consequently, my research focuses on this aspect of police-citizen relationship, as understanding and improving citizens’ attitudes toward the police is important in forging effective partnership in reducing crime rates.  This is particularly important for socially disorganized neighborhoods with characteristically high minority populations. These neighborhoods not only need effective policing, but respectful policing in addressing crime problems affecting their neighborhoods. My research interests lies in linking policing and various theoretical perspectives to find solutions to improve police-citizen encounters and relationships. Thus, I have employed ideas from procedural and distributive justice as guiding principles in addressing the issue of citizens’ preferences and how understanding these preferences will be beneficial to police managers. This approach is instrumental in assisting policy makers and police administrators in training officers in skills to avoid conflict during encounters with citizens. 

There is reason to believe that racial differences in preferences for police work—both what the police do (functions) and how the police carry out their functions (behavior) exist.  This argument is guided more by the idea of just outcomes than the idea of just process prominent in criminal justice/criminology research.  The interplay between distributional and procedural aspects of citizen-police relationships must consider citizens’ preferences.  Social psychologists have argued that citizens’ are concerned with fair treatment.   A missing component in these arguments is, it is not solely about fair treatment, it also has to do with citizens’ preferences being met.

Consequently, it can be contended that fair treatment must encompass what people want—citizens’ preferences.  Manner of treatment has to include if citizens’ preferences are met, that would include the outcome.  The idea of fair or unfair treatment has been debated as impacting citizens’ satisfaction regardless of outcome.  However, citizens may look at the outcome as inadequate, because it is not their preference and this will impact satisfaction regardless of manner of treatment.  This is information that researchers must convey to police managers if improvements in minority citizens-police relationship is to be realized.  In order for police administrators to implement policies that improve citizen-police encounters and relationships, researchers have to be actively involved in the design of solutions, through research. 

Fair manner of treatment is important, but if citizens are not getting what they want when the police intervene they will be dissatisfied.  Distributive justice is about fairness and outcome, citizens’ preferences holds equitable outcome as vital in citizen-police relationships.  Here, I argue that outcome within the purview of what citizens’ want—preferences—regardless of manner of treatment, will affect citizens’ attitudes toward and satisfaction with the police positively.  As researchers, we have to communicate this to police managers and administrators to help them understand these impact as it relates to training and policies and procedure.  I recently got a grant in partnership with the Winston Salem Police Department from the Department of Justice to implement and evaluate this approach in the city.  Police administrators are amenable to “smartpolicing;” they just need more partners to help their efforts.

Effective policing strategies in urban communities and citizens’ preferences for police work are important issues that must be explored in trying to find solutions to improving minority citizens-police relationships. Minority neighborhoods are the neighborhoods needing not just law enforcement function of the police but also service function.  Traditionally, the police have employed a more legalistic approach to certain communities and it is my opinion that, that approach has been counterproductive to the police mission.  That approach has led to continual hostile relationships with minority citizens.  If police organizations continue to ignore the distributional aspects of citizens’ preferences, and to the extent that the police fail to satisfy or meet these preferences, minority group members' levels of dissatisfaction with the police may continue to increase. I hope to help police institutions embrace a redesigned approach in forging new and beneficial partnership with citizens, particularly minority citizens.


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