As I’ve noted here before, there is a substantial body of social psychological research suggesting an important connection between crime levels and the way that police treat citizens – basically, the more that police are perceived to be fair and respectful, the more that citizens, in turn, will feel respect for the law and a sense of obligation to cooperate with the police. With that background in mind, the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ brand-new report Contacts Between Police and the Public, 2008 makes for some very interesting reading. The data are based on a national survey of U.S. residents that BJS has conducted every three years since 2002.
On the whole, police should regard the report as good news. Here are some of the basic findings. Nearly 17 percent of the population had face-to-face contact with the police in 2008. This is down from 21 percent in 2002. The most common reason for contact with police in 2008 was being a driver in a traffic stop (44 percent of contacts). Despite the overall drop in police contacts since 2002, the number of drivers stopped actually increased by five percent over the 2002-2008 period. (Query whether this reflects a more widespread adoption of the Milwaukee Police Department’s recent strategy of deliberately increasing this sort of police-citizen contact.)
What has really driven the overall drop is a huge decrease in the number of people reporting crimes to the police or otherwise requesting police assistance. Presumably, this is a reflection of declining national crime rates, although (a less positive interpretation for the police) it may also partially reflect less confidence in the police to respond effectively to calls for help.
Here’s the really good news, though. First, nearly 90 percent of those who had police contacts felt that police acted properly. Second, an even slightly higher percentage felt that police acted respectfully. Third, nearly 85 percent of drivers who were stopped thought that police had a legitimate reason for the stop. Finally, fewer than two percent of those with police contacts reported that police used or threatened the use of force against them.
Despite the good news, police ought to take note of some racial disparities in the responses.