Expert Commentary

Race plays a role, but researchers say it’s not the strongest predictor of whether someone holds a negative view of police

A meta-analysis of 66 peer-reviewed studies shows the public's relationship with law enforcement is complicated.

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(Pixabay/Stephan Wusowski)

Race plays a role in whether someone has a negative view of police but it’s not the strongest predictor, finds a recent analysis aimed at better understanding factors driving people’s satisfaction and dissatisfaction with law enforcement.

Racial minorities tend to be less satisfied with police than white people. Crime victims and people who fear becoming crime victims are more likely to be dissatisfied than their counterparts, three researchers explain in “What Matters in Citizen Satisfaction With Police: A Meta-Analysis,” published in the January-February 2021 issue of the Journal of Criminal Justice.

To investigate the relationship between the public and police, the researchers examined scholarly literature published over a quarter century in the U.S. and abroad. They conducted a study of studies, known as a meta-analysis. They gathered numerical data from more than five dozen studies, combined it, performed a systematic examination of it and then drew their own conclusions.

Lead researcher Michelle Bolger and her colleagues sought to understand which factors influence people’s “satisfaction” with police — an umbrella term meant to represent feelings of trust and confidence, in addition to a general feeling of satisfaction.

They learned that several characteristics that might be expected to affect satisfaction levels actually did not, including people’s educational backgrounds and socioeconomic status as well as their perceptions of crime prevalence in their communities.

The study also reveals that having prior contact with police did not impact satisfaction. That finding reflects people’s overall experience, based on reports of positive and negative interactions with law enforcement, explains Bolger, an assistant professor of criminal justice at DeSales University in Pennsylvania.

A complicated relationship

One big takeaway of the analysis: The public has a complicated relationship with police.

“This [study] helps us understand it’s not just Black and white, or demographics,” Bolger says.

“How people feel about police is so contextual,” she adds. “It’s really nuanced and about their particular contexts — their neighborhood, their own experiences, their fear of crime.”

Bolger and her co-authors scrutinized data from 66 peer-reviewed studies published from 1994 to 2019. Much of the data came from surveys of people living in a specific community or region of a country. Because those earlier studies provide what essentially are snapshots of people’s attitudes, Bolger and her colleagues could not determine whether satisfaction or dissatisfaction toward police changed over time.

Other key findings

This research builds upon an earlier meta-analysis by Jennifer Peck, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida. Peck’s analysis of data related to people’s satisfaction with police, published in 2015 in Policing: An International Journal, focuses on differences among racial and ethnic groups.

This newer analysis encompasses a broader collection of research and a wider range of variables. It includes calculations for effect size, or the strength of the relationship between two variables, such as age and satisfaction with police.

Some of the other key findings:

  • Attitudes toward police do not seem to differ by location, regardless of whether study participants were from urban or rural areas or lived in the U.S. or another country. 
  • Women tend to be more satisfied with police than men.
  • Being Hispanic does not have a statistically significant effect on satisfaction levels.
  • Older adults tend to have a more positive view of police while younger adults tend to have a more negative one.
  • There is no statistically significant relationship between people’s socioeconomic status or education and their satisfaction level.

Uniform’ definitions needed

Researchers often vary in how they define key terms, making it difficult to draw comparisons between studies or merge data sets from a group of studies. The research community needs a “more uniform and direct measurement of satisfaction with police,” write Bolger and her colleagues, Daniel J. Lytle, an assistant professor of criminal justice at North Carolina Central University, and P. Colin Bolger, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. Michelle Bolger and P. Colin Bolger are married.

They continue: “As nationally representative samples of communities and police departments are unlikely to be collected due to the cost and logistical challenges of such efforts, our understanding of what makes people more or less satisfied with policing services will be limited to localized samples unless researchers can agree on more unified measurement to facilitate more robust research synthesis efforts.”

The authors suggest law enforcement agencies start evaluating their performance based partly on residents’ self-reported perceptions — especially crime victims, who tend to be especially dissatisfied with police.

They also note that residents’ attitudes toward police affect their compliance with laws and willingness to report crime.

“It is reasonable to think that if police could improve relationships between those that fall into the dissatisfied categories, then they could increase compliance and citizens’ willingness to report crimes,” they write. “Police certainly need the community in this capacity, and increased cooperation could lead to a better ability to solve crimes.”