Last week, the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission announced that it would conduct its first survey of citizen satisfaction with the police. The results should provide us with helpful new ways to evaluate the Milwaukee Police Department’s performance and identify areas in need of improvement.
Unfortunately, media coverage provides a very distorted picture of police-citizen interactions. What makes the news, of course, are the incidents in which officers become violent or exhibit extreme callousness. When video is available of such incidents, as is increasingly common, the disturbing images may be repeated endlessly on TV or circulate virally on social media. Viewers may be left with the impression that such incidents are the norm. However, the vast majority of police-citizen interactions occur without anything newsworthy happening. Among other things, the Fire and Police Commission’s new survey should give us a much better sense of what happens in the more routine interactions and how those interactions affect public perceptions of the police.
Although data of this sort have not been available for Milwaukee specifically, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics did sponsor a national survey in 2011 regarding police-citizens interactions. The results, released in two reports earlier this fall, indicate a remarkably high level of citizen satisfaction, even among the minority groups who seem to bear the brunt of the high-profile incidents of police misconduct.
Citizens generally come into contact with the police in one of two ways: either by requesting police assistance, or by being stopped by the police. The first BJS report covers requests for assistance. Based on nearly 50,000 interviews conducted with a representative sample of U.S. households, BJS estimates that about 1 in every 8 adults requested assistance from the police in 2011. Most of these contacts were to report a crime, suspicious activity, or neighborhood disturbance, although many of the contacts instead related to non-crime emergencies. Blacks, whites, and Hispanics were all about equally likely to call the police to report a crime.
Here are some of the key findings about how citizens felt police responded to their requests for assistance:
- 86% said the police were helpful
- 93% said the police acted properly
- 85% overall were satisfied with the police response
- 80% of blacks, and 81% of Hispanics, were satisfied with the police response
- Males and females were about equally satisfied
- 93% said they were as likely or more likely to contact the police again for a similar problem
These seem to be impressive numbers. I imagine that many businesses would be happy to see these levels of customer satisfaction.
But how about involuntary contacts with police? Traffic stops and the like might seem inherently more likely to generate negative feelings than 911 calls. These sorts of contacts were the subject of the second BJS report, which was based on the same set of interviews as the first.
About 1 in 8 reported involuntary contacts with the police (about the same as requested assistance from the police). The vast majority of these contacts were traffic stops. More than 10% of drivers overall were involved in traffic stops in 2011. Black drivers (12.8%) were somewhat more likely to be stopped than white drivers (9.8%). Speeding was the given reason for nearly half of the stops; other common reasons included vehicle defect, record check, and illegal turn or lane change.
Whatever the reason for the stop, motorists gave surprisingly high marks to the police:
- 80% conceded that the reason for the stop was legitimate
- 86% said that police behaved properly and respectfully
- Even among those who were ticketed, 87% reported that police behaved properly
- And even among those who reported that police used verbal threats or physical force, a majority conceded that the officers behaved properly
Blacks did not evaluate the traffic stops as favorably as whites, but, on the whole, still indicated considerably more approval than disapproval. Among the black stopped drivers, more than two-thirds said that the reason for the stop was legitimate, and more than 80% said that the police behaved properly. Stops were somewhat more likely to be viewed as legitimate if the officer was of the same race as the driver (83% versus 74% for inter-racial stops). Interestingly, the biggest issue was not with white officers stopping blacks, but Hispanic officers stopping blacks; only about 47% of the drivers in that scenario said the stop was legitimate.
Searches were a relatively rare occurrence in traffic stops, happening only 3.5% of the time. However, stopped blacks (6.3%) and Hispanics (6.6%) were much more likely to be searched than whites (2.3%). Still, more than sixty percent of the blacks and Hispanics subjected to police searches reported that police behaved properly.
Police might take note that asking permission to search seemed to have a big effect on whether they were perceived to be acting properly; 72% of the drivers who were asked permission reported that police acted properly, but only 46% of the drivers who not asked for permission had such a favorable view.
Even rarer than searches in traffic stops were shouting or cursing by the police (1.2% of stops), verbal threats (3.4%), and physical force (1.5%). Remarkably, even these police behaviors did not necessarily produce condemnation; only one-third of the drivers involved in these incidents characterized the police actions as excessive.
Overall, fewer than 10% of stopped drivers said that police did not behave properly. Troublingly, though, among those who had a negative view of police behavior, only about 4% filed a complaint.
The story with street stops (basically, any type of involuntary contact other than a traffic stop) was much the same, although views of the police were a bit less positive. Just under two-thirds of the citizens in street stops said the police behaved properly and respectfully. A similar proportion thought the reason for the stop was legitimate.
The reports contain quite a bit more data than I have summarized here. Although the news is generally good for the nation’s police departments, there are a number of areas that may need to be addressed, such as the infrequency with which bad behavior is reported. Departments might evaluate, for instance, whether their complaint procedures are sufficiently publicized and accessible.
How well the Milwaukee Police Department fares along these various dimensions is hard to say at present, but the forthcoming survey should provide considerable insight.
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