Assessing public confidence in the criminal justice system.

Author:Salvatore, Christopher


One of the core components of positive social control is the perception of citizens regarding the legitimacy, efficacy and fairness of the mechanisms of justice. Police are the front-line agents of formal social control, and as such enjoy some of the credit and most of the blame for the public's view of the quality of life in urban communities. A measurable indicator of the public's perception of the state of their community is public confidence in the police. Ample research links this perception with social conditions and experiences of various kinds, in particular neighborhood incivilities. Defined by Pamela Wilcox-Roundtree and Kenneth C. Land, neighborhood incivilities are an index that consists of the average of various signs of disorders or problems as viewed by individual respondents within a community, which may include factors such as graffiti, loud music, substandard housing, a visible drug presence, litter in the street, inadequate lighting, and abandoned buildings. (1) Scholars have researched the extent to which interactions with the police impact expressed levels of satisfaction with the broader justice system which includes the courts and corrections systems at local, state, and federal levels, (2) and the role that neighborhood level incivilities play in the quality of situational interactions between the police and the public, which have been linked to public confidence in the system, (3) a key element long identified by researchers as vital to the efficacy of social justice mechanisms. (4)

Integrally related to these social processes are the relative levels of socio-economic status, inequality, and social stratification manifested in any community, as research has demonstrated that residents of neighborhoods with high levels of disadvantage have poorer attitudes towards the criminal justice system, (5) with race being a strong predictor of attitudes towards police. (6) These findings assume greater significance when considered in light of current law enforcement policies targeting high crime areas with maximum amounts of police attention and force. Therefore, it is of considerable value to understand more fully how citizen impressions of the mechanisms and processes of justice are shaped by interactions with the police in these social settings.

Past research examining the influence of encounter satisfaction has focused largely on perceptions of the police, while few have considered the impact of various demographic factors as well as signs of neighborhood disorder. Here, we seek to broaden this focus by exploring these myriad factors in terms of their impact on overall perceptions of the criminal justice system. The purpose of this paper is therefore two-fold. First, it seeks to investigate how perceptions of police-precipitated incivilities influence confidence in the criminal justice process, and, secondly, to examine how levels of satisfaction with personal police contact affect attitudes toward the justice system and processes. Specifically, the discussion is framed in terms of the impact of "negotiated order" in police work, an ecological theory of policing developed by David Klinger in 1997 that attempts to explain how police allocate their time relative to the demands on officers and resources available, as well as the influence of community structural factors on officer decision making. (7) For example, in a district with a higher workload and higher crime rate (and high incivilities) police may treat citizens differently, ignoring minor offenses, and focusing more on serious offending in an effort to direct limited departmental resources more efficiently. A discussion of previous research on this topic provides greater illustration of the current research focus.

Attitudes toward the Criminal Justice System: Demographic Differences

Scholars have argued that the relationship between the public and the criminal justice system is a contentious one. (8) Attitudes toward police are common features of public opinion surveys, (9) typically finding that Americans have lower levels of confidence in the criminal justice system relative to other systems (e.g., banking, education, organized labor). Race has been one the strongest predictors of confidence in the criminal justice system. (10) Caucasians typically express more confidence in the police, while African Americans are more likely to express less. (11) Hispanics attitudes toward police vary, but are generally more favorable than those of African Americans. (12)

Attitudes toward police have also been shown to vary by socioeconomic status, with those having higher incomes expressing more favorable attitudes towards police, (13) as well as politically, with those who self-identify as conservative expressing greater support for law enforcement. (14) Age has also been shown to influence disposition toward police, with younger people having less favorable attitudes than older citizens. (15) Research dealing with gender and education has produced more inconsistent results; (16) with Scott H. Decker finding that gender has little influence on attitudes toward police, (17) and other scholars arguing the opposite. (18) Likewise, the impact of education on perceptions of the police has yielded varied conclusions. Earlier research found that level of education was not related to attitudes towards police at a statistically significant level. (19) However, a more recent study found that those with lower levels of education have less favorable attitudes towards police than the more educated. (20)

This discussion highlights varying conclusions regarding the impact of demographic factors on perceptions of the police, it is significant to note that little research has examined the interactive impact of demographics, neighborhood contacts and perceived incivilities on public perceptions and attitudes towards the criminal justice system, a focus of this study.

Attitudes toward the Criminal Justice System: The Significance of Context

Research in this area has also identified neighborhood "context" to be a relevant factor explaining attitudinal differences. For example, H. Jacobs found that residents of black inner city neighborhoods, frequently referred to as "ghettos" had lower levels of satisfaction with police compared to residents of white working and middle class neighborhoods. These findings, suggest that "neighborhood culture" was the primary factor explaining these differences. (21) The abovementioned work by Klinger proposed an ecological theory of negotiated order to explain the inconsistent levels of satisfaction with police across neighborhoods. Rooted in the classic interactionist perspective, Klinger posited that negotiation of rules in police patrol work are governed by two features of the police organization structure that guide patrol officers conduct: (1) the low levels of administrative control that officers enjoy and (2) the divisions of neighborhoods and districts that create community based work groups. (22) As a result of these departmental dynamics, police have the freedom to utilize their discretion to prioritize calls. Furthermore, Klinger stated that rule negotiations occur at the district level and there are three ways that the district level may influence officer's decisions. First, districts vary in the volume and type of work that officers may face, with some districts having relatively low levels and less serious crimes, and higher crime districts where officers will be busier dealing with a higher volume, as well as more serious crimes. Next, officers in each district use a shared communication system that informs officers how much activity their peers are dealing with as well as types of activities other officers are participating (e.g., accident reports). This communication system provides officers a method through which they may compare their workload with that of other officers across the district. Finally, officer's perception of district-level deviance/crime is influence by the activities of people in their patrol area. In higher crime districts officers may view crime and criminals more frequently in the open and in lower crime districts crime and criminals may be a less visible. (23) As a result of these three factors police may respond to calls differently, possibly because police become disillusioned with the high rate of crime in these communities, prioritizing more serious crimes in higher crime districts leaving residents reporting minor incidents of offending in these communities to express lower levels of confidence in the criminal justice system because they feel their calls are unheard by law enforcement.

Klinger's theory of negotiated order blends well with Tom R. Tyler's view of the significance of perceptions of "procedural justice" that states the main area of public concern regarding the criminal justice system rests on whether the system recognizes citizens' rights, treats people in an equitable manner, and supports individual dignity. (24) From this perspective, the relationship between the public and attitudes towards legal authorities is grounded in how legal authorities treat the public. Tyler argues that Americans, specifically minorities, are sensitive to the levels of respect they perceive when they interact with representatives of the criminal justice system.

Michael Reisig and Roger Parks took neighborhood level research a step further by testing three conceptual models: "experience with police," "quality of life," and "neighborhood context" to explain satisfaction with police. Their study specifically sought to investigate whether these factors could explain the consistent finding that African Americans have lower levels of satisfaction with police...

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