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Incidents of Police Misconduct and Public Opinion

NCJ Number
Journal of Criminal Justice Volume: 30 Issue: 5 Dated: September/October 2002 Pages: 397-408
Ronald Weitzer
Date Published
September 2002
12 pages
This article examines the impact of several celebrated incidents of perceived police misconduct in Los Angeles and New York City.
Polls conducted by the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times and taken before and after major incidents of apparent police misconduct in each city are examined. The analysis focused on percentage responses to questionnaire items, data sufficient to track overall trends, and racial differences in citizens’ attitudes. The findings indicate that celebrated incidents of police misconduct may color citizens’ attitudes toward the police. Public attitudes appear to be negatively influenced by well-publicized brutality and corruption events. At almost every point in the time series, incidents were followed by increasing unfavorable ratings of the New York and Los Angeles police departments. There was interracial variation in the magnitude of attitudinal change, most striking for African-Americans. This was consistent with the literature, which found disapproval of the police to be more common among African-Americans than among whites, with Hispanics occupying an intermediate position. This impact of controversial policing incidents on public confidence in a police department might last for a considerable period of time. There still might be some long-term, diffuse damage to public confidence even if attitudes returned to pre-incident levels. The most disturbing incidents can become deeply rooted in the beliefs of minority communities, resulting in less cooperation with police and a predisposition to accept allegations of police misconduct. This is not to imply that heavily publicized incidents of police misconduct were the sole predictor of post-incident changes in public opinion of the police. The often-dramatic increases in unfavorable attitudes in the wake of these events suggest that they did have a pronounced effect on public opinion. 6 figures, 5 notes, 35 references, appendix