Policing and Public Perception

Banked goodwill between cops and citizens is easily poisoned by negative perceptions. We owe it to each other to do everything in our power to hold ourselves accountable for creating our share of positive perceptions.

What I took away from his piece was a focus on how people – in this case, cops and citizens – perceive each other’s behavior, motives, and beliefs as they respond to one another, and how those specific perceptions influence further interactions.  

How we are perceived by the public we police is vital to the success of our mission as law enforcers, as it will ultimately depend on their continued support and cooperation.  Ideally, law enforcement acts in accordance with, and only upon the authority granted by, the very public we police.  In short, you have the power of arrest granted you by a collective of individuals, a relatively small number of whom you will exercise that power on, in furtherance of the goals and wishes of the larger group.  As long as the larger collective perceives we are acting as their agents, in accordance with their wishes, we have community backing of our use of authority.

But should that perception shift to where the larger public feels the police are acting on them, rather than accordance with them, or that there is any kind of bias in application of police power, or that law enforcement’s agenda has diverged with that of the community, then watch out!  Rather than a supportive public, anticipate anger and distrust.  Instead of cooperation, expect contrariness or defiance.  Instead of trust, you’ll receive suspicion.  And less and less you’ll be seen as an individual, putting your life on the line for your fellow citizens, but rather as a stereotype taking on all the worst characteristics perceived by a distrusting public.

You will never please everyone and, as cops, you learn pretty quickly that the most innocent word, innocuous act, or benign glance can and will be misconstrued by someone inclined to see the worst in you merely because of the badge.  Those aren’t the folks we need to spend any time worrying about.  But we should all be acutely aware of how we are perceived by the great majority of citizens inclined to view us favorably, or at least neutrally, and from whose continued support our authority is derived.  We should make every effort to always maintain professionalism, identify and banish any lingering biases we may hold, and vow to treat every person we encounter, whether they wear a chief’s uniform, a $5000 suit, or the rags of a panhandler, with equal respect and dignity until it is glaringly obvious a different approach is called for.

We must never lose sight of how quickly – or permanently - perceptions can change in response to our words and actions.   And we must know their lasting impact on how someone views our profession, whether in a positive or negative light and how important public perception is to the support we receive.

Illustration and self-evaluation

I suggest you read Benson’s article, and consider these questions: 

  • Based on the facts, as described or inferred in his op-ed piece, what is your perception of Michelle Martinez?  
  • Based on the author’s assertions and apparent inference drawn from his column, what is your perception of Professor Benson? 
  • Do you instinctively side with the officer, or at least extend him much greater benefit of doubt than did Martinez and Benson?  Or do you assume that “Where’s there’s smoke, there must be fire?”

I have no idea whether the Champaign officer is being unfairly maligned, or if he went too far in his words, actions, or enforcement.  I hope he is innocent of any wrongdoing – that Ms Martinez’s perception was wrong - and will be vindicated. 

As for Martinez, I checked and it turns out she is an exceptional and accomplished student, and probably has a very bright future.  She is also the daughter of a retired cop.

Professor Benson is a multifaceted individual with an impressive and lengthy background as an accomplished writer and teacher.  

Any perception I formed about either of them was based on limited information from a single article focusing on an isolated incident.  I checked my impulse to draw broad conclusions about Martinez, Benson, or the officer because, well, I want to be fair and also would never want anyone to draw equally broad conclusions about me based on an equally narrow window on my life. 

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