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Policing and Public Perception

As titles of newspaper opinion columns go, Bias by Cop Inspires Her to Seek Change (by Associate Professor Christopher D Benson, University of Illinois) is definitely an attention-grabber!  It grabbed mine.  I considered just setting the paper down, taking a deep breath, heading back out to my squad, and going about my business without churning up any of the nausea-inducing stomach acid that goes hand-in-hand with these kinds of police-critical op-ed pieces.

But, of course, I had to read it.   

I actually read it about four times, trying hard to understand just how the author, or his protagonist on whose behalf he was writing, came to see bias in the first place.  I won’t rehash the entire column here, or go into all the details (read the column, linked below), but here is a brief summary: 

  • Michelle Martinez, a 21 year-old Latina woman and senior at the University of Illinois in Champaign, is a very intelligent and highly accomplished student.  So good, in fact, she was selected as a prestigious Ronald E McNair Scholar.  That means she is a very serious student who stands above even other very serious students, at a school where being at least a somewhat serious student is demanded of pretty much everyone. 
  • Ms Martinez spent much of her summer working on a research project, but one evening agreed to forego the books in order go with friends to “an outdoor public space” that was a “popular nighttime spot for students of color to congregate.”
  • At some point in evening, a Champaign Police officer came into contact with Michelle and her group of friends, they were directed to move along from their gathering place, words were exchanged (exactly what words, we’re not sure because the author does not tell us) between Ms Martinez and the officer, and she found herself the unhappy recipient of a citation, apparently for jaywalking.
  • The officer with whom she had words, and who wrote her the citation, was white (or, for the sake of descriptive accuracy, a non-Hispanic Caucasian) and, therefore, she and her friends were allegedly targeted because they were “of color.”  According to the author of the article, since the place the students were congregated was popular with “students of color” then “that popularity apparently made it a target of Champaign Police, who have come to see these kinds of groups, these kinds of gatherings, as potential threats.”


Interestingly, no evidence of any racial or ethnic bias was presented, details of the encounter were notably scarce and references to them ambiguous, and a lot of faith was placed in the perception of a young adult who, despite her obvious intelligence and academic gifts, is still a young adult whose perceptions may have been informed by her own biases, assumptions, expectations, and input of faulty information.  Maybe the Champaign officer was out of line.  Maybe he harbored prejudiced beliefs.  Maybe his words and actions that night lent credence to Ms Martinez’s feelings she was the victim of bias as a Latina.  If there is evidence supporting her feelings, and Professor Benson’s premise, I’d like to know what it is.  Otherwise, if he is relying solely on Ms Martinez’s subjective – and therefore quite possibly flawed – perception of the reality of the encounter, I think the Champaign Police Department in general, and the officer in particular, is owed an apology. 

The power (and perils) of perception

Okay, so I read the column, my stomach started churning, and next thing you know I’m firing off an email to Professor Benson.  To his credit, he responded politely and, while I still maintain the style and substance of his column failed to support his intent (to examine “the effects of these types of encounters” on perceptions, the community and community relations, etc between the police and public) or present his argument coherently, I do appreciate what he was trying to do even as I disapprove of how he went about it. 

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. 

Unfortunately, too many people are perfectly happy with their hastily formed perceptions.  Far too many people put blind faith in the reported perceptions of their friends and family, without bothering to consider alternatives.  And far too many people draw broad conclusions from their perceptions to the detriment of meticulously honest and fair cops.  We must never forget this.

So, ask yourself these simple self-evaluation questions:

  • Do the words I use represent me, my colleagues, and my profession in an honorable light?
  • Do my actions reflect the professionalism and honesty required of someone in my role?
  • Do those words and actions, viewed by a reasonable and clear-headed citizen, favor the formation of positive perceptions of me, my colleagues, and my profession? 
  • Am I constantly aware of how perceptions can help, or hurt, our mission?


Banked goodwill between cops and citizens can be 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.


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About The Authors:

Althea Olson, LCSW has been in private practice in the Chicago suburbs since 1996. She has a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University providing individual, couple, & group therapy to adolescents, adults, and geriatrics. Althea is also trained in Critical Incident Stress Management & is a certified divorce mediator.

Mike Wasilewski, MSW has been with a large suburban Chicago department since 1996. He holds a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University and has served on his department’s Crisis Intervention & Domestic Violence teams. Mike is an adjunct instructor at Northwestern College.

Mike & Althea have been married since 1994 and have been featured columnists for Officer.Com since 2007. Their articles are extremely popular and they now provide the same training and information in person throughout the United States. This dynamic team was recently featured at the at the 2010 & 2011 ILEETA Conference & Exposition.

Out of their success has come the formation of More Than A Cop where the focus is providing consultation and trainings on Survival Skills Beyond The Street.