What a difference attitude makes:
Does a community-policing orientation really make a difference in the way a police agency goes about its business? At the very least, according to a recent study, police officers with positive attitudes about their department’s community policing program appear to be much less likely to arrest suspects they encounter than those with more traditional views about policing.
A research team funded by the National Institute of Justice wanted “to see what police officers do when they’re operating in a community policing environment,” particularly in terms of arrest, noted Stephen D. Mastrofski, a professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University who directed the study.
Researchers observed encounters involving 120 officers and 1,630 citizens in Richmond, Va., during 1992, the third year of the Police Department’s five-year plan to instill community policing. The officers ranged from those who were positive about the change, those who had mixed attitudes about it and those who were negative about the philosophical shift.
Criminal activity was suspected in encounters between 101 of the officers and 451 of the citizens.
Researchers found that “the more positive the officers were about community policing, the lower the probability they would make an arrest in a given instance,” Mastrofski said. Officers with negative attitudes, whom Mastrofski termed the “traditional officers,” were six times as likely to make an arrest than those who were upbeat about community policing.
The numbers generated by the study added credence to the finding, Mastrofski added. “Those who were generally positive about community policing arrested about 5 percent of the suspects they encountered, whereas those who were negative, very negative or mixed arrested 17 percent of the suspects,” he said.
The difference held up consistently even when tested against control factors such as characteristics of the victims and suspects, including race, socioeconomic variables and the degree of resistance shown by suspects toward officer authority.
Researchers did find , however, that females were less likely than males to be arrested, while juveniles were more likely than adults to be taken into custody. Active resistance to the officer raised the probability of arrest fivefold, while each change in the degree of a suspect’s drunkenness more than doubled the odds of arrest.
Overall, police made arrests based on legal considerations 70 percent of the time, with 58 percent based on strength of the evidence. “We found that held when comparing the traditional officers and the positive officers,” Mastrofski noted. “Even though community policing officers have a lower probability of making an arrest, the factors that most predict whether the police will make an arrest are legal factors.”
Another area of the study that looked at how citizens complied with police demands or orders found that they did so 78 percent of the time, while they other 22 percent of the time they either did not follow commands or ignored them. “Again, we found a strong difference between officers who were pro-community policing and those who were traditional. Officers who were pro-community policing had a much higher probability of citizens doing what they told them to do than did those officers who were traditional,” Mastrofski noted.
The study will help deflate criticisms that community policing at least in Richmond “unleashes the police…to become less bound by the law,” Mastrofski said. “That did not appear to be the case here. It should be reassuring, at least in the case of Richmond.”
Nor did the study support criticisms that community policing is soft on criminal suspects, he added. “Just because in a given case the probability of arrest is lower doesn’t mean that these officers necessarily make fewer arrests overall. The pro-community policing officers were much more likely to engage and stop suspects on the street, to be a little more active. While they had a lower batting average, they got to bat a lot more.”
Mastrofski’s study builds on earlier ground-breaking research conducted in 1977 by Albert Reiss, which analyzed police services and activity. The research was updated to be relevant to community policing, using new computer software to “jazz it up a bit.”
The research team conducted ride-alongs with Richmond officers for entire shifts, typically 10 hours long, all the while observing and taking notes for subsequent statistical analysis.
Follow-ups to the Richmond study are now underway in two other cities, Mastrofski noted. Funded by a Justice Department grant of more than $1.9 million the second largest single grant in one round of allocations last year under the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act Mastrofski and his research team recently completed data collection in Indianapolis and plan to focus on St. Petersburg, Fla., next summer.