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Race, Trust and Police Legitimacy

Date Published
January 9, 2013

Research consistently shows that members of racial and ethnic minority groups are more likely than whites to view law enforcement with suspicion and distrust. Such individuals frequently report that the police disproportionately single them out because of their race or ethnicity.

The public's perceptions about the lawfulness and legitimacy of law enforcement are an important criterion for judging policing in a democratic society. Lawfulness means that police comply with constitutional, statutory and professional norms. Legitimacy is linked to the public's belief about the police and its willingness to recognize police authority.

The perception by members of racial and ethnic minority groups that the police lack lawfulness and legitimacy, based largely on their interactions with the police, can lead to distrust of the police. Distrust of police has serious consequences. It undermines the legitimacy of law enforcement, and without legitimacy police lose their ability and authority to function effectively.

Many law enforcement agencies have allowed researchers to study efforts to improve the lawfulness and legitimacy of their policing activities. They do so because they want to raise the level of trust and confidence of the people they serve while controlling crime effectively.

Although data show that whites hold the police in higher regard than do racial and ethnic minority groups, race has not been found to directly influence how people form opinions about law enforcement. In fact, when researchers controlled for factors such as the level of neighborhood crime, the reported quality of police-citizen encounters, and other demographic variables such as age, income and education, the effects of race disappeared entirely or were substantially reduced. Researchers concluded that race affects satisfaction with the police indirectly and in conjunction with other factors, including the level of crime within one's neighborhood. [1]

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Date Published: January 9, 2013