Why has confidence fallen in recent years and what can be done?
Public trust and confidence in the police is essential for law enforcement to maintain its authority and maintain public order. Without trust, citizens are less likely to report crimes to the police or cooperate with investigations. Distrust of the police can lead to social unrest and heightened feelings of injustice. Police forces trusted by their communities can carry out their duties more effectively, which in turn helps foster positive relationships between the police and the communities they serve. Understanding the psychological factors that influence the level of trust and confidence in the police is essential to effective policing.
Recent trends in trust and confidence in the police
High-profile incidents of police misconduct can undermine public trust. In recent years, there has been no shortage of examples of police violence and misconduct in the United States. The police killing of George Floyd sparked a global reaction that led to extensive discussions about existing racial inequality and the police’s disproportionate use of force against black people. . The Global Law and Order Report found that the biggest recent decline in public attitudes toward the police was in the United States, where trust fell from 82 percent in 2020 to 74 percent in 2022 following several high-profile police shootings.
Trust and confidence in the police has also fallen in the UK. According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, the number of adults who reported having overall confidence in their local police force fell from 78 per cent in 2017/18 to 69 per cent in 2021/2022. Earlier this year, UK research group More in Common reported that 68 per cent of British adults felt that the police had given up on investigating crimes such as theft and burglary, and 41 per cent believed that the police are more interested in being ‘woke’ than solving crimes.
The Global Trustworthiness Index compares global perceptions of trust in the police across 26 countries. Between 2021 and 2022, levels of trust in the police fell from 53 percent to 41 percent in the United States and fell from 48 percent to 44 percent in the United Kingdom. But the level of trust in both countries was still higher than the global average (37 percent). ). In 2022, trust in the police was highest in the Netherlands (58 percent) and Denmark (58 percent) and lowest in Mexico (13 percent) and South Africa (16 percent). Given the importance of public trust in the police in the United States and the United Kingdom, it is important to evaluate the psychological and practical factors that shape the level of trust in order to prevent further decline.
The UK Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) recently published a POST note outlining some of the key facilitators of trust in the police. These include: ensuring procedurally fair and just interactions between the public and the police; community policing, where the police support and work with local communities to solve local problems; and addressing concerns about police culture.
The quality of interactions between police officers and members of the public can affect the level of trust and confidence in the police. Studies have shown that people who feel they are treated fairly and respectfully by the police are more likely to trust the police. The Principles of Procedural Justice in Policing emphasize four key features to encourage procedurally “fair” encounters between police and members of the public. These include:
- Voice: empowers citizens to tell their side of the story;
- Respect: treat people fairly and with dignity;
- Neutrality: making impartial and logical decisions; and
- Credibility: shows that the police’s motives are in line with those of the community.
Procedurally “just” interactions between police officers and citizens can help build public trust and confidence in the police.
Another approach to promoting trust in the police is community policing. Community policing involves partnering with local communities to identify and solve local problems. This approach emphasizes building relationships between police and citizens rather than simply enforcing the law. Research has shown that community policing can increase trust in the police and reduce crime rates. Community policing, if done properly, can lead to a psychological sense of moral alignment between the public and the police and the belief that community values are respected and protected by the police. This can also help to build bridges between the police and minority groups and prioritize dialogue and cooperation with groups that may have historical reasons for not trusting the police.
Finally, improving police culture has been advanced as a necessary action to address declines in trust and confidence. In the United States, the 2015 President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing noted that while procedural justice and community policing consistently show promise in improving trust in the police, their success is ultimately determined by police culture. The task force recommended the need for a shift from a “warrior” to a “guardian” culture of policing. A “warrior” culture views policing as being locked in battle and fighting a dangerous enemy. A “guardian” mindset emphasizes the importance of protecting and supporting citizens through community relationships.
Research evidence has found that police officers adopt different role orientations in relation to their policing duties and that warrior and guardian mindsets are distinct but related constructs. This has implications for training and recruitment, such as the potential benefit of prioritizing recruits who indicate a preference for service to the community (ie “guardians”) to promote public trust and confidence. That being said, we cannot ignore the dangerous and disturbing conditions that police officers must face on a daily basis. It may be naïve to assume that the principles of procedural justice and community policing should be prioritized by police departments when dealing with violent offenders, organized crime, and domestic terrorism threats. In a world filled with ever-changing threats to personal safety, the police are the ones we call to keep us safe. The psychological impact that increased exposure to risk and danger can have on individual officers can make it difficult to determine what is reasonable to expect from police culture and behaviour.
Confidence and trust in the police is essential to ensure that they are able to maintain public order. Encouraging procedural justice, community policing and improvements to police culture can all play a role in promoting trust and confidence in the police. Existing racial tensions between communities and the police and concerns about the police’s handling of violence against citizens pose significant challenges to fostering public trust. Recognizing the importance of trust, building positive police-community relationships, and addressing police failures are all necessary for the police to maintain the legitimacy of their authority.