By Jonathan Lee
Policing in the 21st century features two distinct approaches.
On one hand, police endeavor to get closer to the residents they serve. This philosophy is known as community policing, and it highlights a friendly and approachable officer whom residents can get to know by his or her first name. It is a significant departure from the policing philosophy of the bulk of the late 20th century. Then, officers were deemed law enforcers, and policing was synonymous with a war against crime. Community policing, by contrast, promotes partnership and builds a healthy community in order to eliminate the factors that facilitate crime. Police partner with residents to actively address relatively minor issues that could otherwise attract more criminals.
On the other hand, the unfortunate reality of increasing gang activity and drug cartels has driven the need for special units and task forces, which feature high-caliber rifles and military-grade tactical gear.
Some scholars are concerned about the side effects of this paramilitarization of police, namely that the warrior mentality may overwhelm the minds of officers on the streets. Others, however, argue that proper monitoring and review of police operations can minimize the excessive use of force. After all, police in a democratic society cannot live without public support as well as approval.
The success of both community policing and get-tough-on-crime approaches can be gauged by a few measures.
The most readily available indicator would be crime statistics - specifically those crimes known to police. For example, national crime statistics show a decline in crime throughout Pennsylvania since 2011. Specifically, Philadelphia witnessed a decrease in both interpersonal and property offenses.
A completely different type of information is a public poll. Researchers may survey the community about criminal involvement, victimization, fear of crime, and confidence in the police. Generally, self-reports through surveys tend to present more accurate information than official statistics.
The problem with the official crime statistics is the variables that affect the numbers. For an incident to be registered as a case in an official crime report, it must first be reported to the authorities by the victim or others. But what determines the public tendency to report crime, among many other things, is public confidence in the police.
If the public has low confidence in the police, it's not likely to report incidents. Hypothetically, a community with low confidence in the police may record lower crime rates in official reports than a community with the same amount of crime but high confidence in the police. In fact, the issue of public confidence in the police casts a long shadow. Public support sets the beginning (e.g., initial reporting) and the end (e.g., tips for investigation) of a case.
Without public confidence, police are unable to do their jobs - citizens are less likely to report crimes to police, assist as witnesses to crime, cooperate with general enforcement, and more. For these reasons, policing researchers pay as much attention to public attitudes toward police as to the official crime statistics.
Accordingly, findings from a recent poll conducted by the Penn State Harrisburg Criminal Justice Program are a critical barometer of general police performance in the commonwealth.
A random sample of 600 residents across the state was surveyed in October. Overall, the results are supportive of the police.
Most Pennsylvanians have at least some confidence in the police to protect them from violent crime (80.1 percent) and to solve crime (86.6 percent). A majority (67.7 percent) trust the police. However, a regional breakdown shows a clearer picture.
In looking at Cumberland, Dauphin, York, and Lancaster Counties as well as Philadelphia, Dauphin and Philly residents have slightly lower confidence than their counterparts in Lancaster and York. The contrast is stark between Philadelphia and Cumberland County residents: Philadelphia residents have substantially lower confidence - 22 percent, using a zero-to-five scale - in the police than those in Cumberland County.
It resonates with another set of findings. While there is no substantial difference across those counties, Philadelphia residents scored the lowest in their willingness to cooperate with the police even when they disagree. Cumberland County residents were slightly more supportive than others in this context. Last, when asked if they are willing to report anything suspicious to the police, residents of York and Cumberland Counties scored substantially higher than those in Dauphin County and Philadelphia.
So we found disparities in public confidence in the police and willingness to report crimes to the police. Does this mean we have to ignore crime statistics in the counties with low public confidence? It would be premature, if not preposterous, to do so. That's because findings like these need to be validated by scientific research over time. After all, healthy collaboration, as well as checks and balances among residents, police, and academics, would improve the general mood in our collective fight against crime in Pennsylvania.