Policing Diversity: Determinants of White, Black, and Hispanic Attitudes toward Police

Policing Diversity: Determinants of White, Black, and Hispanic Attitudes toward Police

Author: Yung-Lien Lai
Publisher: El Paso, TX: LFB Scholarly Publishing, 2013. 174p.
Reviewer: Ronald Burns | January 2015

Police practices have historically generated controversy. The powers granted to police to enforce social control, and the general nature of police work, encourage claims that the police are sometimes too invasive, coercive, and aggressive, among other concerns. Citizen interpretations of police practices are often subjective in nature — for instance, what may appear to be excessive use of force to some observers may appear to be an appropriate level of force to others. Many of the positive aspects of police work, particularly as they relate to protecting society and providing invaluable services, often go unrecognized by much of the public, as such endeavors are typically viewed as being expected of police officers. In addition to the need to perform the many responsibilities with which they are tasked, police officers, as public servants, must ensure that they recognize and respect citizen attitudes toward the police. The many positive contributions of police work should not be overshadowed by the relatively few unethical and/or illegal police practices that attract much media and societal attention. This attention shapes public perception of the police, which has become increasingly important with the relatively recent incorporation of community policing and police practices in general.

Controversial police practices have contributed to and sparked numerous riots, and have been the target of various presidential commissions designed to improve police practices and ensure that the public can trust the police. The 1960s and 1970s were particularly challenging decades with regard to policing, as officers assumed a notably strong enforcement-oriented approach to the job. In doing so, the police demonstrated a limited concern for public approval. The civil unrest and efforts to improve police practices resulted in many departments shifting toward a community-oriented approach that stresses public approval of the police, with the goal of more effectively involving the public in crime prevention and crime fighting practices in general. Yung-Lien Lai’s 2013 book, Policing Diversity: Determinants of White, Black, and Hispanic Attitudes toward Police, provides a particularly thoughtful and innovative evaluation of the extent to which racial and ethnic groups approve of the police, with consideration of historical and current factors that notably affect public attitudes. Among many other contributions, the book provides direction for police departments to better gauge the approval and level of support from various important groups in society, and provides insightful research-based contributions in the area.

Policing Diversity is part of the Recent Scholarship series offered by LFB Scholarly Publishing. As such, it is essentially an elaborate account of an important research study. As noted by the author, the main purpose of the research was to “examine hypotheses pertaining to the multidimensional construct of public attitudes toward the police, as well as to document explanatory factors related to public attitudes toward the police” (pp. 135-136). The book is well-organized, as Lai provides a very thorough and appropriate foundation (as found in Chapters I-IV) for the original empirical study discussed in the latter chapters (Chapters V-VII). The first part of the book addresses the research literature regarding public attitudes toward the police since the 1960s, the methods historically used to measure attitudes toward the police, and various theoretical models of research on public attitudes toward the police, with a primary focus on the main theoretical models examined in the study: demographics, accountability, and police-citizen interaction. Lai appropriately discusses racial and ethnic differences throughout the chapters, thus helping set the stage for the remaining chapters, which primarily focus on the empirical aspects of the study.

Chapters V-VII address the methodology (involving a random telephone survey of 1,314 respondents residing in Houston), the findings of the research, and a discussion of the findings. A conclusion section highlights the major findings of the research, and includes the limitations of the study. The information in these latter chapters, particularly in relation to the findings, can be difficult to follow if one is not familiar with the statistical procedures used in the research; however, Lai effectively provides numerous tables and figures that display the data and findings, and generally discusses the material in a reader-friendly manner. Various tables and figures are used effectively throughout the book.

Among the many ways Lai advances the study of this area is through providing a two-dimensional construct of attitudes toward police: specifically, general and specific attitudes. Historically, research in the area focused on only one construct. Within this context, Lai assesses three theoretical models based on demographics, accountability, and police-citizen interaction. The demographics include race, age, gender, and education. The accountability model includes violent crime incident, victimization, ratings of the police, and collective efficacy. The police-citizen interaction model focuses on the nature of police-citizen encounters, including whether citizens or the police initiated contact, neighborhood interaction, and police-citizen co-production. Findings both confirmed and contradicted results from related studies, and generated several new discoveries in light of the author’s more sophisticated research design.

The thorough examination of the importance of public attitudes toward the police, the extensive literature review of related studies in the area, and the empirical nature of Policing Diversity result in a book suitable for various college and university courses. The book is likely most suitable for upper-level or graduate-level policing courses which seek to emphasize the importance of public attitudes toward the police; for instance, it provides an extensive literature review of the major findings in the area and cutting-edge empirical findings. The book would also be suitable in a research methods course because of its coverage of a well-designed research project. Aside from its potential use in the classroom, Lai’s work is notably important for any scholars interested in studying public attitudes toward the police. The findings and comprehensive research literature would also assist police administrators interested in better understanding public perceptions of the police in our increasingly diverse society.

A potential limitation of the work is its likely lack of appeal to a general audience; the advanced statistical measures, while helpful for students and scholars, may be unappealing to a general audience which would presumably prefer a greater level of contextualization and elaboration of the data and findings. Another limitation of the work concerns the concluding section. In particular, the book ends with a discussion of the limitations of the research. This approach is certainly suitable for publication in professional journals, but it could be argued that readers would likely prefer it to conclude with a more positive tone. It should be said that these limitations do not significantly detract from the overall value of the work.

Society is becoming increasingly diverse — and the need to better understand and respond to diversity is particularly important in policing. The police perform a very difficult job, and as public servants must balance their need to enforce the law, protect citizens and society in general, and maintain public approval. Police agencies have faced these challenges since the beginning of policing, for instance as the introduction of formal policing was met with great apprehension in many societies. These concerns have crossed racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, gender, and related lines. Policing Diversity helps address these and similar issues as an insightful and educational book that provides a summary of existing work pertaining to public attitudes toward the police, a helpful account of the importance of public attitudes toward the police, directions for continued research in the area, and several new and important findings. These and other contributions certainly advance our understanding, and should be recognized by police agencies, scholars, and all others with an interest in understanding public attitudes toward the police.

Ronald Burns – Professor of Criminal Justice, Texas Christian University

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