Trust in authority: building better youth-police relationships

Jeffrey DeMarco Middlesex UniversityResearch Fellow in the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies at Middlesex Jeffrey DeMarco discusses some of the difficulties in the relationship between adolescents and police and presents unique findings from his ‘Trust in Authority’ investigation on how this can be improved.

‘Police’. A single word that evokes a strong sense of emotion, vivid imagery and entrenched opinion in everyone. Our men and women in blue are of the most visible civil servants in contemporary society and symbolically representative of the wider and more powerful Criminal Justice System (CJS). As a consequence, the majority of our interactions and encounters with the larger institution occur first and foremost through the police. The nature of these interactions are as varied as the individuals who engage with them and whether that strong sense of emotion is positive or negative – that vivid image is of the neighbourhood ‘Bobby on the beat’ or the nefarious para-militaristic legal enforcer – or that opinion is good or bad is largely dependent upon a range of factors. Gender, age, ethnicity, socio-economic status and previous experience with the police are just a few of the concepts researched that have shown to influence our relationships with law enforcement.

Adrian Scottow (Creative Commons 2.0)

Photo by Adrian Scottow (Creative Commons 2.0)

Difficult relationships

One group stands out more than others when considering ‘difficult’ relationships with the police: adolescents. Criminologists agree that the age-crime curve is a clear fact in the social sciences, where anti-social behaviour and delinquency peaks in the mid to late teenage years. Lifespan theories suggest that not only are teenagers more likely to offend during those formative adolescent years, but that they are also more likely to be victimised. Additionally, research into ‘Fear of Crime’ has shown that adolescent men are least likely to believe they will be victimised, as well as least likely to contact the police if needed and most likely be the victim of crime. Linked with the concept of Hall’s ‘Storm and Stress’, where adolescence is marked by emotional disruption, impulsivity and problematic relationships with authority, it is unsurprising that youth-police relations are tenuous at best. Improving relationships could have far reaching effects, such as reducing victimisation and supporting resilience and desistence, but needs the right theoretical foundation and structural medium in order to succeed.

The Contact Hypothesis

The Contact Hypothesis is a social psychological approach to research on intergroup behaviour, stating that increasing the frequency of encounters, or contact, between groups, will improve their mutual relationship. While holding four specific conditions (norms, intimacy, equality and co-operation) constant between groups differentiated by a number of social demographic factors (e.g. race, gender, socio-economic status), frequent positive interactions have been found to lead to more positive opinions and attitudes towards members of the outgroup. When considering adolescents and the police, the condition of equality cannot be met. Irrespective of the police’s desire to create partnerships in the community and foster crime prevention initiatives with ordinary citizens, the police will always have more power to dictate transactions with the backing of the law. Thus, there are more difficulties in creating a neutral area for discourse and equal but positive contact between young people and the police. Facilitating improved intergroup experiences would be beneficial to the police in working with young people and influencing procedural justice.

Those that viewed the police as fair, understanding and non-judgemental were willing to consider more positive interactions with the police in the future.

Procedural Justice

‘Procedural justice’ is a policing term often used when discussing public-police relations in Western nations, such as here in Britain. In its most basic sense, procedural justice postulates that in carrying out their duties to ‘serve and protect’, the police require the consent of the public that they serve. Therefore, the police (noun) police (verb) by consent. Therefore, they are seen as a legitimate social institution, and as such are able to police by consent with the confidence and trust of the public supporting them. This means that citizens, including youth, are more likely to cooperate and contact the police in times of need. When this procedural justice model of trust and policing breaks down, mayhem ensues. The Summer riots of 2011 could be seen, to an extent, as an example of this. As could the recent issues in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore in the USA in the seeming racially provoked killing of young Afro-Caribbean men. In all three cases, the police did something that was not seen as appropriate, thus losing their legitimacy and the ability to police by consent of the public. When this occurs, the potential of the Contact Hypothesis loses its benefits; it would cause relationships to disintegrate towards further negativity and hostility.

The London ‘Trust in Authority’ investigation

I conducted research looking at adolescents in London and their relationship with the police from 2009 until 2015, with a number of youth interacting with different authority figures, including the police through the National Volunteer Police Cadet Charity. Interestingly enough, those that viewed the police as fair, understanding and non-judgemental were willing to consider more positive interactions with the police in the future. Those that had several negative experiences were rather bull-headed and cynical about any changes – this being due to some fairly serious accusations by the youth themselves. The quality of police contact reported by the participants was found to be a significant contributor in predicting outcomes related to trust in the police and procedural justice.

Regarding the condition of co-operation, many encounters with the police will be involuntary depending on the circumstances. It was found that as long as the interactions were deemed as fair and participants were treated equally by the police, the levels of trust remained high.

In view of the above mentioned findings, the recommendation is made of increased access for adolescents to police/criminal justice discussions; education initiatives in colleges, schools and youth community centres in which police and youth come face-to-face in intimate discussion over each other’s roles and responsibilities in the greater community. Workshops, in which youth can volunteer to see a day in the life of a police officer, are possible alternatives in which a positive police-youth interaction can attempt to be established. These renewed efforts to educate the ‘other’ group in the idiosyncrasies of their outgroup is expected to lead to more amicable, co-operative relationships. Furthermore, improved co-operative interaction could in fact lead towards a decrease in the overrepresentation of youth in the CJS, through increased trust of the authorities (police) and incentive to contact them in times of need (victimisation).

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