Depending on who you ask, police officers might have a great reputation or be perceived as the villains in society. The truth is, police officers are not the bad guys and it’s time for this side of public opinion to shift.
A shift in perception is more than possible with the help of the National Police Association (NPA) – an organization committed to countering anti-police rhetoric and supporting law enforcement officers and citizens in creating strong communities.
While they work hard to educate the public through outreach campaigns, other groups are still trying to figure out what creates this negative perception in the first place. After all, if we can find the cause, groups like the NPA can implement direct solutions.
The answer isn’t so simple, however, as there seem to be a variety of influences that nobody can exactly quantify in terms of their level of impact. Here are just a few possibilities.
- Personal experience
People who have a negative personal experience with law enforcement officers tend to form negative views on police in general. Then, they tell their family and friends about their experiences, which influences those people to form negative opinions. The more negative stories people hear, the more likely they are to form a negative viewpoint on cops.
This is amplified when someone shares a video recording online of what they perceive to be a negative police encounter. Many times the situation is escalated by the cop, but too often, the citizen is clearly looking for a fight. Although the audience in this case consists of strangers online, it still impacts them as if it were a friend telling them about their encounter.
Since it’s been discovered that younger Americans have a more negative perception of police compared to older Americans, it seems like maturity might play a role. For instance, teenagers are more likely to view police as a threat to their need for independence. They can’t smoke, drink, or wander around past curfew without consequences and that includes being ticketed or picked up by police.
Many teenagers use anti-police rhetoric while speaking with each other, often just to be cool. “[Expletive] the cops” is a common phrase you’ll hear most teens recite, and sometimes it’s because many of them have already been swept up into the system. They’ve had a lawyer, they’ve been in a courtroom, they’ve worn an ankle monitor, they’ve been on house arrest. Some have even spent time in juvenile hall. A lot of kids aren’t going to take responsibility for their actions, and instead, will blame the police for their problems.
When teens grow up constantly hearing about how bad cops are, they don’t have the maturity to discern that their friends may have been in the wrong. It’s not cool to take the side of the police. They’ll adopt the same view and repeat the same rhetoric like a mantra, and the result will be an anti-police stance.
- The news media
You don’t have to watch any news source for long before you’ll start seeing some kind of officer wrongdoing being publicized. The media does have a bias, and aims to publish stories that will get the most views, which happen to be emotionally-charged stories. Negative emotion overpowers positive, so the negative stories usually win the airtime.
In this study, it was speculated that when the media airs examples of police corruption and misconduct, it has a disproportionate effect on public opinion. According to psychology, this sounds accurate because human beings have a negativity bias and it takes about 4 positive experiences to counteract the impact of one negative experience.
Based on this information, it’s not hard to see how a constant stream of negative police stories can shape the opinions of entire groups of people. When was the last time the media aired a positive story? They do, from time to time, but most people probably don’t pay attention or remember any of them. Positive stories don’t stick as well as negative stories.
Just like news media, television shows seem to have a big impact on how citizens perceive police. For instance, the 1980s T.V. show ‘COPS’ was highly influential because the police were always glorified and suspects were always criminalized. The show also gave the impression that guilt was obvious, thereby giving the impression that the courts were unnecessary. The show also was statistically skewed toward depicting people of color as criminals, showing them at their worst.
What will it take to shift the perception fairly?
These are some ways negative perceptions are created, but what will it take to create a fair perception? Sure, some cops aren’t fit to carry a badge, but that’s not the whole story. Although nobody seems to know exactly what to do, it’s time to shift the perception of police in a more accurate manner. Perhaps the best place to start is simply by highlighting more of the good instead of the bad.