Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.
Author: Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

To misquote Mark Twain, it is fair to say that the rumors of the death of trust for law enforcement have been greatly exaggerated.

A recently released Gallup poll shows the Supreme Court, the medical system and Congress lagging behind the police as the most trusted institution in America. Only the military and small businesses are trusted more, with law enforcement ranking third in the poll with 85 percent of respondents saying they personally have a great deal, quite a lot, or some trust in the police. More than church, more than schools, much more than the criminal justice system as a whole, and head and shoulders above reporters and members of congress.

The survey results have tremendous implications for police officers and their agencies.

The pendulum swings

As a person with a significant history in my rear-view mirror, I fully expected that law enforcement would return to days of widespread respect. I observed the return of Vietnam veterans to derision and spite and now see the honor and respect for those in military service (ranked #1 in Gallup’s poll). Similarly, the riotous scenes of the 1960s and ’70s featuring billy clubs and firehoses faded as police professionalism improved, and fear of crime increased in the 1980s and ’90s.

Social trends tend to develop well before they are charted and reported on. This means that trust in police officers is likely on the upswing and has been present and growing since the recent crisis years post-Ferguson.

Riding the wave

Police leaders in most communities can be confident that a majority of the residents they serve are supportive. This should give more confidence to police spokespersons to validate that confidence when making statements. Affirming that the community has pride in its police department and that maintaining the high level of trust is a priority can be embedded in interviews and public statements. Taking a positive position and using affirming language should be part of the law enforcement narrative.

All politics is local

It is interesting to see that the criminal justice system ranks 10th on the Gallup list. It appears that the public is willing to separate the failings of the system as a whole from the actions of individual police officers and agencies. Police spokespersons may want to be careful to distinguish the policing function from the rest of the system and let those associated entities make their own case for public confidence.

Criminologists have long noted that citizens who are concerned about crime are more likely to fear adjoining cities and neighborhoods more than their own. Apparently, we are happy to live with a certain denial of highly personal risk while believing in a more global risk “out there” somewhere. In applying this social phenomenon to our local police and sheriff’s departments, there is no need for local agencies to succumb to more global perceptions of policing when local citizens will express support and appreciation for their own. I’ll never forget riding with St. Louis County Police officers while covering the Ferguson riots of August 2014. An elderly African-American woman flagged over our patrol car, leaned into the window and said, “I want you to know how happy I am that you are here.” The loudest voices are not always the truest voices.

The challenge to the courts and the press

As pointed out in a previous article, the media can and should be held accountable for professional missteps. With television news ranked 14th and newspapers ranked 12th on Gallup’s trust list, the public is likely to be willing to listen for gaps in factual and appropriate news coverage when held accountable.

Similarly, with other criminal justice system components struggling with credibility, including recent attention on prisons, the heat of the spotlight might be focused away from policing or at least divided with other controversial parts of the system.

Keeping momentum

Newsworthy stories about the success of policing are a product of closer scrutiny of officers and agencies. The discovery of many positives, and maybe even the ubiquitous videos of cops dancing, playing hoops and even lip-syncing, may have caught up with citizens’ common sense in accepting the competency of the vast majority of police officers. The challenge is keeping that positivity moving forward.

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