Determinants of Citizens’ Perceptions of Police Behavior During Traffic and Pedestrian Stops

Date01 March 2021
Published date01 March 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Determinants of Citizens’
Perceptions of Police
Behavior During Traffic and
Pedestrian Stops
Jason Carmichael
, Jean-Denis David
Ann-Marie Helou
, and Colby Pereira
A large body of research has examined public perceptions of police behavior. Many of these studies
have raised concerns about perceptions of unequal treatment of citizens by law enforcement and the
effects such disparate treatment might have on police–community relations. This scholarship has
largely examined global perceptions of police behavior rather than asking about actual encounters
with officers. Relying on global opinions of police, however, tends to distort perceptions as it tends
to illicit prejudiced and stereotypical views about law enforcement rather than lived experiences.
This article offers a more precise approach to measuring police behavior during encounters with
citizens by assessing views of those who have had recent contact with law enforcement. Specifically,
we examine how perceptions of police behavior during both traffic stops and street stops of
pedestrians might vary according to a citizen’s sociodemographic background and geographic
location and how such factors might influence perceptions of the legitimacy of their encounter with
the officer. Results from our multivariate analyses suggest that youth, African Americans, the poor,
and those living in large urban areas are significantly more likely than others to believe they were
treated outside of the scope of acceptable police conduct. Furthermore, ethnic minorities, the poor,
and those in urban areas are much more likely to perceive the stop as illegitimate. Our results
suggest that much of this might be explained by differences in police behavior according to the size of
the place and across different social groups.
perceptions of police behavior, legitimacy, traffic stops, pedestrian stops, respect
Department of Sociology, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Corresponding Author:
Jason Carmichael, Department of Sociology, 855 Sherbrooke St. West, Leacock Building #713, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Criminal Justice Review
2021, Vol. 46(1) 99-118
ª2020 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016820952523
Over the last several decades, there has been growing concern about the apparent abuse of force and
other forms of misconduct by police officers, particularly against members of racialized minority
groups and other marginalized communities. Intense public pressure has been placed on police
administrators and policy makers to address this issue. Evidence of such pressure abounds. Major
cities across the United States have held public hearings and commissions to try and address the
problem, and numerous civil and criminal lawsuits claiming police misconduct and abuse have been
advanced against police departments and individual officers. Police misconduct has also motivated
the formation of disruptive social movement organizations including Black Lives Matter. Over the
decades, suspected police misconduct toward minorities has also spurred widespread social unrest.
In fact, nearly every major riot in the United States since the 1960s was precipitated by suspected
police abuse of individual(s) belonging to a racialized minority group. This history of social unrest
following police use of force makes it clear that negative perceptions of police behavior are directly
connected to the maintenance of social order and broader social stability. Thus, improving our
understanding of police interactions with citizens is useful not only as an exercise to improve the
quality of police services but also because widespread, negative perceptions of the police can
degrade efforts to maintain social order.
A large body of research has also demonstrated that negative public perceptions about the
police can affect broader views of the police as a legitimate authority (e.g., Tyler, 2001, 2003;
Tyler & Fagan, 2008). But why is the legitimacy of law enforcement important to nurture? Social
scientists from a number of disciplines have argued that the legitimacy of state actors, particularly
the police and other criminal justice officials, is of critical importance for several reasons.
Research has shown that residents who perceive the police as a legitimate authority are more
willing to (1) obey the law, (2) comply with law enforcement requests during an encounter with
police, (3) cooperate with investigations, and (4) report criminal activity. What factors appear to
influence the perceived legitimacy of law enforcement? Scholars have argued that such views are
anchored in the public’s perception of police officers. In particular, legitimacy of officers appears
to be tied to perceptions that police act appropriately, respectfully, and fairly toward all citizens
(for elaboration see Jackson et al., 2013; Murphy et al., 2009; Reisig & Parks, 2000; Ren et al.,
2005; Schuck et al., 2008; Sunshine & Tyler, 2003; Tyler, 2001; Tyler & Huo, 2002; Tyler &
Fagan, 2008; Weitzer & Tuch, 2005).
The importance of respectful and civil treatment by the police during encounters with the public
is better understood if one borrows from the power in discourse literature. Discourse scholarship has
examined the effect of disrespectful behavior on relationships in a variety of contexts including
interactions between individuals within the workplace (e.g., Leape et al., 2012), gender relations
(e.g., LaFrance, 1992; Miller, 1995), relationships between organizations and corporations (Mumby
& Stohl, 1991), and international relations (e .g., Ringmar, 2015). The literature conside rs how
disrespect toward another implies a power hierarchy toward which the disrespect is directed. Spe-
cifically, conferring or withholdin g respect toward another signals one’s position in the power
hierarchy. Mumby and Stohl (1991) strengthen this point by suggesting that discourse is the
“principal medium through which power relations are maintained and reproduced” in modern
society (p. 313). Disrespect is a form of belittlement or humiliating, demeaning, and aggressive
behavior that reinforces the hierarchical power structure wherein the officer is in a dominant position
and the citizen is subordinate. Such an understanding of power in discourse is particularly salient in
the context of police–citizen confrontation given that there are likely few encounters that an indi-
vidual can experience where power in discourse is as consequential.
Thus, the consequences of negative perce ptions of police behavior appear to be sig nificant.
A substantial portion of the literature suggests that perceived police misconduct not only harms
views about law enforcement, but it also degrades citizens’ perceptions of procedural justice and
thereby the legitimacy of legal authority overall (e.g., Mastrofski et al., 2002). Those who question
100 Criminal Justice Review 46(1)

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