How Priming Innocence Influences Public Opinion on Police Misconduct and False Convictions

CJR707809 174..185 Article
Criminal Justice Review
2018, Vol. 43(2) 174-185
How Priming Innocence
ª 2017 Georgia State University
Reprints and permission:
Influences Public Opinion on
DOI: 10.1177/0734016817707809
Police Misconduct and False
Convictions: A Research Note
Kathleen M. Donovan1 and Charles F. Klahm IV2
Issues of innocence have become more salient to the public in recent years, including the problem of
police misconduct. However, citizens also tend to be supportive of the police, perceiving them as
ethical, honest, and trustworthy. Using a survey experiment with a nationally representative sample,
we explore the degree to which public opinion toward police misconduct is influenced by priming
respondents on the issue of innocence. We find that reminding citizens of these issues increases
their willingness to admit police misconduct that contributes to this problem by roughly 7 per-
centage points overall. Moreover, this effect is driven by conservatives and, to a lesser extent,
moderates, presumably because liberals do not need priming. In contrast, the efficacy of the prime
was not affected (i.e., moderated) by the race of the respondent. We place these results in the
context of the current debate regarding police use of force as well as the ideological divide in
rhetoric surrounding the recent string of high-profile police shootings.
public opinion, police misconduct, innocence, ideology
How much do U.S. citizens perceive police misconduct to be a contributing factor in wrongful
convictions? On one hand, surveys show that the public has a great deal of confidence in the police,
placing them below only the military and small businesses among a list of several institutions
(Gallup, 2015). The police tend to be afforded the greatest confidence among specific actors in the
criminal justice system as well (Sherman, 2002; Tyler, 2005). And while a majority of adults believe
that wrongful convictions occur at least some of the time (Unnever & Cullen, 2005; Zalman, Larson,
& Smith, 2011), they also believe that actors in the criminal justice system—including police—are
generally reliable when it comes to the presentation of evidence in trials (Zalman et al., 2011).
1 Department of Political Science and Legal Studies, St. John Fisher College, Rochester, NY, USA
2 Department of Criminal Justice, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI, USA
Corresponding Author:
Kathleen M. Donovan, Department of Political Science and Legal Studies, St. John Fisher College, 3690 East Avenue,
Rochester, NY 14618, USA.

Donovan and Klahm
On the other hand, high-profile instances of police misconduct appear in the national news with
some regularity (Jones, 2015). Studies have shown that these incidents, such as the beating of
Rodney King, lower support for the police (e.g., Lasley, 1994; Tuch & Weitzer, 1997; Weitzer,
2002, although see Chermak, McGarrell, & Gruenewald, 2006). Recently, confidence in police has
declined nationally in the wake of a string of highly publicized instances of misconduct and the use
of force against unarmed citizens (Pew, 2014a). There is also some evidence that general exposure to
media reports of police misconduct, not just to a specific incident, erodes support (Weitzer & Tuch,
2005, although see Miller, Davis, Henderson, Markovic, & Ortiz, 2005).
Moreover, such coverage coincides with increased public attention to wrongful convictions. This
is in part spurred by organizations such as The National Registry of Exonerations (NRE) and The
Innocence Project that consider informing the public to be a principal goal (Zalman et al., 2011).
Empirically, analyses show that news media coverage has given increasing attention to the issue of
wrongful convictions, at least with respect to the death penalty (Baumgartner, DeBoef, & Boydstun,
2008; Fan, Keltner, & Wyatt, 2002). In turn, this focus on exonerations appears to have shaped
public opinion, specifically by lowering support for capital punishment over time (Baumgartner
et al., 2008; Fan et al., 2002).
We suspect that this effect applies in other domains of the criminal justice system as well:
Heightened attention to the issue of innocence affects citizens’ perceptions regarding police mis-
conduct, specifically by increasing the perceived frequency with which such misconduct contributes
to wrongful convictions. Before describing the survey experiment that enables us to test this suspi-
cion, we first outline previous studies of public opinion regarding police misconduct and false
convictions. This brief discussion provides context for two additional hypotheses: the impact of
highlighting innocence on attitudes regarding police misconduct is moderated by racial and political
considerations. After presenting the results, we discuss the implications of our findings as well as
related questions for future research.
Who Perceives Police Misconduct to Be a Problem?
Although global attitudes toward the police are distinct from attitudes regarding police misconduct
(Miller & Davis, 2008), far less scholarly attention has been paid to the latter. One exception to this
comes from Weitzer and Tuch (2004), who sought to understand why racial minorities are more
likely to perceive police behaviors as misconduct than Whites. They demonstrate that the racial gap
is, in large part, a function of racial differences in personal encounters with the police and percep-
tions of neighborhood crime (see also Weitzer, 1999).
This same analysis suggests that the racial gap is also partially explained by reported differences
in exposure to media coverage of police misconduct. This finding is echoed by Dowler and Zawilski
(2007), whose survey shows that viewers of network TV news perceive misconduct as occurring
more frequently than nonviewers of network news. Indeed, perceptions of police misconduct may be
more sensitive to media coverage than attitudes toward the police in general (Miller & Davis, 2008).
Even less is known about perceptions of wrongful convictions or how police behavior may
contribute to this problem. One survey found that roughly 10% believe wrongful convictions occur
less than 1% of the time, while more than two thirds believe they occur in 4% or more of cases
(Zalman et al., 2011). Unnever and Cullen (2005), who focused specifically on the death penalty,
reported that three fourths of respondents believed an innocent person had been executed in the
United States in the last 5 years. We are aware of only one study that uses a nonstudent sample to
examine public opinion with a specific focus on police misconduct: The previously mentioned
survey of Michiganders found that an overwhelming majority of citizens believed the police are
reliable in the presentation of evidence during trials (Zalman et al., 2011).

Criminal Justice Review 43(2)
Although it is unclear to what extent Americans perceive police misconduct to be a problem for
the administration of justice, we do anticipate ideological and racial differences in response to
framing the issue in terms of innocence or not. With respect to the former, political polarization
has affected public opinion across a variety of issues, and the criminal justice system is no exception.
The Washington Post reports that perceptions of racial bias in the criminal justice system have
polarized along ideological lines, from a 13-point gap between self-identified liberals and conser-
vatives in 1988 to a 36-point gap in 2007. Moreover, “partisanship and ideology play a stronger role
in white Americans’ views on [issues of race and justice] than almost all other demographic and
regional factors, according to a statistical analysis looking at the impact of many factors at once”
(Balz & Clement, 2014, para. 18). Indeed, a recent Gallup poll indicates that democrats—but not
republicans or independents—have expressed waning confidence in the police (Jones, 2015).
In a more politically polarized era, it is likely that liberals and conservatives will not only have
different perceptions when it comes to police misconduct but also react differently to the presentation
of information about the issue of innocence. The manner in which political ideology affects percep-
tions regarding innocence and police misconduct is ambiguous, however. One can envision that
political conservatives, owing to their affection for the police, would be resistant to information about
wrongful convictions and unmoved—or even polarize—in their perceptions. Yet it is equally plausible
that liberals, due to their already negative orientations toward the police and/or previous incorporation
of this information into their attitudes (i.e., they are already more aware of police misconduct and
wrongful convictions), are unmoved by the prime. In either case, we would be surprised to see liberals
and conservatives responding in parallel to the framing of police misconduct.
Similarly, we expect race to moderate the degree to which highlighting the issue of innocence
affects attitudes regarding police misconduct. Racial divides are common in public opinion regard-
ing crime and justice issues, but there is also evidence that Blacks and Whites respond differently to
information about these issues. For instance, Weitzer and Tuch (2005) found that exposure to media
reports of misconduct decreased satisfaction with the police, but only among Black respondents.
Similarly, an analysis of how media coverage of the...

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