Improving Youths’ Attitudes About the Police: Results From an Experimental Design

AuthorTina L. Freiburger
Date01 December 2019
Publication Date01 December 2019
Improving Youths’ Attitudes
About the Police: Results
From an Experimental Design
Tina L. Freiburger
This study examined the effectiveness of Students Talking it Over with Police (STOP) to improve
youths’ perceptions of the police, willingness to cooperate with police, and perceptions of pro-
cedural justice. It utilized an experimental design in 36 schools in Milwaukee, WI. Pretest and
posttest were administered to assess the outcomes before and after the STOP program. The
results indicated that STOP was effective in improving youths’ perceptions of the police, youths’
willingness to cooperate with the police, and youths’ perceptions of procedural justice. Additional
analysis suggested that STOP was able to reverse some of the negative effects these encounters
had on youths’ perceptions, as those with prior negative interactions of police experienced sig-
nificantly greater rates of change in their perceptions of procedural justice than those who did not
have a negative encounter.
perceptions of the police, procedural justice, youths and police, experimental design
Media reports regarding police’s role in recent high-profile tragedies (e.g., the deaths of Michael
Brown in Ferguson, MO, Donte Hamilton in Milwaukee, WI, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, MD)
and social media posts of local police incidences have exacerbated public concern about police
behavior. Regardless of the veracity of reports, negative public perceptions alone can impede
police effectiveness. National awareness of this potential is indicated in the Report of the 2015
President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which identified police legitimacy as its “first
pillar.” This report highlighted the essential role that the public’s views of the po lice play in
policing effectiveness. Furthermore, a specific action item urged police departments to engage
youth in nonenforcement interactions at schools (President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing,
2015, p. 15, Action Item 1.5.3).
Prior research has indicated that positive public perceptions of the police are vital to the
effectiveness and quality of the police (e.g., Fagan & Tyler, 2005; Hurst & Frank, 2000; Worden
Department of Criminal Justice, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, Milwaukee, WI, USA
Corresponding Author:
Tina L. Freiburger, Department of Criminal Justice, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, P.O. Box 786, 1119 Enderis Hall,
Milwaukee, WI 53201, USA.
Criminal Justice Review
2019, Vol. 44(4) 413-430
ª2018 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016818811919
& McLean, 2017). Furthermore, despite a great deal of the research examining police perceptions
centering on adults (e.g., Aspler, Cummins, & Carl, 2003; Callanan & Rosenberg, 2011; Payne &
Gainey, 2007), youths are more likely to have contact with the police and are more likely to be
stopped and frisked by the police (Freiburger & Jordan, 2 016; Leiber, Nalla, & Farnworth, 1998;
Snyder & Sickmund, 1996). This is especially true in urban areas, where police conduct more field
stops of youths (Hurst, 2007; Taylor, Turner, Esbensen, & Winfree, 2001). Thes e more frequent
stops also might explain why urban youths have the most negative v iews of the police (Hurst,
2007; Taylor et al., 2001), as research has found that officer-initiated police contact tends to lower
people’s perceptions of the police (Brown & Benedict, 2002; Hurst, 2007; Ren, Cao, Lovrich, &
Gaffney, 2005).
Research has further found that youths’ perceptions of the police vary by race and ethnicity.
Specifically, Black youths are typically found to hold more negative views of the police (Brown &
Benedict, 2002; Hurst, Frank & Browning, 2000) and report more negative experiences with
police than White youth (Hagan, Shedd & Payne, 2005; Taylor et al., 2001). Black youths also
are more likely to be stopped by the police than White youths (Black & Reiss, 1970; Leiber et al.,
1998), which could explain the disparity in attitudes. In addition, Hispanic youths have been found
to have less positive perceptions of the police than White youths; Hispanic youths’ perceptions of
police, however, tend to be more positive than the perceptions of Black youths (Brick, Taylor, &
Esbensen, 2009).
Whether police interactions are positive or negative not only impacts the likelihood that a
juvenile will be arrested but can also impact a juvenile’s perceptions of the police going forward
(Friedman, Lurigio, Greenleaf, & Albertson, 2004). In addition, youths with more positive views of
the police are more likely to obey the law and to cooperate with policing efforts (Fagan & Tyler,
2005; Hurst & Frank, 2000; Piquero, Fagan, Mulvey, Steinberg, & Odgers, 2005; Sunshine & Tyler,
2003; Tyler, 1990, 2006; Worden & McLean, 2017). As discussed by Bottoms and Tankebe (2012),
legitimacy should be established through cooperative social interactions between citizens and
police, resulting in both groups perceiving the police officer (i.e., power-holder) as the appropriate
authority deserving of the “right to rule.” Similarly, research by Pickett and Ryan (2017) found that
citizens’ behaviors can shape police officers’ attitudes of due process and the manner in which they
handle encounters with citizens. They specifically stress the importance of youths’ interactions with
the police and how improving these interactions through informal youth–police interactions can
create more positive citizen–police interactions. Given these findings, it is important that youths’
perceptions of the police receive attention, especially the perceptions of urban and minority youths.
Considering the relationship between perceptions of the police and the tendency to violate or
obey the law, it is advantageous to improve youths’ perceptions of the police. Although several
police departments have created programs to engage youth (e.g., Youth–Police Academies, Police
Athletic Leagues, Youth Service Officers, and Youth–Police Initiative
), few have been rigorously
evaluated to determine whether they are successful. This study utilizes an experimental design to
examine the effectiveness of the Students Talking it Over with Police (STOP) program, developed
and implemented to improve police relationships with youths in Milwaukee, WI.
Conceptual Framework
Intergroup contact theory stipulates that intergroup contact can decrease prejudice, improve social
relations, and reduce conflict between groups (Allport, 1954). When groups are kept separate, on the
other hand, prejudice and conflict can increa se (Watson, 1946). According to this perspecti ve,
conditions are optimal for better relationships and reduced conflict when (1) the groups share equal
status, (2) the groups work toward a common goal, (3) both groups cooperate, and (4) there is
institutional support for the initiative (Allport, 1954). Many of the early studies of intergroup contact
414 Criminal Justice Review 44(4)

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