Kids and Cops: Juveniles’ Perceptions of the Police and Police Services

Published date01 November 2017
Date01 November 2017
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2017, Vol. 33(4) 411 –430
© The Author(s) 2017
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DOI: 10.1177/1043986217724536
Kids and Cops: Juveniles’
Perceptions of the Police and
Police Services
Michael Sanden1 and Ericka Wentz2
This study examined the impact of four categories of variables (demographics,
neighborhood context variables, contact with the police, and vicarious influence
variables) on juveniles’ perceptions of the police and police services. Data analyzed
in this study were collected as part of a larger research evaluation that examined
the impact of law enforcement efforts in relation to violent crime. Survey responses
collected from 423 middle school students were analyzed using a series of OLS
regression models. The study found significant results for both dependent variables
within all four categories of independent variables. Findings emphasize the importance
of including influences from multiple sources into studies that examine juveniles’
perceptions of the police. Policy implications and suggestions for further research
are discussed.
juveniles, perceptions of police, vicarious influences
Citizen perceptions of the police have been a focus of research in times where police
have enjoyed great public support and when public opinion has been less favorable,
sometimes expressed through riots and civil protest. The Cincinnati community expe-
rienced violent protests in April 2001 in response to the police shooting several
unarmed African American men (Horn, 2001; The Cincinnati Enquirer). Although the
shootings were believed to be the primary cause of the riots, a closer look at the com-
munity relationship with the police showed several warning signs of civil unrest
1North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND, USA
2University of West Georgia, Carrollton, GA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Ericka Wentz, Department of Criminology, University of West Georgia, Carrollton, GA 30118, USA.
724536CCJXXX10.1177/1043986217724536Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeSanden and Wentz
412 Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 33(4)
against the police prior to the shooting. Citizens were filing complaints against the
police, police use of force tactics were questioned, and racial tensions were building
as African American males appeared to be targeted by the police. The result of these
neglected tensions between the police and the community led to a 4-day citywide riot
that resulted in acts of violence, property damage estimated at US$3.6 million, and
hundreds of arrests (The Staff of the Los Angeles Times, 1992). More recently, the
media has exposed numerous cases of police-involved deaths of African Americans,
sparking outrage in communities and fostering a sense of distrust in the police. High-
profile cases justify the importance of examining citizens’ perceptions of the police as
research may illuminate implications for improving relationships between police and
citizens, especially among juveniles.
The importance of citizen involvement, reporting of crimes, and participation in
current crime prevention techniques are essential to policing (National Research
Council, 2004). By maintaining a positive relationship with the communities in
which they serve, police departments will enjoy public support through citizen coop-
eration, lawfulness, and public funding. Contemporary policing tactics rely on citi-
zens to be involved in crime prevention and as sources of information about
neighborhood problems. Thus, researchers continue to focus on citizen perceptions
of the police as one way to measure the relationship between the police and the com-
munities they serve. As perceptions and attitudes of the police may form during
adolescence when the number of police-initiated contacts is higher, a growing body
of research has focused on the perceptions that juveniles hold toward the police
(Leiber, Nalla, & Farnworth, 1998).
Researchers have discovered that several types of variables influence juveniles’
perceptions of the police, including demographic variables, neighborhood character-
istics, direct contact with the police, and vicarious experiences (B. Brown &
Benedict, 2002; Cheurprakobkit, 2000; Eschholz, Blackwell, Gertz, & Chiricos,
2002; Flexon, Lurigio, & Greenleaf, 2009; Hurst & Frank, 2000; Hurst, Frank, &
Browning, 2000; Romain & Hassell, 2014; Taylor, Turner, Esbensen, & Winfree,
2001). The current study will not only examine the influence of these variables but
will also introduce a unique variable of interest, the media’s influence on juveniles’
perceptions of the police.
Review of the Literature
Although most research on perceptions of the police has focused on adults, juvenile
perceptions of the police have received substantially less attention from researchers
(R. Brown, Novak, & Frank, 2009; Hurst & Frank, 2000; Hurst et al., 2000; Taylor
et al., 2001). Juvenile involvement with law enforcement is particularly important
when analyzing current crime trends as juvenile delinquency accounts for a high pro-
portion of police contacts, arrests, and services focusing on juveniles (Leiber et al.,
1998; Taylor et al., 2001). Studies reveal that juveniles’ contact with the police can
have a lasting effect on their perceptions and attitudes toward the police (Hurst &
Frank, 2000; Leiber et al., 1998).

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