A racial divide: college student attitudes concerning police in South Louisiana.

Author:Lewis, Lisa M.


In recent years, the political climate and media coverage regarding the link between race and use of police force have brought forth a plethora of inquiries into public attitudes toward the police. Altercations between minority communities and police officers command visiting these events to examine their effect on the public's attitudes toward police and police legitimacy. Hinds (2009) found that hearing about a negative police encounter could have a significant impact on the public's attitudes toward the police. Public opinions of police legitimacy can have a direct effect on the officers' ability to successfully perform their duties (U.S. Department of Justice [DOJ], 2014a).

In 2014, Ferguson, Missouri, was thrust into the national spotlight when an 18-year-old African American male named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a White police officer, Darren Wilson, (Healy, 2014). The shooting of Brown and the failure to indict Wilson sparked outrage and protest in Ferguson and surrounding communities (Healy, 2014). DOJ (2015) found in its report on policing in Ferguson that the police department's unlawful and harmful practices, which included racial bias, brought harm to the African American community. The report found that these practices negatively affected the community's trust in the police and views of police legitimacy. Deaths of African American individuals such as Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, among others, have sparked further protests and continue to propel discourse about racial bias among police officers and attitudes toward police among minority communities into the national consciousness (BBC, 2015).

More recently, events in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, underscore the need to understand how perceptions of police may influence community interactions with law enforcement officials. On July 5, 2016, Alton Sterling was shot and killed while pinned to the ground by two officers of the Baton Rouge Police Department (Sollis, 2016). Numerous protests and demonstrations against police brutality and racial bias followed Sterling's death (Sollis, 2016). One week later, three young men were arrested and charged with plotting to kill Baton Rouge police officers as a form of retaliation (Visser, 2016a). Twelve days following Sterling's death, three Baton Rouge police officers were shot and killed by an African American male from Missouri. The shooter was reported to have made multiple online videos referencing fighting hack against police (Long, 2016; Visser, 2016b). These events underscore the importance of understanding perceptions and their ability to influence both police and members of the community.

The purpose of this study was to assess college students' attitudes toward the police in the Greater Baton Rouge area. The DOJ (2014b) reported on police legitimacy defines the term as the belief that law enforcement officials should be permitted to use their position to maintain societal order and handle issues present in their local communities.

To accomplish these tasks, police must be seen as honest persons who attempt to perform their job to standard and protect the community (DOJ, 2014b). To gauge student attitudes toward the police, this study employed two influential factors--race and race related university type (traditional vs. designated Historical Black College or University [HBCU]). The literature review begins with a brief overview of attitudes about the police.

Literature Review

Role of Attitudes Toward Police

Positive public attitudes toward the police can make crime prevention and control easier for police to accomplish on a day to day basis. Relatedly, fairness and positive treatment by law enforcement are important aspects of the public's perception of police as a legitimate force (Correia, Reisig, & Lovrich, 1996). Views of police illegitimacy and mistrust have been found to contribute to the failure of citizens to obey police instructions (Mazerolle, Antrobus, Bennet, & Tyler, 2013). Research posits that when the public views police as legitimate, citizens are more likely to cooperate with police authority (Tyler, 2005; Mazerolle et al., 2013).

Encounters with police have been shown to be a key dimension in influencing public perception of police. These encounters have a direct reflection on police activities being viewed with legitimacy or otherwise (Mazerolle et al., 2013; Mbuba, 2010; Webb & Marshall, 1995). Negative encounters with police can likely result in negative attitudes toward the police (Chaney & Robertson, 2013; Mazerolle et al., 2013). Inversely, community policing draws on research that positive encounters with law enforcement official will foster positive public attitudes toward the police and compliance with police instruction (Gaarder, Rodriguez, & Zats, 2004).

Race and Police

Race is a robust predictor of attitudes toward police (Lee & Gibbs, 2015; Mbuba, 2010; Webb & Marshall, 1995). An established finding in the United States is that African American and other racial minority groups view police less favorably than the White American majority (Lee & Gibbs, 2015; Mbuba, 2010; Schuck, Rosenbaum & Hawkins, 2008). Wu, Sun, and Triplett (2009) further supported the finding that African Americans tend to have less positive attitudes toward the police even with control of socioeconomic status. Webb and Marshall (1995) found that Hispanic attitudes toward the police were higher than the African American population, but still scored lower in attitudes toward the police than the White majority.

Mbuba (2010) reported among student attitudes toward the police that race was the most significant role in his study among four-year university students. Mbuba's research demonstrated that White college students showed more positive student attitudes towards the police when compared with students of minority status. Wu et al. (2009) study also supported that minorities tend to have lower views than the majority population. The Mbuba (2010) study contended that racial makeup of neighborhoods plays a significant factor in student attitudes towards the police.

Schuck et al. (2008) supported the understanding that aggregately, African Americans hold more negative attitudes toward the police than their White counterparts, especially considering the factor of police contact. Contradicting previous studies, Lee and Gibbs (2015) found that race becomes an insignificant factor after introducing interactive and relational aspects of social distance as a measurement of attitudes toward the police; however, this finding is not well researched and, thus, warrants further inquiry.

Theoretical Foundation

Wu et al. (2009) used the...

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