Understanding Police Recruits’ Attitudes Toward Public Interactions: An Australian Example

Published date01 December 2017
DOI10.1177/1098611117723567
Date01 December 2017
Subject MatterArticles
untitled Article
Police Quarterly
2017, Vol. 20(4) 449–480
Understanding Police
! The Author(s) 2017
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DOI: 10.1177/1098611117723567
Toward Public
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Interactions: An
Australian Example
Louise E. Porter1 and
Geoffrey P. Alpert1,2
Abstract
Recent events, particularly in the United States, have highlighted strained
police-citizen relations and the importance of citizens viewing police as legitimate
and trustworthy. Perceptions of unreasonable police officer conduct, particularly
related to demeanor and physical force, are often at the center of public complaints.
The present study used survey data to explore the attitudes of 577 Australian police
recruits regarding behaving disrespectfully toward, and using force against, citizens.
Over all, recruits’ attitudes were positive, likely reflecting present screening pro-
cesses. However, some variation was evident and predicted by selected police culture
dimensions, including cynicism and police authority, as well as officer characteristics
and background factors. Further, attitudes more supportive of disrespect and force
were, in turn, predictive of the code of silence for such behavior, measured through
hypothetical unwillingness to report colleagues’ behavior. The implications for
understanding police attitudes are discussed, as well as attempts to reduce negative
attitudes and behavior.
Keywords
police culture, use of force, public interactions, police attitudes, code of silence
1Griffith Criminology Institute, Griffith University, Brisbane, QLD, Australia
2Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC, USA
Corresponding Author:
Louise E. Porter, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Griffith University, Southport, QLD 4222,
Australia.
Email: l.porter@griffith.edu.au

450
Police Quarterly 20(4)
Police of‌f‌icers occupy a position of power and authority in society, having a high
degree of discretion over actions that impact both individuals and communities.
Unfortunately, police interactions with members of the public attract relatively
high numbers of complaints, with of‌f‌icers particularly susceptible to complaints
in their f‌irst 5 years of service (Lersch & Mieczkowski, 1996). Around the world,
rudeness and disrespect are typically the most common issues of complaint,
followed by use of inappropriate or excessive physical force (examples include
Seattle, USA, see Of‌f‌ice of Professional Accountability, 2015; Queensland,
Australia, see Crime and Misconduct Commission, 2013 and Walker &
Archbold, 2014). Inappropriate police behavior can reduce the public’s percep-
tions of police legitimacy, af‌fect their conf‌idence in, and cooperation with, the
police, and, in turn, impact wider police performance and citizen unrest
(Jonathan-Zamir, Mastrofski, & Moyal, 2015; Murphy, Hinds, & Fleming,
2008). In addition, the use of physical force can carry risk of physical injury
(to both of‌f‌icers and citizens). The purpose of this study is to explore attitudes of
police recruits to both the use of force and disrespectful behavior toward citi-
zens. Particularly, the research explores the predictive value of individual factors,
including f‌ixed demographic, background and trait variables, as well as attitu-
dinal measures that capture some of the more consistent themes of police culture
in the literature. Understanding these relationships serves to improve our under-
standing of police of‌f‌icers, and theories of police behavior, as well as inform
police practitioners about ways to improve recruitment and training.
Police–Citizen Interactions
Both real and perceived improper police behavior can seriously impact public
attitudes toward police (Weitzer, 2002). Particularly, procedural justice research
shows that negative police interactions, such as disrespectful and unfair beha-
vior, reduce public conf‌idence in the police (Murphy et al., 2008). Procedural
justice in police interactions with citizens is regarded as demonstrating fair deci-
sion-making and fair treatment (Tyler, 1990); this is typically conceptualized as
comprising four principles of demonstrating respect, neutrality, trustworthy
motives, and an opportunity for voice in decision-making (Lind & Tyler,
1988). Importantly, police use of procedural justice has been shown to encourage
public cooperation and compliance with police, which is explained through the
mediating role of increased perceptions of police legitimacy (Murphy et al., 2008;
Sunshine & Tyler, 2003). Increasing trust and legitimacy has become a primary
goal for law enforcement worldwide and is pillar one in the recent report of the
President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (2015). The U.S. taskforce
made recommendations in response to growing public unrest in the wake of
several fatal police shootings.
While the majority of research on procedural justice in policing has focused
on citizens’ perceptions of their treatment by police, some recent studies have

Porter and Alpert
451
begun to explore police of‌f‌icers’ perceptions of their own behavior as
procedurally just and their intentions to use procedural justice in citizen inter-
actions. Interestingly, this work has highlighted links between of‌f‌icers’ views of
procedural justice and their views on the use of force, noting that the latter may
be important to explore in order to better understand how the former could be
enhanced. For example, Bond, Murphy, and Porter (2015) explored the attitudes
of police recruits at the start of academy training and found that attitudes
supportive of the use of force negatively predicted their intention to use proce-
dural justice in a hypothetical police–citizen interaction. Subsequently, Fildes,
Murphy, and Porter (2017) explored recruits’ attitudes at the end of
their academy training and found that recruits’ support for using force was
negatively related to their procedural justice self assessments. Fildes et al. con-
cluded that ‘‘attitudes supportive of the use of force are diametrically opposed to
the principles of procedural justice’’ (p. 14) and that addressing attitudes toward
force through recruit training may be key to encouraging the use of procedural
justice when interacting with citizens in the f‌ield. However, they also acknowl-
edge the importance of of‌f‌icer safety and the role of this in explaining police
behavior. Indeed, while disrespectful behavior and excessive and unnecessary use
of force are detrimental to police-citizen relations, an of‌f‌icer who fails to
use adequate or ‘‘appropriate’’ force could also put citizens at risk. The use of
force is a legitimate police power, and of‌f‌icers need to be prepared to use force in
the exercise of their duties. It is unclear, though, the relationship between of‌f‌icer
use of force and the use of unjustif‌ied or excessive force; for example, whether
attitudes supportive of the use of force indicate tolerance for excessive force
more specif‌ically. Also unclear is the relationship between demeanor and forceful
behavior, such as whether the same factors might be predictive of both, or if
rudeness and physical force are indicative of dif‌ferent underlying factors or
attitudes. Understanding these attitudes, and their predictors, therefore links
to the emerging literature seeking to encourage democratic styles of policing
and reduce procedurally unjust treatment of citizens by of‌f‌icers.
Police Culture and Inappropriate Police Behavior Toward Citizens
Studies into police behavior have primarily explored the likelihood of of‌f‌icers to
invoke their powers of arrest or to use physical force, although research has also
looked at of‌f‌icer demeanor. Resulting theories of inappropriate police behavior
tend to focus on the inf‌luence of individual, social or cultural, or organizational
factors (see Skogan & Frydl, 2004 and Lersch & Mieczkowski, 2005 for reviews).
Individual-level theories emphasize the concept of the ‘‘problem of‌f‌icer’’ or
‘‘rotten apples’’ (Goldstein, 1977; Lersch & Mieczkowski, 2005). Most police
hiring practices still focus on individual characteristics, backgrounds, and atti-
tudes to select out unsuitable applicants (e.g., see Wilson, Dalton, Scheer, &
Grammich, 2010). This is despite individual-level theories having largely lost

452
Police Quarterly 20(4)
favor to cultural and organizational theories, which go beyond singling out
individuals and recognize the impact of the wider policing environment on
police behavior (Knapp, 1972; Punch, 2009). Early cultural theories focused
on informal inf‌luences between police of‌f‌icers, and the development of attitudi-
nal and behavioral norms (e.g., Skolnick, 1994; Westley, 1953). Organizational
theories then place the of‌f‌icer in the wider context of the police department,
acknowledging the inf‌luence of more formal mechanisms; for example, account-
ability, training, policies, procedures (e.g., Prenzler, Porter, & Alpert, 2013), and
more recently, treatment of staf‌f (Wolfe & Piquero, 2011). However, variation in
police behavior is still apparent within organizations, with a small proportion of
of‌f‌icers often responsible for a large number of behavioral issues (e.g., Lersch &
Mieczkowski, 1996). Thus, the inf‌luence of cultural and organizational factors
may depend on the individual experiences of of‌f‌icers. Indeed, these factors are
increasingly conceptualized, measured, and understood at the individual level;
showing variation in of‌f‌icer attitudes and perceptions of their environment.
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