“Problem Solving Policing and Racial Conflict in the United States,” in Koichi
Miyazawa and Setsuo Miyazawa (eds.), Crime Prevention in the Urban Community.
Deventer and Boston: Kluwer, 1995, 75-86.
Public attitudes toward police in part reflect the experiences that people have had with them.
Direct encounters with the police are commonplace; the surveys examined here indicate that
about 50 percent of big-city residents come into contact with the police during the course of a
year. Those who do not have direct contact can easily hear about them from friends who have,
for police are a subject of general interest. Another source of popular impressions of the police
is the mass media – television, the movies, newspapers, and novels. Opinion surveys indicate
that the American public generally supports the police. About 60 per cent indicate that they
have confidence in the police, and when asked to rate their general performance about 60 per
cent indicate that it is excellent or good, rather than fair or poor. When asked what the most
important task of the police is, over 80 per cent think that it is preventing and solving crimes
rather than such alternatives as directing traffic or assisting in disasters. This is not to their
advantage, for the public also does not feel that they are very effective at dealing with crime.
When asked about how good the police are at maintaining law and order in their community
only about 40 per cent indicate that they are very effective.
However, the most prominent feature of American opinion about police is how sharply divided
people are by race and class. Residents of poor neighborhoods and those where blacks and
persons of Hispanic origin (mostly from Mexico) live are much more negative in their views of
the police. Because these neighborhoods are also more likely to face serious crime and drug
problems, their views greatly affect the effectiveness of policing.
This chapter examines the sources of public opinion, highlighting the factors that account for
these racial differences. It then describes three experiments in policing that were designed to
improve popular views of the police, and evaluates their effectiveness. By and large, the
benefits of the program were confined to better-off and white residents of the experimental
areas, and cleavages between area residents grew deeper. The differential program contacts
and effects described here are not unusual. It is often the case that the home owners and long-
term residents of a community profit more easily from programs, and social interventions of a
variety of kinds have led to outcomes which differ by race and class. In this case, differential
program awareness and impact may have been the result of how the programs were run. The
community station relied on established civic organizations to attract residents to station
programs and to nominate candidates for meeting with police, and neighborhood groups were
used to organize the monthly community meetings. This approach appears to have worked well
for members of those groups, but blacks and renters were less likely to be members. The
CORT program held almost all of its meetings in the part of its target area dominated by owner-
occupied single-family homes. The officers conducting home visits could only talk to those who
These findings suggest that the theoretical underpinnings of community policing may need to
be reexamined. Albert Reiss suggested years ago that community-based policing may be more
difficult to implement effectively where people are divided into competing groups along race
and class lines. The police are likely to get along best with the factions that share their outlook.
In heterogeneous neighborhoods, poor residents easily can become the targets of programs.
Equitable community policing may depend upon a degree of homogeneity and consensus
which does not exist in many troubled neighborhoods.