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Community Policing: Improving Public Perception of the Law Enforcement

The public’s perception of the legitimacy and lawfulness of law enforcement agencies is a crucial strategy for evaluating the effectiveness of policing in a democratic society. According to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) (2013), law enforcement legitimacy refers to the public’s belief and trust in police personnel and the people’s readiness to accept police power and authority. On the other hand, lawfulness means that law enforcement officials adhere to stipulated professional, constitutional, and statutory obligations. Generally, minority communities in the US have a higher likelihood of perceiving law enforcement agencies as illegitimate, untrustworthy, and unlawful compared to white communities. Minority communities mainly reside in underprivileged neighborhoods with a high crime rate. Often, these underprivileged neighborhoods report that police personnel disproportionately single them out based on ethnicity and race. As a result, they distrust police functions, undermining law enforcement agencies’ legitimacy. Police officers lose their capacity and authority to act effectively when faced with a crime. Therefore, police leaders must create and implement deliberate strategies to improve public perception of law enforcement.

Police leaders can improve the legitimacy and lawfulness of their policing functions to raise the public’s trust and confidence to collaborate in crime prevention through community policing programs. Community policing programs support the alignment of the functions of law enforcement agencies, community members and organizations, and information systems to cooperate in creating proactive problem-solving systems for crime control. Under the program, law enforcement agencies infuse community-policing schemes throughout the community by adopting and integrating the community’s culture and proposals into policing activities. As a result, the community achieves a decentralized decision-making process that considers the contributions of the public and police personnel. The incorporation of insights from members of the public to policing programs leads to increased transparency and trust in police activities. In addition, law enforcement agencies’ support of informal community networks promotes collaborative relations with community members, enhancing police legitimacy. Therefore, implementing community-policing programs reinforces a shared vision, mission, principles, and values between police personnel and the public, promoting trust and boosting public perception of law enforcement.

Police misconduct has been a significant source of negative police publicity. NIJ (2014) indicates that personal interactions with police have the strongest impact on law enforcement perception by the public. For example, personal reports or accounts from trusted family and friends about police misconduct generate negative or positive perceptions. For example, when traffic officers treat drivers fairly and respectfully in spite of issuing them a speeding receipt, the act improves police image. Besides, police demeanor and actions in case of a stop and frisk scenario in street stops and pedestrian stops greatly inform opinion about police conduct and legitimacy. When officers responsible for public wellness at various sites listen and communicate effectively, the public will respond kindly, promoting legitimacy and positive perception. Otherwise, negative attitudes, unfair treatment, and procedural injustice affect police trustworthiness and legitimacy, leading to pessimistic perceptions about law enforcement agencies.

In addition, media accounts about police misconduct influence public police perception. For example, regular exposure of police misconduct in media reports, such as corruption and abuse, creates a strong negative impression and supports the public’s belief that the vice is common (NIJ, 2014). For instance, minority communities who stay in high-crime neighborhoods and frequently hear the mainstream media pass information about police transgression in the region are more palpable of believing that the misbehavior is widespread. However, when mainstream media does not relay information on police scandals, standard and affirmative reporting of police activities can enhance people’s perception of neighborhood policing. Police leaders need to utilize the media to promote law enforcement legitimacy to encourage a positive public impression.

Overall, law enforcement agencies significantly enhance the public’s perception of the police and policing activities. Effective community policing programs facilitate collaborative partnerships between the community and police personnel. Active involvement of the people in crime control instills trust and confidence in law enforcement, promoting transparency, legitimacy, and a sense of lawfulness. In addition, eliminating police misconduct through adopting practical social skills when dealing with the public enhances police perception. Moreover, the media plays a significant role in relaying information to the public about police functions hence increasing public awareness about law enforcement actions. Efficient community policing programs, improved police conduct, and positive media attention enhance police image.


NIJ. (2013, January 9). Race, trust, and police legitimacy. National Institute of Justice.

NIJ. (2014, March 17). Perceptions of treatment by police: Impacts of personal interactions and the media. National Institute of Justice.


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