Students Poll for St. Louis Area Policing Research
May 04, 2016
When Tammy Rinehart Kochel, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, launched her research project in St. Louis County, she had no idea the area would become part of a national story.
However, since her National Institute of Justice grant funded research was near Ferguson, Mo., she found a new dimension to the project already underway long before the police-shooting death of Michael Brown made headlines. And she was able to involve a significant number of students in valuable, hands-on learning data collection, including in the aftermath of the shooting in Ferguson.
The initial $395,000 NIJ grant Kochel earned in 2011 was for “Assessing the Effects of Hot Spots Policing on Police Legitimacy, Fear of Crime, and Willingness to Participate in Building Collective Efficacy.” Hot spots policing directs policing efforts into statistically proven high crime areas. Kochel’s research examined different methods of hot spot policing to determine not only the effect of such policing efforts on crime, but also how the policing efforts affected the opinions of those who live in the hot spot areas.
The research included 71 hot spot areas in the St. Louis County police jurisdiction. Each area became one of three, randomly assigned, experimental groups for five months. Police officers used collaborative problem solving (involving the community in crime reduction strategies designed to remove the opportunities for crime made available by environmental conditions) in 20 spots, directed patrol (increased police presence) in 20 spots, and in the remaining 31 spots maintained standard policing practices.
As Kochel suspected would happen, crime decreased in the hot spot areas during the problem solving and directed patrol policing – by about seven percent and five percent respectively. Kochel particularly wanted to know, though, about community impact, most especially with public perception of police legitimacy.
“I wanted to know how increased police presence would affect the public’s perception of the fairness and legitimacy of the police,” Kochel says. “Did opinions change over time and did they change because of the treatment (the policing activity during the research time)?”
To find the answers to those questions, Kochel’s research team conducted a series of person-to-person surveys, asking opinions about police legitimacy, procedural justice, frequency of perceived police misconduct, perceptions of crime and safety and willingness to cooperate with police. In total, data collectors conducted 2,851 surveys. Students conducted the surveys, mostly in person but some by phone.
The respondents were mostly black (72 percent), with white as the second largest group (20 percent); most were women (60 percent), most (59 percent) had some college education and more than 50 percent were over age 40.
Ultimately, Kochel notes that perceptions of police competence and satisfaction with police did improve during the research period, but neither directed patrol nor problem-solving patrols seemed to have much to do with it at first. The treatment (the directed patrols and the problem-solving patrols), however, did seem initially to go the other way – to contribute to a decline in police legitimacy, particularly in the directed patrol areas, and decreased confidence in procedural justice. In other words, seeing police offers more often initially made people feel less secure about what the police were doing.
Kochel notes that the perception wasn’t necessarily due to particular actions by the police officers. The negative perception, in fact, decreased over time. It may be that when residents first noted the increased activity, they were concerned, but as the increased police presence became more “normal” their level of concern went down, Kochel says. And in the treated areas, residents expressed an increased willingness to cooperate with police by the end of the treatment period. Kochel notes that “in high crime areas, where cooperation with police is not commonplace, this is a particularly important outcome.”
Kochel’s conclusion is that hot spot policing appears to work in the long run without long-lasting negative effects on public opinion. The use of directed patrols and problem-solving patrols may initially lead to bad feelings about police, particularly if the goals or intentions of the police strategy are not shared with the residents, but over time the negative is overshadowed by increased willingness to cooperate with police to reduce crime, and to build improved police-community relationships.
Kochel involved more than 100 student researchers to conduct public opinion surveys. Busloads of 30 students at a time participated in the polling, working in teams of two to four under the guidance of graduate students.
Post-Ferguson Follow-up Research
Kochel’s data collection was complete before Aug. 9, 2014, the day Michael Brown was shot. Ferguson wasn’t part of her research area; she was working with the St. Louis County Police Department. However, since she’d already collected data pertaining to public opinion about police, the incident prompted her to recruit students for two additional surveys. SIU funded part of the follow-up research, since it wasn’t included in the original grant.
Students who participated in the post-Ferguson research reported feeling nervous – but also reported being somewhat awed by the significance of doing research in the shadow of a national news story. Many students were surprised at the challenges inherent in public opinion survey research, including respondents declining to finish the survey part of the way through it; respondents who had moved away and were unavailable for follow-up; and respondents not answering the door.
Overall, however, students reported that participating in the research was a positive experience, one that alerted them to the challenges and importance of field research. Most expressed an eagerness to participate in field research again.
Kenwanna Randolph, a junior criminology and criminal justice major from Chicago, is frustrated that people were reluctant to participate in the research. “I found out that many people are really reluctant to participate when they find out something involves the police even if you tell them that this information could possibly benefit their community,” she says. Still, she says she’d participate in such research “again any day.”
Sydney Haberberger, a senior from Chester majoring in psychology, believes that the different perceptions of police in different neighborhoods might reflect actual differences in police practices. “In several of the neighborhoods, residents thought highly of the police, reporting that they believed they were doing an effective job and offering no suggestions for improvement of practices,” she says. “In other neighborhoods, however, residents felt that the police were impersonal and violent, demonstrating how police practices may differ according to the crime rates of an area.”
Shortly after the shooting many respondents reported increased distrust of police. There was an eight percent change in how black respondents felt about police legitimacy, and a 26 percent drop in their faith in procedural justice. Non-black respondents, though, scarcely changed their opinions at all.
“The issue was clearly racial,” Kochel says. “There is a noticeable difference in how this affected people.”
Kochel also found that after the shooting in Ferguson, some residents felt there was a need to work with police to improve police and community relations. Respondents supported hiring more black police officers, issuing body cameras to police officers and for the police to use social media to communicate with the community. While increasing the frequency of patrols was not a universally popular concept, decreasing patrols was certainly not a popular strategy.
“There was a feeling that national attention to an incident like this is needed to affect change,” Kochel says. “Overall, though, non-black respondents were not as affected by the shooting, and while black respondents were, there seems to be a sense that a recovery of trust is possible between police and the hot spot communities.”
Interest in Kochel’s research has gone international. She recently presented her findings at several places in Australia: the University of Queensland, Griffith University and the Queensland Police Service. A travel grant from the Life Course Center at the University of Queensland funded her trip.
Kochel’s report on the original research is available here.