Police–Citizen Interaction Essay

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Police–citizen interactions are influenced by any number of variables, not the least of which is trust. Trust is difficult to measure in this context but plays out in the interactions between police and citizens. When citizens trust the police, they are not inclined to doubt or question police actions. When citizens do not trust the police, they are quick to second-guess and criticize police activity. By the same token, when the police are treated with disrespect and hostility, they are inclined to close ranks, reveal few vulnerabilities, and perhaps respond more often in anger, with more force than is warranted, and/or resort to street justice. The dynamic is cyclical in nature, with each influencing the response of the other, whether knowingly or not.

Police swear an oath to serve and protect, which results in potentially conflicting aspects of the interaction between police and citizens. When serving and protecting, one group of citizens welcome police intervention because they want the protection and safety the police offer. They value the order that police restore, they appreciate the security and reduction in crime provided by a police presence, and they are inclined toward positive interactions with police officers. Such citizens respond favorably to police and trust that they exercise their duties and powers in an honorable and benevolent manner. On the other hand, the group of citizens who are perceived as prone to engaging in unwanted and/or illegal behavior are far more likely to object to the police intervention, reacting with fear and hostility. This second group might perceive the police as biased in their enforcement of the laws, suspecting both their motives and the performance of their duties. They may fear the powers possessed by the police, especially with the range of discretion that police are allowed to exercise. As a result, some citizens do not trust that this power will actually be used for the good of their community.

Qualities of a Good Officer

It is beneficial to consider the qualities that characterize a good police officer, such as integrity, professionalism, strong social skills, and good judgment, as these qualities affect the nature of police–citizen interactions. Police with good social skills and sound judgment will be able to transition seamlessly to the radically different response needed at a crime scene from that needed at a traffic accident involving young children. Such officers will naturally value a collaborative relationship with the community they serve and will treat citizens with respect.

Other qualities traditionally attributed to police, such as authoritarianism and cynicism, may detract from positive police–citizen interactions. It is important to note that a commanding authoritative presence is effective in managing unpredictable, hostile, and/or threatening situations. Further, research has not upheld the commonly held belief that police are more rigid, dogmatic, or intolerant, though police do tend to value social control based on strong authority. As for cynicism, research has not consistently found this quality as significant among police but, nonetheless, the notion persists in most literature on police, including that written by police. It stands to reason that police lose faith in people over the course of a career in which they deal with those who manipulate and scheme, break the law, abuse innocent victims, and act violently. As cynicism grows, along with the subsequent suspicion of people and their intentions, it follows that the nature of police–citizen interactions suffers.

Policing has evolved significantly over the past century, with a corresponding influence on the nature of police–citizen interactions. When policing was marked by a military influence, emphasis was placed on reduction of crime more than positive interactions with the citizenry. When policing was ravaged by political influence and subsequent corruption, citizens lost faith in the police and interactions suffered. During the reform movement, when emphasis was placed on the professionalism of police, crime fighting was valued more highly than the service elements of policing. The urban riots of the 1960s and 1970s resulted in widespread criticism of the police and legal restrictions on police powers. By the same token, however, as society feared the rebellion and chaos of that same era, legislators dedicated significant resources to police departments. At the same time, college recruits became more common and training was more heavily emphasized, which contributed to the professionalism of this new breed of police.

Community Policing

Community policing, which connected community relations with the control of crime and the involvement of citizens, evolved from the advancements in police management. The D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program was one such initiative. Problem-oriented policing also surfaced in the 1980s and 1990s; this was predicated on the premise that events that were seemingly unrelated were in fact interrelated, so it was advantageous to understand and respond to the underlying cause. Rather than respond to police matters as independent incidents, this strategy urges analysis of the problems from a holistic perspective and with the involvement of all of the community stakeholders. In both of these strategies, the community is regarded as part of the solution rather than merely part of the problem. This approach enhances police–citizen interactions by fostering a partnership between the two, thereby diminishing the suspicion and isolation of the police.

In the current age, policing has faced another challenge and evolved again as a result. There is now a global community, connected by the Internet and social media, which removes traditional boundaries. Crime does not cross only state lines, it crosses international borders. Technology grants access to a larger pool of both victims (e.g., of fraud) and recruits (e.g., of members of terrorist organizations). As a result, police need to adapt by developing interactions with technologically advanced citizenry and forging a network of human intelligence within communities.

In general, police take on many roles in the course of their job, such as mediator, adviser, disciplinarian, counselor, investigator, and enforcer. Throughout all of these roles, a police officer must interact with the community in a professional and respectful manner. When police fall short of this standard, complaints, media coverage, liability, and/or criminal charges may follow. A police officer cannot afford to take a bad day out on an innocent civilian. In this day and age, recording devices are as common as wallets, so it is all too easy to capture police interactions on tape and then download it to Facebook or YouTube. There is considerable controversy about this. Many citizens think police are held to a higher standard due to their discretionary powers so capturing police behavior on video reduces deniability and increases accountability. Others, the police included, feel this takes an isolated moment in time out of context, rendering them vulnerable to the scrutiny of nonprofessionals who lack police training and to subsequent liability. Regardless of one’s conclusion, the reality of such videos going viral impacts police–citizen interactions.

Good interpersonal skills that incorporate effective communication skills with a helpful attitude is at the heart of productive police–citizen interactions. As a result of this realization, more and more police departments offer communication skills training at their police academies and in continuing education seminars. Through appropriate communication techniques, police officers can reduce the intensity of a crisis situation in order to persuade and encourage individuals to follow their commands without the use of force, which in turn builds trust within the community.

Trust is necessary for the police to do their job. Effective communication skills are one of the essential components by which police build trust within the community. Police rely on citizens to report crimes, identify witnesses, and aid in investigations. At the same time, citizens rely on police to protect their community and provide for the security of persons, homes, and businesses. In order for trust to be established and maintained, police officers must act professionally and with integrity; be unbiased, honest, and consistent; and build relationships with the community. Police are able to foster community relationships, and build trust while diminishing suspicion, through the implementation of well run Neighborhood Watch programs, thoroughly embedded D.A.R.E. programs, and other community programs in which citizens assist the police and the police demonstrate responsiveness to the community’s needs. The more the police understand the community they serve and citizens trust the police to responsibly uphold the law, the smoother and more effective will be the interaction between police and citizens.


  1. Kitaeff, J. “History of Policy Psychology.” In Handbook of Police Psychology, J. Kitaeff, ed. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2011.
  2. Miller, L. Practical Police Psychology: Stress Management and Crisis Intervention in Law Enforcement. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 2006.
  3. More, H., G. Vito, and W. Walsh. Organizational Behavior and Management in Law Enforcement, 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2012.
  4. Scaramella, G., S. Cox, and W. McCamey. Introduction to Policing. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2011.

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