While perceptions of police legitimacy declined during adolescence and increased during adulthood within this justice-involved sample, perceptions of biased policing were consistently related to worsened legitimacy across adolescence and into young adulthood. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.
Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2021, Vol. 45, No. 3, 243-255
Adam D. Fine, Arizona State University
Jamie Amemiya, University of California – San Diego
Paul Frick, Louisiana State University
Laurence Steinberg, Temple University; King Abdulaziz University
Elizabeth Cauffman, University of California – Irvine
OBJECTIVES: Although researchers, policymakers, and practitioners recognize the importance of the public’s perceptions of police, few studies have examined developmental trends in adolescents and young adults’ views of police. HYPOTHESES: H1: Perceptions of police legitimacy would exhibit a U-shaped curve, declining in adolescence before improving in young adulthood. H2: At all ages, Black youth would report more negative perceptions of police legitimacy than Latino youth, who would report more negative perceptions than White youth. H3: Perceptions of police bias would be consistently associated with worse perceptions of police legitimacy. METHOD: Utilizing longitudinal data from the Crossroads Study, this study examined within-person trends in males’ perceptions of police legitimacy from ages 13 to 22, as well as whether perceptions of police bias were associated with perceptions of police legitimacy. RESULTS: Perceptions of police legitimacy followed a U-shaped curve that declined during adolescence, reached its lowest point around age 18, and improved during the transition to young adulthood. As compared with White youth, Latino and Black youth had shallower curves in perceptions of police legitimacy that exhibited less improvement during the transition to adulthood. Further, perceptions of police bias were consistently associated with more negative perceptions of police legitimacy across races and ages. CONCLUSIONS: While perceptions of police legitimacy may decline during adolescence before improving during the transition to adulthood, perceptions of police bias are consistently negatively related to youth and young adults’ perceptions of police legitimacy.
Legitimacy, perceptions of police, race, police bias
Summary of the Research
“Prior research has established that individuals who view law enforcement and the justice system poorly are more likely to engage in crime, less likely to report crime, and less likely to comply with police directives. Because the way youth perceive legal authority may set the tone for how they view and interact with legal authority during adulthood, identifying developmental trends in youths’ perceptions of law enforcement, in particular, is essential.
Perhaps the most important contribution of this study is its ability to trace perceptions of police legitimacy from adolescence into young adulthood. Previous cross-sectional studies have found that older youth report more negative perceptions of justice system authorities than do younger youth. At the same time, others have found that adults report more positive perceptions than do youth . Altogether, studies have hinted that perhaps there is a U-shaped, developmental curve in perceptions of law enforcement. Utilizing complex longitudinal data analyses that account for within-person associations as well as a variety of personal experiences, the present study indicates that, indeed, there appears to be a U-shaped curve in perceptions of police legitimacy from adolescence into adulthood. Specifically, youths’ perceptions of police legitimacy tend to follow the same quadratic developmental trend as revealed in prior, cross-sectional research: perceptions become more negative over the course of adolescence, reach their lowest point around the age of majority, and begin to improve during the transition into young adulthood” (p. 249).
“Although studies have hinted at a potential U-shaped trend in perceptions of police legitimacy, few explain why this may be the case. We provide three potential theoretical explanations, beginning with the age-crime and age-arrest curve … The current study indicates that perceptions of police legitimacy improve during young adulthood, which supports the general notion that legitimacy attitudes may offer insight into the desistance process. However, it is not clear whether: a) developmental or experiential changes underlie desistance processes, which subsequently contribute to more positive legitimacy evaluations; or b) whether there are bidirectional influences between changes in beliefs about legitimacy and desistance” (p. 249-251).
“The second account of the U-shaped curve in perceptions of legitimacy, particularly the increase during the transition into young adulthood, pertains to legal reasoning. … Specifically, through the transition into adulthood, youth begin to, ‘recognize that the social order has purposes of its own, that the visible agents of the government are servants of these purposes.’ Indeed, limited research points to age 18 as particularly important for developing the view that legal authority contributes to public welfare. While we did not assess legal reasoning, the finding that age 18 appears to mark a critically important turning point in perceptions of police legitimacy resonates well with the cognitive developmental perspective of legal reasoning” (p. 251).
“The third explanation for the age-graded trends derives from social identity theorizing and the group engagement model … Such strengthening social identification with the greater society during the transition to adulthood may yield more positive evaluations of police legitimacy because it reflects individuals’ shifting social values. Emerging evidence suggests that a stronger identification with the group the police represent is associated with more positive perceptions of police legitimacy. While we were unable to assess youths’ social identity, the emerging literature on the topic supports the notion that, to the extent that individuals begin identifying more strongly with the greater, law- abiding society during the transition to adulthood, they may report more positive perceptions of police legitimacy” (p. 251).
“Our findings pertaining to youths’ perceptions of police bias are also important for policy and practice. As expected, the results of our longitudinal analyses indicated that perceptions of police bias were consistently related to worse perceptions of police legitimacy across adolescence and young adulthood. Across each racial group, whether assessed within or between persons and across adolescence and young adulthood, stronger perceptions of police bias were associated with more negative perceptions of police legitimacy. This finding lends credence to the idea that when police act in ways that are contrary to individuals’ expectations and hopes for society’s law enforcers, the police undermine their own legitimacy in the eyes of youth. Yet because police tend to be the face of the justice system, when they treat individuals in a biased manner, they likely undermine trust in the justice system as a whole. Even beyond that, to the extent that individuals perceive law enforcement to be a prototypical group of authorities charged with upholding society’s laws, rules, and norms, when police act in a biased way they may undermine the greater social fabric. Instead, law enforcement should emphasize procedural fairness, justice, respect, and dignity and reduce bias when engaging with the community, especially with youth of color” (p. 252).
Translating Research into Practice
“Consistent with prior studies of youth who have committed serious, felony-level offenses, the results of this study with low-level offenders indicated that from adolescence through early adulthood, Black youth reported lower perceptions of police legitimacy than did White youth. Further, although Black and Latino youth reported similar perceptions of police legitimacy at age 13, by age 14, Black youth reported significantly worse perceptions of police legitimacy and their perceptions remained lower through the transition to adulthood” (p. 251).
“The group position hypothesis and the broader comparative conflict perspective help explain the racial differences uncovered in this study, particularly with respect to Black youth. Conflict theory stresses the role that racial group threat and positionality play. Conflict theorists suggest that the darker a person’s skin is, the greater their social distance from dominant groups in mainstream society, and the greater this distance is, the more the dominant group perceives them as a threat and over-controls them through policing … Considering the evidence that young Black males do tend to be over-policed in America, we speculate that Black youths’ poor views of the legitimacy of law enforcement may derive from their perception that they are viewed more unfavorably than their non-Black peers by police in the United States” (p. 251).
“These findings can be interpreted in light of the body of work on Black racial identity, especially the Expanded Nigrescence Model. Black identity development results from racial consciousness, often in response to oppression. The Expanded Nigrescence Model (NT-E) conceptualizes Black racial identity as a series of attitudes related to three themes: Pre-Encounter, Immersion-Emersion, and Internalization. NT-E posits that there is a wide array of Black identities, and that there is variability in the way Black people make meaning of their social sense of self and their social interactions. There could be a variety of downstream consequences of poor perceptions of police bias. For instance, as Worrell and Watson explain, Immersion- Emersion themes may become salient when Black youth are confronted with the reality of police bias, yet so could Intense Black Involvement” (p. 251).
“Weitzer and Tuch noted that the, ‘literature is insufficient to determine whether Hispanic perceptions of the police take the form of a ‘minority-group’ perspective similar to that of blacks, whether their views more closely align with those of whites, or whether they take an intermediate position in a white-Hispanic-African American ‘racial-hierarchy’ model.’ While research on Latinx youths’ perceptions of police legitimacy has grown, there are not enough studies to determine which of these three possibilities is most true of youth today. The present study demonstrates that within this large sample of youth spanning adolescence through young adulthood, Latino male youths’ perceptions of police legitimacy appear to occupy an intermediary position. As a result, from the group position or comparative conflict perspectives, it is possible that Latino youth perceive themselves to be more marginalized by police than are White youth, but not to the extent of their Black peers. However, more research is needed on the legal socialization of Latinx youth” (p. 251-252).
Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians
“The results of this study point to clear future directions in research and practice. First, the Crossroads sample consists of youth who had been arrested for the first time for low-level offenses. Researchers are encouraged to replicate these findings using other samples of justice-involved youth, as well as youth in the community. Both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies that can account for within-person effects are necessary and would benefit the legal socialization literature. Second, linking trends in youths’ perceptions of police legitimacy to their actual behavior, including crime commission, crime reporting, and vigilantism, would be useful” (p. 252).
“Relatedly, researchers should study the impacts of isolated as well as cumulative experiences of racial bias or biased policing on youths’ perceptions. Finally, researchers are encouraged to integrate theoretical perspectives on racial identity with legal socialization and examine bidirectional effects. In order for the field to move away from broad categorizations of racial and ethnic minority youth (e.g., “Black” or “Latinx”) and to be able to parse differences in perspectives and experiences, we need much larger samples of diverse populations of racial/ethnic minority youth” (p. 252).
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