Law enforcement in the United States is primarily the responsibility of local police and sheriff's departments, with state police providing broader services. Federal agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the U.S. Marshals Service have specialized duties.
At the end of the 20th century, substantial majorities of the American public expressed positive views of how police treat the public. Police ranked highest in being helpful and friendly and lowest in treating people fairly. The public image of honesty and ethical standards of police has improved substantially from 1997 to 2000.
Major events, such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have been associated with short-term rises in confidence in law enforcement. On the other hand, episodes of police brutality and racialized traumas have tended to undermine confidence in local authorities (Sigelman et al. 1997). Over the past decade, street protests and police responses during the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings in Seattle in 1999 and the May Day marches in Los Angeles in 2007 illustrate the steep reputational price to be paid by local departments for assertive crackdowns on demonstrators.
When asked between 1998 and 2005 about the effectiveness of police protection from violent crime, the percentage of survey respondents expressing either “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence, combined, remained approximately five percentage points less than the combined percentage indicating either “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence on the more general confidence question. As in other trends presented here, law enforcement enjoyed slightly more positive assessments shortly after 9/11 than it had before, but that elevated approval subsequently eroded. Regarding protection from violent crime, a high point for confidence (“a great deal” and “quite a lot” combined) reached 66 percent in October 2001, falling back to 53 percent by 2005.
Some people who have had no contact with officers view police negatively. For example, more American's believe that police verbally and physically abuse citizens than the number who report a personal experience with these actions. Furthermore, most Americans seldom interact with police officers (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2001), suggesting that their views of the police be largely rooted in sources other than personal contact.
A new study has found that neighborhood characteristics and interactions with police are the factors that most influence public opinion of the police. The study, conducted in Los Angeles, found that residents from neighborhoods perceived to be crime ridden, dangerous, and disorderly were less likely to approve of the police. In contrast, residents who has informal personal contact with police were more likely to express approval.
Whites tend to be favorable disposed toward the police and inclined to deny the existence of police misconduct, an attitude reflected by the very high percentages who say police are never or only occasionally involved in corruption, excessive force, verbal abuse and unwarranted stops of citizens. Blacks and Hispanics are more inclined to believe that these abuses occur frequently, and to subscribe to the view that police misconduct is very common in their city and in their residential neighborhood. People who take this view may see the entire police department as rotten, which can have important implications for the overall legitimacy of a police agency and for people's willingness to cooperate with its officers.
Just 14% of African Americans said they had a great deal of confidence in local police officers to treat blacks and whites equally. More than twice as many whites (38%) had a great deal of confidence in the local police to provide equal treatment. More than three times as many blacks as whites said they had very little confidence in their local police to treat the races equally (34% vs. 9%). Blacks’ confidence in local police to provide equal treatment was little changed from 2007 or 1995.
Residents' opinion of police performance did no vary by race or ethnicity in disorderly neighborhoods. Media did not affect residents' approval of police job performance or their perceptions of officers' demeanor.
A 2009 survey by Pew Social Demographic Trends found that blacks had far less confidence than whites in their local police in a number of areas, including their treatment of racial groups.
The public image of the police is measured a number of different ways. Sometimes surveys ask about “local” police, police in “your neighborhood” or police in “your area,” while other surveys ask about the police as a general institution. The terminology used to gauge public support also varies widely, with questions asking about whether respondents “approve of” or “trust” the police, have “confidence in” or “respect for” the police, or whether they “support” or have “favorable” views of the police. What makes these terms “general” is that the criteria or standards of performance remain unspecified.