Whether you know a cop or not: big factor in police trust, researchers say

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. (WHTM) – Renewed debate over race and policing sprung up in recent days as San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick stayed seated during the national anthem.

The football player said he wanted to draw attention to the treatment of minorities. Waves of protest have followed and Tuesday, local researchers and police leaders tackled the question in a panel discussion: How does race factor into policing in the Midstate?

Police departments like to talk about “community policing” — getting to know the people they serve better. It turns out your confidence in police may have more to do with who you know than how you look.

In Pennsylvania, most people — around 80 percent, Penn State Harrisburg assistant professor of criminal justice Jennifer Gibbs said — trust cops.

“Most citizens don’t have negative encounters,” Barbara Thompson said, “and so I think they believe that everything is okay if it’s okay with me.”

Thompson works at Penn State Harrisburg. She was one of a few dozen at the school’s policing panel. The focus: building trust.

“You got to get it right every time and we don’t, you know,” Susquehanna Township police chief and panelist Rob Martin said. “We’re not perfect. We hire from the human race.”

Whether or not someone is confident in police depends on some factors you’d expect, like negative interactions with police in the past or being the victim of a recent crime.

“But then this social distance comes in,” Jonathan Lee said. The assistant criminal justice professor has been looking into local departments and their standings within their communities.

He’s zeroed in on that phrase, “social distance,” basically, do you personally know a cop you can have a comfortable conversation with? If so, you’re more likely to have confidence in police overall.

Lee showed that again by surveying students on campus. “For both white and black students,” he said, “it is all about social distance with the police.”

The preliminary data show community policing works, Lee said: More cops interacting with more people means more confidence. But it’s not a simple solution; researchers might better understand why some people don’t trust police, but panelist Shaun Gabbidon, a distinguished professor of criminal justice, warned against drawing too many conclusions.

“The long view suggests that there is a reason that blacks and other minorities tend to be suspicious of the police,” he said.

As much as cities like to rely on community policing, an obvious obstacle is money. Departments have to hire more officers to keep up with the call load if more are out in the community.

Swatara Township, for instance, would have to hire about 20 more officers to fill the gap, chief Jason Umberger said, at about $100,000 per officer. But he said current programs and a push toward better relationships could serve as a model for other communities.

“And we need to continue to talk,” Thompson said. “If we stop talking, if we stop trying to improve, then we’re sunk.”

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