Effective policing requires citizen cooperation. One means of improving citizen cooperation with the police is to increase citizens’ perceptions of legitimacy and trustworthiness. Violence against public officials on the one hand and complaints about perceived ethnic profiling by the Dutch police in the media on the other hand fuel the idea of a breakdown in trust in policing in current society. Although there are heated methodological discussions on the scope of the concept of trust, in this blog with trust we refer to the people’s perception that police officers behave like professional officers, which includes performing their duties fairly, impartially and efficiently. Just as crime is usually thought to be on the rise, trust in public institutions such as the police is commonly said to be declining or eroding. Is this indeed the case?
Subsequent waves of the European Social Survey (ESS) can shed some light on the issue. The ESS survey asks if citizens have come into contact with the police and how they would judge this contact. These surveys show that considering those who have had police contact, people in the Netherlands tend to value such contact most positively in terms of police trustworthiness. Like in Scandinavian countries, a relatively high number of people coming into contact with the police goes together with a relatively mild judgement of their trustworthiness. When measuring to what extent the police is impartial, the Netherlands also scores relatively high. Overall, it is fair to say that recent data contradicts a low level of trust in the police as is suggested by the media and NGOs. In a similar fashion, a comparison over time contradicts a decline during the last decade. As Statistics Netherlands concluded recently, trust in the police and the legal system has risen over the period 2002-2010. In times of recession this is not what many people would expect.
All this data, however, stems from surveys among the general public. We could assume that there are strong differences across neighbourhoods and that in multi-ethnic areas citizens might be more critical towards the police. A recent survey on perceptions of the police within neighbourhoods by Statistics Netherlands revealed that in general many citizens are not highly positive about how the police offer protection in the neighbourhood and react adequately to local problems. But scores are higher in urbanized areas, which are also areas with the highest proportion of people with a migrant background. Another assumption could be that people with a migrant background are more negative about the police than native Dutch citizens. Research with respect to ethnic minority perceptions of the Dutch police did find mixed results, but never alarmingly higher levels of distrust. Some studies even showed the opposite.
One potential explanation for these discrepancies is that the media tend to report on a small but highly critical segment of the population, including people who are continuously bothered by the police with good reason. Increasingly, the police identify groups of high risk offenders and concentrate their proactive efforts on those people, and on the geographical areas where they are active. Technology, preventive policies and expanded investigative and control powers appear to help them to do so in a more efficient way than before. Declining crime rates are seen as proof. Unfortunately, this efficiency also comes at a price. Law abiding citizens from the same groups who lead much of their lives in the same areas seem to bear the brunt. They might indeed show declining levels of trust in the police, even in times where there is no general decline among the public as a whole. Although from a police point of view these side effects might not be seen as a pressing issue, they can deeply impact upon people’s lives and the willingness of these citizens to cooperate with the police and comply with the law in the future. Efficiency is important, but so is trust, perhaps even more so on the long haul.