It is well known in law enforcement circles that the individual line officer wields an enormous amount of discretion in enforcing the law (esp, non-dispatched runs like traffic enforcement or street crime). What is surprising is the public belief that police are usually eager and motivated to do their job. Thus, when a particular crime problem becomes apparent, it is often approached by monetary related arguments, such as the need for more police, equipment, training etc; rather than by non-monetary related approaches, such as recognizing how a high perception of alienation among police officers from the citizens of the community where they patrol reduces morale and spawns police indifference and inactivity.
The impact of alienation is especially relevant as the contemporary community policing movement emphasizes proactive law enforcement strategies. Effective community policing requires that police officers work closely with local citizens in designing and implementing a variety of proactive crime prevention and control measures. To accomplish these initiatives, it is crucial that officers feel closely integrated with the majority of citizens in the community they serve. Typically, this means that officers perceive themselves as sharing important community values and beliefs and being confident of community support in the decisions they make.
It is the premise of this study that as the perception of community alienation increases among police officers, their sense of confidence or mastery in decision making will decrease, and so too their motivation for proactive enforcement. The study also investigated if the impact of three highly publicized "anti-police" judicial verdicts (i.e., Rodney King, Los Angeles 1991; Malice Green, Detroit 1992; and O.J. Simpson, Los Angeles 1994) are related to the level of perceived alienation experienced by police and thus their willingness to respond proactively to serious crime. Finally, the study examined the relationship of gender, age, race, rank, seniority, education, marital status, degree of urbanism, and residency, to the predicted alienation-mastery-proactive policing sequence.
Essentially a sociological concept developed by several classical and contemporary theorists, alienation is a condition in social relationships reflected by a low degree of integration or common values and a high degree of distance or isolation between individuals, or between an individual and a group of people in a community or work environment.
Alienation is closely aligned with the concept of mastery. Mastery is typically defined as a state of mind in which an individual feels autonomous and experiences confidence in his or her ability, skill, and knowledge to control or influence external events.[iii] The greater the level of alienation an individual experiences in a community or work setting, the weaker will be their sense of mastery.
For police officers, a strong sense of mastery is particularly vital in relation to proactive law enforcement. Proactive enforcement is usually defined as the predisposition of a police officer to be actively involved in preventing and investigating crime.[iv] Because police patrol work is highly unsupervised, most officers have considerable discretion or personal initiative regarding their level of proactive behavior on the streets. Again, it would seem logical that the stronger the level of perceived community alienation among police officers, the weaker will be their sense of mastery and motivation to engage in proactive law enforcement behavior.
The study surveyed police officers from eleven law enforcement agencies in the Midwest United States. The communities served by these departments ranged in size from approximately 10,000 to more than two million people. The departments ranged in size from 15 to 850 officers, and included nine city police departments, one county sheriff's department, and one university public safety department. All uniformed patrol officers in these departments ranked as lieutenant or below were asked to complete the survey on a voluntary and anonymous basis. These officers were selected because they work the street and typically confront law enforcement situations where they use their own discretion and initiative. Of the 402 officers surveyed, 272 (68%) completed and returned the questionnaire.
Officers in the sample were predominantly male (95.2%). They ranged in age from 22 to 59 years, with a mean age of 37.4 years. The majority of police officers were caucasian (84.2%). Every officer surveyed had completed their high school education.
Over half of the officers (50.4%) had at least some college, more than one fourth (28.7%) had a Bachelors Degree, and 14% had an advanced graduate degree. The majority of officers were married (73.2%), 17.3% were single, and the remaining 8.5% were separated or divorced. Three quarters (75%) of the officers surveyed were line patrol officers, while the other 25% held the rank of sergeant or higher. Officers ranged in seniority from one to over twenty-one years, with a mean seniority of 12.9 years of service. Close to two-thirds of the officers in this study (61.8%) lived in the community in which they worked.
The officers from the eleven police departments in this study were grouped into three categories (high, moderate, and low-urban) based on the degree of urbanism[v] of the community they served. Using these criteria, one hundred officers (36.8%) worked in high-urban communities, one hundred thirty one worked in moderate-urban settings (48.2%), and the remaining forty one (15.1%) served in low-urban areas.
A survey questionnaire was developed by the author to measure police officers' level of perceived alienation, sense of mastery, and willingness to respond proactively both before and after the "anti-police" judicial verdicts. The survey contained eighteen questions which were based on the conceptualization of alienation, mastery, and proactive enforcement by the various social theorists cited earlier.
Alienation was measured in two ways: first, by three "Residence and Choice" questions which asked officers if it was totally up to them, would they choose to live in the community where they worked; and second, by four questions which asked officers to rate the degree to which they shared the family, religious, economic, and political values of the community they served. This scale became a 20 point scale.
Mastery was measured using six questions on which officers rated the degree to which their work community supported their enforcement efforts, encouraged them to actively enforce the law, was likely to turn against them when something went wrong, and the extent to which they could use their own judgement in responding to crime and felt that they were making a difference in the community. This scale became a 30 point scale.
Motivation for proactive enforcement was measured using five questions on which officers rated the degree to which they were willing to respond proactively to various criminal activities in the community. They were then asked to rate the degree of change in this proactive willingness following the "anti-police" judicial verdicts. The Proactive Enforcement Scale became a 25 point scale and the Proactive Enforcement Since Verdicts Scale became a 10 point scale.
Statistical analysis revealed a significant negative relationship between officers' Alienation score and their Mastery score, where one unit of increase in the Alienation score lowered the Mastery score by 0.54, net of impacts of all other variables (i.e., age, race, rank, education, marital status, and degree of urbanism). These results supported the predicted relationship between alienation and mastery.
A significant negative relationship was also found between both age and race and mastery. Other things being equal, a one year increase in age lowered the Mastery score by .08, and nonwhite police officers scored 1.55 units lower on the Mastery Scale than white officers. This means younger or white officers generally had a higher level of mastery than older or nonwhite officers.
THE EFFECT OF ALIENATION ON PROACTIVE ENFORCEMENT
Statistical analysis revealed a significant negative relationship between officers' Alienation score and their Proactive Enforcement score, where one unit of increase in the Alienation score lowered the Proactive Enforcement score by .21, net of impacts of all other variables. These results supported the predicted relationship between alienation and proactive enforcement.
A significant negative relationship was also found between both age and race and proactive enforcement. Other things being equal, a one year increase in age lowered the Proactive Enforcement score by .12, and white police officers scored 1.32 units lower on the Proactive Enforcement Scale than nonwhite officers. This means younger or nonwhite officers generally have more desire for proactive enforcement than older or white officers.
Statistical analysis revealed a significant negative relationship between officers' Alienation score and their Proactive Enforcement Since Verdicts score, where one unit of increase in the Alienation score lowered the Proactive Enforcement Since Verdicts score by .11, net of impacts of all other variables. These results supported the predicted relationship between alienation and proactive enforcement since verdicts.
A significant negative relationship was also found between age and proactive enforcement since verdicts. Other things being equal, a one year increase in age lowered the Proactive Enforcement Since Verdicts score by .07. This means younger police officers generally have more desire for proactive enforcement since verdicts than older officers.
CONCLUSION AND IMPLICATIONS
Overall, the major hypothesis of the present study was confirmed. As the level of community alienation perceived by police officers increased, their sense of mastery deceased, and so too their willingness to engage in proactive law enforcement activities. In addition, statistical analysis supported the study's secondary prediction that officers expressing a higher level of alienation would also express less willingness for proactive enforcement since the "anti-police" judicial verdicts.
With respect to individual characteristics, results revealed that older officers self-reported lower levels of mastery, less willingness for proactive enforcement, and less willingness for proactive enforcement since verdicts. This finding is consistent with other research results that senior officers generally express more negative job attitudes and futility about their work. Also, compared to nonwhite officers, white officers reported a higher level of mastery and less willingness for proactive enforcement. This finding may have been influenced by the fact that all of the highly publicized "anti-police" judicial verdicts cited in this study involved white officers.
Although it was expected that officers working in communities with a higher degree of urbanism would experience the most alienation, there was no statistically significant difference found for this variable and the results were inconclusive. This could be due to the lack of participation by any true "big city" police department. Departments of this type declined to participate in this study because they viewed the survey questions regarding the Rodney King, Malice Green, and O.J. Simpson cases as too politically sensitive.
The results of this study underscore the importance of minimizing police officer alienation, especially in community policing programs. Alienated officers are likely to experience less mastery on the job and to become less willing to respond proactively to prevent and control crime. Negative attitudes displayed by alienated officers can affect the morale and productivity of an entire department.
This study suggests the need for creative approaches to reducing the impact of alienation on police performance. For example, officers can be trained to recognize the prominent features of alienation such as powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, isolation, and self-estrangement. They can learn about cultural diversity, community values, and the nature of citizen expectations. They can be taught to understand the psychological experience of alienation, how it is produced, and how to avoid it. Also, they can learn to take the negative attitudes and unrealistic expectations of citizens less personally---perhaps even experience compassion for separate cultural realities.
If signs of alienation begin to surface, actions to improve police-community integration can be taken through town meetings, roll call discussions, officer residency initiatives, and implementing patrol techniques involving greater citizen contact. Police administrators can provide greater clarity in policy specifications, especially regarding highly controversial and potentially inflammatory enforcement situations, such as the use of force, high speed vehicle chases, and interracial enforcement actions. Finally, administrators can increase their efforts to provide consistent support and recognition of good police work.
During statistical analysis the variable of "gender" was eliminated because females only comprised 4.8% of the sample and "seniority" was eliminated because it is more a function of age.
b The term significance here refers to "statistical significance" which means this type of relationship is very likely to exist in the general population of police officers. For reasons of brevity only variables attaining significance are discussed in this article.
[i]. R. Bobinsky, 1994; O. Burden, 1992; S. Mastrofski et al., 1995
[ii]. E. Durkheim, 1951, 1984; E. Fromm, 1941, 1955; K. Marx, 1844, 1846, 1867; G. Simmel, 1950, 1971
[iii]. L. Wilson, 1989
[iv]. R. Bobinsky, 1994
[v]. C. Bartol, 1982; G. Theodorson, 1979
[vi]. B. King, 1995; C. Mottaz, 1983; M. Pogrebin, 1987
[vii]. M. Pogrebin, 1987
[viii]. M. Seeman, 1959
[ix]. R. Bobinsky, 1994; O. Burden, 1992; S. Mastrofski et al., 1995
[x]. B. King, 1995
[xi]. B. Berg et al., 1984; M. Pogrebin, 1987; D. Schmidt et al., 1982
Robert C. Ankony, PhD, is a sociologist who writes criminological, firearms, and military articles for scientific and professional journals and special-interest magazines. He served in a large metropolitan sheriff's department and as an Army Ranger in Vietnam. He is the author of Lurps: A Ranger’s Diary of Tet, Khe Sanh, A Shau, and Quang Tri, revised ed., (Lanham, MD: Hamilton Books, 2009). Nominated for the Army Historical Foundation’s 2006 and 2009 Distinguished Writing Award.
Originally published in The Police Chief, October 1999, 150--53.