Officer Friendly: Brief Door-To-Door Visits From Police Greatly Improve Trust In Law Enforcement

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — What can police officers do to regain some trust among their local communities? It’s a complex question, but researchers from Yale University are offering up a fairly simple answer. According to their research, police can greatly improve local attitudes toward law enforcement by making brief and friendly door-to-door visits.

Let’s face it: for many people the idea of the officers knocking on their door unannounced isn’t exactly the most comforting or relaxing thought. That’s the point, though; people are conditioned to only interact with cops when they’re in “trouble” or during an emergency. Normalizing police-civilian interactions can go a long way toward restoring some trust between the two parties.

The study is the first-ever randomized, controlled field experiment on how “community-oriented” policing can change local perceptions of law enforcement. Researchers conclude that just one pleasant, non-enforcement related encounter with an officer can improve trust in law enforcement and increase one’s willingness to cooperate with police.

How One Local Police Department Made A Change For Its Community

The authors worked in collaboration with the local police department in New Haven, Connecticut. Officers made a series of unannounced home visits just to check in with residents. Incredibly, even three full weeks after those visits, most residents still reported feeling more positive about the police. These findings held true across different racial and ethnic groups. In fact, non-white residents and people who were previously wary of police seemed to feel the positive effects the longest.

“Policy makers promote community-oriented policing as a means to build trust between police officers and the communities they serve, but there has been little evidence on whether the nonenforcement interactions at the heart of community policing actually cause people to view the police differently,” says Kyle Peyton, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Yale University and lead author of the study, in a release. “We found that a single, positive nonenforcement interaction with a police officer improved residents’ attitudes toward police, including perceived legitimacy and willingness to cooperate.”

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The idea that police should be more “community-oriented” isn’t brand new. Following the death of Michael Brown at the hands of Ferguson, Missouri police officers a few years ago, then-President Obama’s Task Force on 21st-Century Policing concluded that officers should be adopting a more friendly, non-adversarial, and community-oriented mindset with the public.

To start, mail surveys were sent out to many New Haven households asking respondents about their views on the police, as well as other topics such as politics, and the local government. In all, 2,013 people from 1,852 households answered the surveys and consented to take part in a follow up survey.

Next, 1,007 of those people were assigned to a “treatment group” that received home visits from cops, while another 1,006 were assigned to a control group that wasn’t visited. Among those in the treatment group, 412 actually opened their door and talked to officers who came by. During those visits officers introduced themselves, asked for any feedback on local policing, and gave the residents personalized business cards featuring their work phone number.

After all the visits had taken place, everyone across both groups was asked to fill out two followup surveys, three and 21 days later. The surveys measured locals’ views on police across four categories: legitimacy, perceived effectiveness, cooperation, and compliance.

Survey Shows Residents Appreciated Police Home Visits, Saw Officers In New Light

The home visits improved respondents’ views across all four categories, but the benefits were most prominent regarding legitimacy and effectiveness perceptions. Respondents also indicated that the visits helped them see police in a better light overall, and reduced their negative feelings toward law enforcement.

“We’re grateful to the New Haven Police Department for partnering with us to conduct this study,” Peyton says. “We hope these findings prove useful to police departments across the country as they consider adopting community-oriented approaches like the ones in New Haven to build trust, particularly in communities where police-community relations have been damaged by longstanding conflict and distrust.”

Of course, study co-author Michael Sierra-Arévalo, assistant professor in the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice, also warns that no police department should make the mistake of assuming that a few house calls will undo decades of public image damage.

“It would be a mistake to interpret our study as having found some magic solution to distrust in police that is often rooted in a history of mistreatment,” he comments. “Positive, respectful police-community interaction should be the norm in all police departments; but community policing isn’t going to solve police brutality or a lack of police accountability. Those problems demand their own attention and their own solutions.”

The study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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