A Field Experiment on Community Policing and Police Legitimacy


Kyle Peyton, Michael Sierra-Arévalo, and David G. Rand

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Kyle Peyton, Michael Sierra-Arévalo, David G. Rand (2019). A Field Experiment on Community Policing and Police Legitimacy, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(40):19894-19898, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1910157116.
Despite decades of declining crime rates, longstanding tensions between police and the public continue to frustrate the formation of cooperative relationships necessary for the function of the police and the provision of public safety. In response, policy makers continue to promote community-oriented policing (COP) and its emphasis on positive, nonenforcement contact with the public as an effective strategy for enhancing public trust and police legitimacy. Prior research designs, however, have not leveraged the random assignment of police–public contact to identify the causal effect of such interactions on individual-level attitudes toward the police. Therefore, the question remains: Do positive, nonenforcement interactions with uniformed patrol officers actually cause meaningful improvements in attitudes toward the police? Here, we report on a randomized field experiment conducted in New Haven, CT, that sheds light on this question and identifies the individual-level consequences of positive, nonenforcement contact between police and the public. Findings indicate that a single instance of positive contact with a uniformed police officer can substantially improve public attitudes toward police, including legitimacy and willingness to cooperate. These effects persisted for up to 21 d and were not limited to individuals inclined to trust and cooperate with the police prior to the intervention. This study demonstrates that positive nonenforcement contact can improve public attitudes toward police and suggests that police departments would benefit from an increased focus on strategies that promote positive police–public interactions.
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