LAWRENCE — Policies like stop-and-frisk in New York City and investigatory police stops unfairly target racial minorities and can dramatically influence people's perception of police officers, according to a journal article by a University of Kansas researcher.
Many of the responses to police incidents across the country, and the potential policing reforms proposed by the Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing, have failed to place law enforcement in a local government context, said Shannon Portillo, associate professor in the KU School of Public Affairs & Administration.
"Although citizens interact with police both voluntarily — through calls for service — and involuntarily — such as detainment as part of a traffic or investigatory stop— the larger point is that police departments have much to lose if citizens are dissatisfied," Portillo said.
In the study, Portillo and co-author Danielle Rudes, associate professor of criminology, law and society at George Mason University, said police departments should consider working more closely with local communities and use stop-and-frisk tactics only as a last resort instead of a routine option.
In the recent article "Construction of Justice at the Street Level," published in the Annual Review of Law and Social Science, Portillo and Rudes examined the role police officers play in community as "street-level bureaucrats," or the idea that officers possess autonomy to make decisions without complete oversight as they operate in the street with limited direct supervision.
Researchers have long considered street-level bureaucrats as those who, based on the nature of their jobs and interactions with the public, have the discretion to decide how citizens interact with the state because they operate as the state agent in the interaction.
Police officers make decisions to determine if a citizen is acting unlawfully. For example, officers use their judgment to decide whom to pull over and how to structure that interaction, she said.
"As currently applied in New York City and other places, stop-and-frisk policies may well cause police to lose their legitimacy," Portillo said. "This represents a crucial challenge for police in their relationships with communities and citizens, and reactions to the policies are intimately linked to the ability of the police to investigate, solve and deter crime."
She said policies like stop-and-frisk or investigatory police stops that are often characterized as racial profiling do not mean individual police officers are racist.
"Street-level bureaucrats often mirror and propagate societal views, including the prevailing orientations toward racial and ethnic minorities and the poor, existing in the broader sociopolitical landscape," Portillo said.
Addressing those deeper issues is crucial, she said.
"As we consider police reform, we should not focus exclusively on police accountability, but also look broadly at how local governments oversee police and promote community initiatives for health, poverty reduction, education and safety," Portillo said. "Police should not see their central focus as punitive, but rather as promoting public safety and the public good. They should be part of local government efforts to improve communities."