Public Perceptions of Police: Connecting Unrelated Dots

Public Perceptions of Police: Connecting Unrelated Dots

I had a rare privilege this morning. I had the chance to sit over breakfast and a very welcome cup of coffee in a local restaurant, planning the work ahead and, I’ll confess, eavesdropping on the conversations around me.

I’m a professional eavesdropper, in a way, because I am (a) a political scientist, and (b) particularly interested in public perceptions of politics. While public opinion polls provide one source of public perceptions, there’s nothing like the chatter in a bar or restaurant, or in line at the movie theater or coffee shop, for providing insights into how the public may be thinking.

This morning, the conversation that drew my attention was between a gentlemen, mid-forties or older, and the server at the counter. They were talking about the police.

For those who might not know, West Central Florida news outlets have carried a number of stories about police misconduct, episodically, for the last many months. Most recently, two police chiefs in the area were relieved of their duties, one who announced her resignation and then was put on administrative leave (Lakeland), one by firing (Plant City).

In both cases, sexual scandals are an important part of the story. In Lakeland’s case, the chief’s planned resignation was a direct result of the sex scandal.  The last straw, however, wasn’t about sex, but about alleged improper conduct related to the hiring of a relative.

In Plant City’s case, it is the chief himself who is at the center of the allegations that have created a sex and cover up scandal.

Both stories have generated a lot of press, and a lot of Internet activity. A Google search I ran this morning (Friday, 1/31/14) for “Lakeland police sex scandal” generated more than 66,000 hits. A search for “Plant City police chief fired sex cover up” generated nearly two million.

Other than geography and common profession, the Lakeland and Plant City police departments aren’t linked. Nor is there a connection between, say, Lakeland or Plant City police and Tampa police, who also have been suffering through a scandal related to the operation of the DUI squad.

But the public connects the dots.

I remember lying on my back waiting for some medical procedure, staring up at the white acoustic tile ceiling. My imagination began to connect the dots that punctured that ceiling, tracing amusing caricatures of people and animals. This is exactly what we, as “the public,” do with the bits of news and rumor we retain out of the avalanche of messages with which we are confronted each day.  We often know that something has happened, but not who or where. What sticks in our heads are the more evocative words, like “police,” “sex” and “scandal.”

The picture that results, when we connect these remembered dots, is a caricature, not a life-like portrait. But it creates order out of the bits of information, and it provides grist for the conversational mill. So we talk, pointing out the pattern we drew, and others, subject to our suggestion, see it, too.

It’s an important point for public information officers and politicians alike to realize.

When scandal strikes, the innocent are tarnished with the guilty.

In this specific case, dedicated police officers everywhere, whose careers have been marked by professional excellence and personal devotion to the safety of their communities, are caught up in a caricature that prompts a server to say, “So who can we call when we’re in trouble?” and a customer to affirm that “You can’t trust the police.” Such is the burden public-spirited officers in Lakeland, and Plant City, and Tampa . . . not to mention officers everywhere else . . . are forced to bear.

If only the guilty, before they were guilty of anything other than thought, paused to consider the harm they would do to others . . . to all of us . . . by their selfish acts.

Perhaps we would be tracing a different picture right now.