Do you trust the police?

In an exclusive chapter from his book 'The Psychology of Trust' – part of the Routledge series 'The Psychology of Everything' – Ken Rotenberg considers big issues of racial bias, corruption and police trust in themselves.

Philando Castile, a 32-year-old Black man, was shot in his car by a Minnesota police officer. A live video of the shooting was posted on Facebook by Castile’s girlfriend, who had been in the car at the time. Castile had told the officer that he had a licensed firearm and reached for his wallet. The gunshot wounds resulted in death. According to the video, the officer told Castile not to move. As Castile was putting his hands back up, the officer shot him in the arm four or five times. This is not an isolated incident in the US. The number of Americans killed by the police each year is substantial: there 807 to date of this chapter and most are from minority groups (see Guardian News, 2015). Public websites now document the individuals in the US who have been killed by the police (e.g., The laws have now changed and police in the US are required to report those killings quarterly (see Guardian News, 2016). Katz (2015) has proposed that police killings in the US should be prosecuted by agencies or groups independent of the existing legal system, such as a police ombudsman or a Bureau of the Investigation of Police Affairs. Other events now show how dire some police-community relationships have become. On Thursday evening (July 7, 2016) in Belo Garden Park, Dallas, 12 police officers were shot by two snipers: 5 were killed and 7 were injured. The attack occurred after a rally protesting the deaths of two Black men at the hands of the police. In the aftermath, marches have been held in the US that protested the police killings of minorities, particularly Black men (see Trust in the police is perhaps the most controversial issue in the US in contemporary times. There is evidence that it is a growing problem around the world.

The aforementioned events throw in high relief the view that the public’s trust in the police is essential to the maintenance of social order. For example, Tyler and Huo (2002) found that individuals’ trust in legal authorities such as the police was associated with their compliance with authorities’ decisions and laws. It has been argued that without such trust, society is at risk for lawbreaking and misconduct, and police have difficulty in carrying out their law enforcement duties (Goldsmith, 2005; Sunshine & Tyler, 2003). In that vein, being a police officer is one of the most stressful occupations in contemporary society (see Ortega, Brenner, & Leather, 2007). The job may become more stressful yet.

Is trust in the police as low as implied by these events?

Views of how much the public trust the police vary dramatically, particularly in the US. McNamara (2012) has insisted that trust in the police in the US is very strong. By contrast, Williams (2010) has insisted that trust in the police in the US is low – largely because of police brutality (as per the introduction to this chapter). Which is it? Before answering this question, several cautions need to be expressed. First, researchers in psychology tend not to claim that the scales have absolute values. Rather, researchers regard scales as relative measures that permit comparisons (e.g., whether trust is lower or higher). Also, one major issue is how trust is assessed. In studies on the topic of the public trust the police, people have been asked to make single judgments regarding their “trust” or “confidence” – which have uncertain meanings, Furthermore, the meanings of those terms are likely different for different individuals and for different cultures.

With those limitations in mind, here are some of the findings. A 2009–2010 British Crime Survey by the Home Office reported that only 46% of people residing in the UK have confidence in the police. Derek Prall (2014) reported the findings from a Gallup poll phone survey of approximately 1,000 adults who were sampled from generally high-income, democratic countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Americans’ confidence in local police fell in the middle of the group of countries, with 78% of Americans reporting they had confidence in the police. Trust (confidence) in the police is low in Latin America and that has been attributed to elevated crime rates (notably being a victim of crime), and poor political and economic performance (Corbacho, Philipp, & Ruiz-Vega, 2015; Jamison, 2011). Self-reported confidence or trust in police is very low in Russia and that has been attributed to corruption – including bribery, unfair treatment, and abuse of power (Semukhina & Reynolds, 2014).

An analysis of the 2004 European Social Survey (ESS) was carried out by Kääriäinen (2007), which required individuals to rate how much they personally trusted the police. The data analysis of samples from 16 countries showed that the top four countries for trust in the police were Nordic countries: Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The next ranked countries in trust in the police were Central and West European countries such as Germany, Luxembourg, Austria, and the UK The countries with the lowest trust in the police were mainly in post-socialist countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovenia. The research showed that trust in the police was statistically associated with (in order from highest to lowest) perceived corruption, welfare expenditure of GNP, and how safe people felt walking alone in their local areas after dark. Interestingly, trust in the police was not appreciably associated with being a victim of burglary. Finally, it was found that perceived corruption primarily accounted (in statistical terms) for the differences between the countries in their trust in the police.

To what extent are the police corrupt?

One insight into this issue is provided by Porter and Warrender (2009) who coded 50 cases of records of criminality by the police. The analyses yielded three types of deviant behaviour in the police: (a) police crime, (b) noble cause misconduct, and (c) corruption. The researchers reported that Police Crime usually involved constables committing proactive single criminal offences alone. Personal gain was the most frequent motive. As the authors noted, objective data on corruption is difficult to obtain because of limited access to that information by legal authorities and by officers’ unwillingness to report the deviance of fellow officers. Other researchers have identified what has been called the “code of silence”, which involves police officers’ unwillingness to report criminal activities by other fellow officers (Ivkovic´, Peacock, & Haberfeld, 2016).

What about justice and trust?

Tyler and his colleagues (e.g., Tyler, 2015; Sunshine & Tyler, 2003) have examined trust in police in relation to procedural justice and legitimacy. “Procedural justice” refers to the extent to which police are believed to make decisions and exercise their authority in a fair fashion. “Legitimacy” corresponds to confidence in authority of the police. According to this approach, people accept the legal decisions and actions of the police (and courts) when those decisions and acts are viewed as fair as well as legitimate. For example, Tyler and his colleagues (Tyler, 2001) found that perceptions of trust in the police (and courts) by majority and minority Americans are associated with their perceptions of procedural justice, which included being treated fairly by the police.

Other studies have examined the relations between trust and procedural justice in the police organisation. Sholihin and Pike (2010) found that senior police officers’ trust in their supervisors (e.g., felt free to discuss matters with supervisor) was associated with perceptions of procedural fairness and their commitment to the police force. Furthermore, the relation between procedural fairness and commitment was found to be mediated by the police officers’ trust in their supervisors. The researchers argued that the officers’ trust in their superiors affected their commitment to the police force and that was responsible (in part) for the relation between perceived procedural fairness of the police force and commitment to the force.

Are there racial biases in the publics' trust in the police?

A number of studies have shown that trust in the police in the US is associated with race. Minorities (notably Black people), show lower trust in the police than do majorities (e.g., MacDonald & Stokes, 2006; Thompson & Kahn, 2016). For example, MacDonald and Stokes (2006) used the data gathered by the Social Capital Benchmark Survey, which was a national random-digit dial telephone survey of 3,003 US residents. The participants completed a 3-point rating of their trust in their local police; the Social Capital Benchmark Survey, which included items assessing their trust and civic engagement in communities (including self-reported trust in their neighbours); and demographic measures (e.g., race, income, and age). The researchers found that self-reported trust in the police was positively associated with social capital, age, and income. Black people reported lower trust in police than did Caucasian people and race was the strongest statistical predictor of that trust, compared to the other variables. The findings lend support to the Social Capital Approach to trust (see Chapter 1). One account of the racial biases in trust in the police is advanced by Tyler (2001) as part of the procedural justice approach. His findings supported the conclusion that the observed racial differences in trust in the police are the result of Black people regarding their treatment by the police (and courts) as comparatively unfair.

Are police officers racially biased in their duties?

The research using the shooter task yields some evidence for racial biases. For the shooter task, individuals are posed with the task of using a handgun to deal with a perpetrator of a crime. The individuals are shown images of Black people and Caucasian people (potential perpetrators) holding either a gun or a neutral object (e.g., a cell phone). The individuals are given less than one second to decide whether to shoot or not to shoot the target. A meta-analysis by Mekawi and Bresin (2015) has shown that individuals are quicker to shoot armed Black targets, slower to not shoot unarmed Black targets, and have a liberal shooting threshold for Black targets. The meta-analysis revealed that the shooting biases were found in police officers, community members, and undergraduates. According to these studies, police (as well as other people) have racial biases in the shooting of potential suspects. Some authors have voiced concerns over the reliability of those racially biased shooter effects. Correll, Hudson, Guillermo, and Ma (2014) have failed to find those shooter biases in police officers on some measures. These researchers highlight the importance of identifying factors that reduce the likelihood that police officers demonstrate the shooter bias and helping police officers to adopt strategies for controlling their attention to irrelevant cues in their policing duties.

Finally, data from major cities such as New York indicate that Black people are disproportionately the victims of police misconduct (see Katz, 2015). It is difficult to draw simple and definitive conclusions regarding racial biases in policing. It is important to be mindful of the moral and social complexity of the situation. In particular, the observed relations and patterns are enmeshed in the dynamics of law enforcer and potential perpetrator of the crime (they are reciprocal) and the emotional rhetoric regarding the relationships between the minority citizens and the police force.

What are the consequences of police officers' own trust in the police?

The BDT Framework is a useful way of assessing trust beliefs in the police because it permits explicit judgments of trustworthiness of police as part of their duties. Those include promising to provide protection to citizens (reliability-based trust), maintaining confidentiality of witness’s personal information (emotional-based trust), reporting criminal events accurately (honesty-based trust). My colleagues and I (Rotenberg, Harrison, & Reeves, 2016) have developed a Trust Beliefs in Police scale guided by the BDT Framework. Individuals are presented brief vignettes that depict the potential for police officers to demonstrate reliability, emotional trustworthiness, and honesty behaviours as part of their normal duties. Individuals judge the likelihood (expectation) that the police officers will engage in those behaviours. Because of the specificity and concreteness of the items on these scales, they are less susceptible to the problems of generality, abstractness, and social desirability that confront the use of other measures of trust in the police.

My colleagues and I (Rotenberg et al., 2016) used the Trust Beliefs in Police (TBP) scale to investigate police officers’ trust beliefs in the police. In the study, police officers completed the TBP scale from their perspective as a measure of their personal trust beliefs in the police. They also completed the TBP scale from the perspective of the community as a measure of public-ascribed trust beliefs in the police. The TBP scales yielded measures of three types of trust beliefs (in accordance with the BDT Framework): reliability, emotional, and honesty. The police officers also were administered standardised measures of their psychological well-being and stress in the workplace. It was found that the police officers held higher personal honesty-based and emotional-based trust beliefs in the police than they ascribed to the public. Specifically, compared to the police officers’ personal beliefs, the police officers reported that the community held lower beliefs that the police would refrain from emotional harm and demonstrate honesty. Also, police officers’ reliability-based personal trust beliefs in the police were positively associated with their psychological wellbeing and negatively associated with their stress in the workplace. Finally, police officers’ emotion-based publicly-ascribed trust beliefs in the police were positively associated with their psychological wellbeing and tended to be negatively associated with their stress in the workplace. The findings confirmed that police officers’ trust beliefs in the police are associated with their psychological well-being and low stress in the workplace.


The chapter reviews the controversial issues regarding police shootings and the survey research regarding whether trust in the police is high or low. The chapter reviews the research on corruption in the police, racial bias by the police, procedural justice and trust, and racial biases in people’s trust of the police. The chapter culminates in research showing that police officers’ trust in the police force is associated with their psychological well-being and low stress.

- Ken J. Rotenberg is Professor of Psychology at the University of Keele. He has been an active researcher for over 40 years, with a particular interest in trust in childhood and adolescence.

The Psychology of Everything is a series of books, published by Routledge, which debunk the popular myths and pseudo-science surrounding some of life’s biggest questions. Discover more at

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