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Public Opinion and Crime - The Police

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Most Americans, it is fair to say, have reason to be ambivalent toward the police. On the one hand, the police contribute to crime prevention and offer the hope of protection and justice to victims of crime. On the other hand, they are symbols of authority (to some, oppressive authority) in our society. The most common contacts between the public and the police—traffic violations—are not often remembered as pleasant events by citizens. It may be somewhat surprising, therefore, to find that the public generally holds the police in very high regard. In repeated Gallup surveys, substantial majorities (70 percent in 1965, 77 percent in 1967, 60 percent in 1991) report that they have "a great deal" of respect for the police in their area. In 1994, 46 percent of respondents to a Gallup survey rated the honesty and ethical standards of the police as "very high" or "high," a rating that places police in the company of medical doctors and college teachers. And a national survey conducted by the National Victim Center revealed that the public rates the performance of the police above that of prosecutors, judges, prisons, and parole boards (Warr, 1995). Ultimately, it appears that any ambivalence that citizens feel toward the police is largely overcome by the fact that the police are the most visible element in our society's effort to insure public safety, and are the first persons to whom citizens often turn when they fall victim to crime.

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