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Do You Trust the Police? New Citywide Survey Wants to Know

By Mark Konkol | July 23, 2014 6:04am
 The Chicago Police Department teamed with researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago to expand a survey of city residents' satisfaction with officers on the street.
The Chicago Police Department teamed with researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago to expand a survey of city residents' satisfaction with officers on the street.
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Scott Olson/Getty Images

CHICAGO — About a month after my car got broken into, Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy sent me a nice note asking me to rate the officer who took the report.

“Dear Chicagoan,” he wrote, “Our records indicate that you recently had contact with a Chicago police officer, in the context of a reported crime incident or traffic crash. … We have established a new method for you to provide feedback about our performance during this encounter … an independent survey."

OK, so it was a form letter about a survey — but I appreciated it nonetheless.

So despite not being offered any perks — like other surveys that offer a chance to win cash or prizes — I logged on to take the online survey because McCarthy said participating would help the Police Department “improve its services.”

The survey asked whether the officer who took my theft report treated me politely, took the matter seriously, answered all my questions, listened to what I had to say, appeared to know what he was doing, seemed concerned about my feelings, displayed a sense of humor and offered useful tips to avoid this situation in the future.

McCarthy and University of Illinois at Chicago professor Dennis Rosenbaum teamed up in 2012 to conduct a similar survey of residents who interacted with officers in nine police districts.

And, surprisingly to some, the results found that residents had a more favorable opinion of the boys in blue than you might expect — especially considering the headlines about police torture cases (convicted officer Jon Burge), cover-ups (the Anthony Abbate bartender beating) and, of course, the skyrocketing murder rate that year.

“We have spent many years trying to figure out what is good policing, yet we still measure it in terms of crime rate, and in Chicago we measure it by the homicide rate,” Rosenbaum said.

“We’ve known for many years, probably since 1960, that the public cares about they way they’re treated by police and not just how police perform fighting violent crime. We set up a measurement system that will be a game changer for the overall assessment of the agency.”

McCarthy and Rosenbaum hope the study measures the department’s “legitimacy” and how that relates to gaining the public trust, and more specifically, how likely people are to cooperate with police in the future.

The survey “is important to our crime-reduction strategy in that it measures our interactions with community, and we have been putting an emphasis on community-based policing,” McCarthy said.

“For our officers to do their job well, with the most public support, they need the public to trust them and see them as legitimate authority figures.”

And for that, McCarthy has ordered up a citywide survey with an expanded list of questions aimed at learning more about Chicagoans’ overall view of the department.

After answering questions about my interaction with a beat cop in River West, the survey asked how much I trust police to make decisions that are good for everyone in the city, and if I have confidence the department can do its job well.

The survey also asked about the no-snitch code of silence on the street that prevents police from solving most shootings and murders.

“How likely would you be to work with police to identify a person who has committed a crime in your neighborhood?”

And there were questions about whether survey respondents “question the laws we are asked to obey” and are willing to do what police say, “even if you disagree with it.”

Rosenbaum said the new questions aim to answer one important question: What can the Chicago police do to get more residents to view the department as “legitimate” and maintain the public trust and confidence?

While UIC researchers haven’t crunched the numbers on the first six months of survey data, Rosenbaum said overall about 70 percent of respondents were “satisfied” with their encounter with an officer.

“But that varies depending on whether it was police-initiated contact — mostly traffic stops — or citizen-initiated, such as reporting a crime or being a victim,” he said.

Younger people and minorities generally had more negative feelings toward police, Rosenbaum said.

But if there’s one early takeaway, it’s this:

“What you can see in responses is that when a citizen is treated fairly, they’re listened to and not demeaned in any way, that they have more favorable rankings for officers and the department,” Rosenbaum said.

"To show concern, compassion and empathy to victims of crimes all the time is something that’s hard for police to always achieve, but it’s something that they need to work on.”

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