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K-State Today

September 22, 2016



K-State researchers help RCPD examine police-citizen traffic encounters

By Susan Williams

At the request of Riley County Police Department, or RCPD, Kansas State University social scientists L. Susan Williams and A. Elizabeth Cauble researched how the department is serving the community — a first for a nonmetropolitan area.

Cauble and Williams, both associate professors, and sociology graduate assistant Laura Johnson, interviewed 115 Manhattan citizens in focus groups about perceptions of traffic laws and police-citizen encounters to gauge public attitudes toward local policing practices, particularly regarding traffic regulation. The content from the interviews, reported back to the police department, has helped it begin a new traffic safety initiative.

According to Josh Kyle, Riley County Police Department patrol commander, officers will receive extensive training in conducting traffic safety stops. They will be taught to focus on driving behaviors that are known to cause accidents and that the public have identified as an enforcement priority. Officers also will be taught to explain to drivers that they are making stops based on public input for the purpose of reducing accidents.

"The overall message gleaned from the project was simply listen," Williams said. "Citizens want to know that they are heard by the police who serve them, and RCPD is interested in listening to its citizenry. The basic notion of community trust and police legitimacy is premised on a theory of procedural justice, which is concerned with making and implementing decisions perceived to be fair."

Williams said that four components enhance mutual support between police and citizens: neutrality, trustworthy motives, "voice" in decision-making and respectful treatment — all were addressed by the study.

In addition, the study found:

  • Citizens largely agree that issues of personal safety should be well-regulated by police, and that victimless traffic violations are a lower priority and should be handled with greater latitude.
  • While outcomes, such as traffic citations matter, the mechanism that drives dissatisfaction is whether or not the citizen perceives that the officer listened and fairly considered circumstances leading to the stop.
  • Various citizen groups, based on personal experience and social identity, differ in their perceptions of motive, fairness and demeanor. In particular, underrepresented groups expressed concern and perceived disrespect with certain police interactions, and they often felt undervalued as community members. However, most acknowledged general satisfaction with the agency’s overall performance in crime control and quality-of-life issues. 
  • Issues with policing and traffic control are not isolated from general community matters and group identity concerns.

According to Williams, the research is particularly timely in the face of recommendations from the president's Task Force on 21st Century Policing to identify the best means to provide an effective partnership between law enforcement and local communities that reduces crime and increases trust.

"Several states, including Kansas, are considering mandates that would require programs of fair and impartial policing for all its police agencies," Williams said. "RCPD, with a recent history of progressive, evidence-based initiatives, plans several upcoming programs to address gaps between public perception and police practices."

The research is one of many in a series of partnerships with RCPD. The K-State research team, which also includes sociology, anthropology and social work department's associate professor Donald L. Kurtz and sociology graduate student John Grube, will evaluate the next phase of the project: an experimental design testing the effect of newly developed traffic stop procedures.

For further information regarding the research, including a summary report, please contact Williams at Kansas State University, 204 Waters Hall, 1603 Old Claflin Place, Manhattan, KS 66506; 785-532-6865, or lswilli@k-state.edu.

For questions concerning RCPD, please contact Kyle at 785-537-2112.