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ASU professor's research finds teens' confidence in law enforcement plummets

Data from nationwide survey shows drop in perception of police but not other authority

July 05, 2019

An Arizona State University professor’s new research has discovered that teenagers’ positive perceptions of law enforcement have decreased dramatically in the past few years, even as their confidence in other institutions has remained stable.

Adam Fine, an assistant professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at ASU, discovered the shift in attitudes by analyzing data from the nationwide Monitoring the Future survey of young people. His article was published in Developmental Psychology.

“I typically study kids in the juvenile justice system, but for this paper, I wanted to look at kids in the community. What do these kids actually think about law enforcement and the justice system?” he said.

“With the national conversations surrounding policing and law enforcement these days, this is huge.”

The research was based on the stereotype that teenagers are negative about all authority.

“My argument is maybe, but we should establish if kids are differentiating between law enforcement and the justice system on the one hand and other types of authority on the other,” he said.

It turns out they are.

The Monitoring the Future study surveys about 50,000 students every year in the 48 contiguous United States. Fine and his co-authorsFine's co-authors are Emily Kan and Elizabeth Cauffman, both of the University of California, Irvine. used data from more than 10,000 teens from 2006 to 2017. The survey questions mostly measure drug use and attitudes toward drugs, but also include a question about authority. The teens were asked to rate how good or bad a job was being done for the country by police and law enforcement agencies, the justice system, public schools and religious organizations on a scale of one (very poor) to five (very good).

Until 2015, the results showed that teens tended to have the most confidence in religious institutions, followed by public schools and then law enforcement, while they viewed the justice system least favorably. But from 2015 to 2017, teens’ perception of law enforcement dropped to be equally as negative as the justice system, he said.

The team also found differences by race.

“What I thought I’d find, knowing that black youths are disproportionately criminalized in schools, including being expelled and suspended, was that they would view schools more like police and the justice system — a controlling, law enforcement authority,” he said.

But what he found was that across the last decade, black youths in the United States perceive social authorities, like religious institutions and schools, much more positively than do white youths. However, they also reported the worst perceptions of legal authority compared with other racial groups.

“That’s a really important story to tell,” he said.

Fine said he believes the change in perception is driven by teens’ use of social media, where in recent years they have seen a surge of content about policing.

“A variety of studies have looked at exposure to social media and linked that to poor perceptions of police,” he said.

Fine said that in another paper published a few years ago, his team found that black youths, with the same arrest history as white and Latino youth, reported worse perceptions of law enforcement and the justice system.

“On the one hand you could say they’re reporting worse perceptions. On the other hand, you could say their perceptions are more realistic.”

In a paper published a few months ago, Fine looked at perceptions of law enforcement by teens according to their political party preference.

“Similarly, because it’s the same data set, we found that perceptions have declined pretty dramatically in recent years,” he said.

“But kids who identify as Democrats or liberals report substantially worse perceptions of law enforcement than kids who identify more as Republican or conservative,” he said.

However, that effect was limited exclusively to white youths.

“We don’t see the same effect with Hispanic/Latinx kids or black/African American kids. The reality of being a person of color is more impactful than your political preference,” Fine said.

Fine is also researching the effectiveness of a California-based nonprofit program called Team Kids that brings police officers into elementary schools to work on community service projects with students. That article should be published soon.

“This organization is one of the few that’s trying to repair these relationships and rebuild them and create positive change,” he said.