The relationship between the law and society is one of the fundamental issues in sociology, especially in the sociology of law that has become widely spread and studied in the past several decades. Hence, modern sociologists pay special attention to researching topical questions relating to the correlation between the law and society, thereby offering various interpretations of the existing sociological theories and suggesting new approaches. One of the most significant questions currently studied globally concerns the sociological perspective of law enforcement and the related issues connected with its foundations in society. As this topic is extremely broad and cannot be fully analyzed within a limited number of pages, the present paper will focus on a particular issue of the law and society relationship, which consists in the public confidence in policing, with regard to C. Wright Mills’ concept of sociological imagination. Policing in its various forms plays an integral role in fulfilling the function of law enforcement and underlies the grounds for the harmonious relations between the law and society. Thus, the confidence of the public in policing is an essential prerequisite for such relations, which necessitates its further analysis both from theoretical and empirical perspectives. The matter is that, nowadays, public confidence in policing significantly varies across countries, being affected by a multitude of factors, many of which are not measurable and well understood. Overall, public confidence in policing is a highly topical and important aspect of the law and society relationship that can be explained from the sociological perspective of the law rather than the natural law standpoint. Thus, it exerts a considerable impact on the public perception of the law and law enforcement, thereby affecting society’s inclination to obey the law.
To study public confidence in policing and its real-life policy implications, it is necessary to provide a brief overview of the theories relating to the natural law perspective, the sociological perspective of law, policing and its main types, as well as other sociological theories that may prove to be useful in the process of the research. Hence, the natural law and the sociological perspective of law are two opposing visions of the law and society relationship that have their supporters and opponents (Silbey, 1989). The article by Silbey (1989), presenting a detailed discussion of the two perspectives, is not among the recent ones; yet, due to the fact that it provides a comprehensive explanation of the object of research, it has not lost its topicality and relevance, which is why it has been selected for the present study.
The natural law vision claims that the law is a kind of moral mirror that reflects a lifestyle, social values, and social relations that are beyond the framework of the law (Silbey, 1989). This vision prioritizes hierarchical relations between moral values and the law as well as stipulates an ideal version of the latter, providing a set of eternal and immutable principles that the society has to follow to comply with the law (Silbey, 1989).Yet, the given view of the law and society relationship is not applicable to policing despite the fact that the latter should be based on a set of moral principles and values. However, policing should evolve and develop along with the society similar to the law that has to be amended to reflect the changes and developments in the social life. In turn, the sociological perspective of the law is definitely more modern and more applicable to the issue under consideration. From this perspective, the law and the society are separated, and their instrumental relationship is considered rather problematic by nature (Silbey, 1989). The law is viewed as a product of the state that, at the same time, can control it to some extent and instill order in the society; yet, the priority is given to the instrumental utility of the law rather than its sources and morality (Silbey, 1989). Therefore, in terms of this perspective, the law is not something eternal and unchangeable. Such an approach accords with the view of policing as a phenomenon that has evolved and needs to evolve further with the development of the society and the emergence of new social phenomena, such as, for instance, social digitalization studied by Larsson (2012) who claims that it significantly impacts the relations between the law and the society.
Manning & Martin (2015) add that the issue of policing should be considered not only from the sociological perspective of the law, but also with the application of the sociology of knowledge approach. Under this approach, it is necessary to consider the impact of ideologies and social interests on the sociological study of various issues, including policing (Manning & Martin, 2015). The given approach also calls for providing a more accurate new definition of policing that would embrace the impact of social interests. The conventional definition of policing considers it “an institution of governance, an extension of the executive branch” that is tasked with “managing formal social control within the context of the nation-state” (Manning & Martin, 2015, p. 246). However, this definition fails to acknowledge that there exist many forms of formal policing that are embedded into sociologic systems, with most research and policies focusing on the police, as the only form of policing, and its daily crime deterrent functions. This way, various modern functions of policing are not acknowledged even though the latter used to have one general function of maintaining integrity of the state body politics only until the 18th century (Manning & Martin, 2015).
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Bittner (1990), who is among the key researchers of policing, agrees with the need to distinguish between different types of policing and suggests adopting a means-focus approach to the police rather than the normative view. Under this approach, “The role of police is best seen as a mechanism for the distribution of non-negotiable force employed in accordance with the dictates of an intuitive grasp of situational exigencies” (Bittner, 1990, p. 131). Respectively, interventions used by the police do not focus on the needs and preferences of the society, but rather represent conventional conflict management practices adopted and used by the police. Such an approach affects public confidence in policing because social norms and values are frequently ignored in the process of policing. In this respect, Jobard (2012) claims that the police, as a formal type of policing, represent irrationality in the contemporary rationalized world since they rely on magic. The concept of magic as explained by Jobard (2012) is based on Durkheim’s theory that distinguishes between practitioners of sacred arts, who know why they are acting in a certain way, and magicians who do not really believe in the premises governing their actions. The view of the police as magicians complies with the view relating to the use of imagery by the police. Overall, there are the following main types of policing: private policing, or policing performing traditionally public police functions, hybrid policing, and public police (Manning & Martin, 2015). Although all these types of policing are worth studying, it seems of primary importance to research public confidence in public police, which is the formal policing present in all nation-states globally and performing key policing functions.
Public confidence in policing implies the importance of studying the impact of cultural norms and social values with respect to the level of this confidence. Therefore, recently, the sociology of police has started incorporating the cultural anthropologic perspective with a view to better understanding modern relations between the law and the society (Jauregui, 2013). The merging of the two sciences is especially evident in the study of policing in post-colonial societies (Jauregui, 2013). In fact, such an approach has allowed to reveal the significant role that cultural knowledge has played in the process of the society policing during colonization, for instance, in Dutch Indonesia (Stoler, 2009). Public confidence in policing seems to be best studied from the neo-Durkheimian perspective, which implies that people’s perception of policing depends on their views of its effective addressing the things that are hostile to the existing social order (Jackson & Sunshine, 2007).Thus, from this perspective, crime is seen as one of many threats to the social moral structure, and policing is tasked with preserving this moral structure in addition to its primary obligation of fighting and preventing crime (Jackson & Sunshine, 2007). With respect to the theoretical foundations of policing and the priorities in the law and society relationship, researchers determine three key traditions, including the policing systems with Anglo-American, Soviet, and Continental roots (Manning & Martin, 2015). The Anglo-American historical model of policing is based on the common law ideal, while East Asian policing is based on the German and French law enforcement systems (Martin, 2014). In turn, modern Chinese policing is a relatively recent phenomenon that has been undergoing changes under the influence of economic and social reforms (Cao & Hou, 2001).
Relying on the above-discussed theoretical perspectives, the present paper assumes that policing is based on the sociological perspective of the law and uses the sociology of knowledge approach to the study of policing. Thus, policing is dependent to some extent on the values, norms, and ideologies of the society that determine the essence and practices of policing. This theoretical perspective is partially compliant with the concept of the living law developed by Eugen Ehrlich as interpreted by Antonov (2014). Antonov (2014) does not agree with Weber’s and Kelsen’s criticism of Ehrlich’s concept of living law accusing him of theoretically isolating the state from lawmaking. In turn, Antonov (2014) claims that Ehrlich’s vision of the law was aimed at incorporating the knowledge of social facts and the existing legal and social dysfunctions into the normative knowledge of the law as stipulated by the state. Such a view is applicable to the current vision of public confidence in policing as most researchers interested in the issue, such as Sindall et al. (2012), Stults & Baumer (2007), and others, focus on the deficiencies and gaps in policing that cause public mistrust. Kane (2003) points out that a popular view is that policing and public confidence in policing may be explained through the minority group-threat theoretical hypothesis, under which there is a presence of particular ethnic and racial minorities. However, this hypothesis has been proved inaccurate and wrong by the empirical study by Stults & Baumer (2007) who have found no statistically significant correlation between formal policing, in particular, the number of police officers deployed in certain neighborhoods, and the ethno-racial composition of the population in the studied neighborhoods. Both Kane (2003) and Stults & Baumer (2007) suggest that it may be necessary to study the impact of some other values and norms on policing rather than race- and ethnicity-related ones. In this respect, the sociology of knowledge approach helps understand what other factors influence policing as shown by the discussion of the substantive material below.
The above assertions of the theoretical perspective of the law and the society from the standpoint of public confidence in policing are supported by the substantive material obtained from the empirical studies of the level of public confidence in policing and the key factors affecting it. As already mentioned, the racial and ethnic composition of the society has been hypothesized to impact policing, especially with popular media stories about racial policing. However, Stults & Baumer (2007) have proved the invalidity of the minority threat perspective empirically, with respect to the police force size. In turn, under the natural law perspective, the fear of crime and increasing crime rates signaling the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of policing should have eroded public confidence in crime (Jackson et al., 2009). However, Jackson et al. (2009) provide statistically significant results of the study proving that public confidence in policing is not related to crime rates and fear of crime. These findings undermine a conventional public view of the police and policing, according to which their main duty is to reduce and prevent crime as well as ensure public safety.
The study by Jackson et al. (2009), in turn, supports the sociology of knowledge approach and the neo-Durkheimian perspective introduced by Jackson & Sunshine (2007). Jackson et al. (2009) have conducted a study of public confidence in policing in a rural region of the UK that has revealed that public believes that the police have a wide range of roles besides their crime prevention core function. Public confidence, thus, depends on people’s assessment of social cohesion, social order, trust, and moral consensus (Jackson et al., 2009). Similar findings have been obtained by Sunshine & Tyler (2003) who claim that public perception and respective confidence in policing depend on whether police officers are recognized as representatives of the community’s morals and values. The community identifies with the police only when the latter communicates its adherence to and intention to preserve communal values, for instance, by treating the former with fairness and respect (Sunshine & Tyler, 2003). This way, the findings by Jackson et al. (2009, p. 101) claim “people look to the police to defend community values and moral structures, especially when they believe these structures to be under threat”. Another finding is that risk and crime do not really affect public confidence in policing. In turn, people’s concerns about social cohesion and disorder are significant predictors of the confidence in policing (Jackson et al., 2009). Moreover, public confidence depends not on the ways in which policing in general and the police in particular respond to the threats to disorder and cohesion, but rather on their previous actions that have allowed such threats to emerge in the first place. In general, the study by Jackson et al. (2009) challenges a formal view of public policing as it proves that the society believes policing to have a wide range of roles. The majority of them concern the preservation of social order, norms, morals, and values rather than crime fighting as a mere manifestation of the existence of deeper underlying problems in the society.
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However, Sindall et al. (2012), in their study, have obtained data that disagree with the theoretical assertions argued herein and confirm a hypothesis within the natural law perspective by proving that public confidence in policing is related to the perceptions of crime and the property crime rate only. The study by Sindall et al. (2012) has been aimed at revealing the key drivers of public perception of crime through conducting time-series analyses. In fact, the studies of public confidence and perception of policing have been quite spread over the past two decades since the specialized and target-oriented policing introduced in the countries with the Anglo-American policing system in the 1980s-1990s has significantly reduced the crime rate. However, the society has been convinced that the crime rate has been rising, which contributed to the decline in confidence (Herrington & Millie, 2006). Such discrepancy between objective reality and subjective perceptions has evoked the immense interest of the researchers in the issue. Contrary to the findings by Jackson et al. (2009) and Jackson & Sunshine (2007), Sindall et al. (2012) provide statistical evidence that, in the period from 2001 to 2008, public confidence in the police as a formal type of policing was significantly dependent on the fluctuations in people’s monthly perceptions of the crime rate, disruptive disorder, and objective property crime rates. In turn, violent crime and theft rates had no statistically significant impact on public confidence in crime; however, Signall et al. (2012) hypothesize that people’s perceptions are influenced by the police’s ability to solve crimes. The matter is that property crimes have the lowest solving rate, which influences people’s satisfaction with policing. Even though this analysis shows that crime affects public confidence in policing, yet Signall et al. (2012) use subjective perceptions of crime accepted in the society studied by the researchers.
Nonetheless, the study by Cao & Hou (2001) does not agree with the above findings and provides data to support the assertion that the integration of social norms and values into policing contributes to the improvement of public confidence. Cao & Hou (2001) conduct a comparative analysis of the public confidence in policing in the USA and China showing how policing in these two countries adapts and incorporate social values. Both law enforcement systems are focused on crime prevention; however, in China, policing is focused on social control that “is achieved largely through forced population stability and a form of culturally based ‘community policing’” performed, for instance, by means of household registration (Cao & Hou, 2001, p. 87). In turn, policing in the USA is based on the respect for individualism, freedom, and decentralization of authority (Cao & Hou, 2001). This way, policing is shown to be flexible and adaptive to the values and norms of society.
Policy Implications and Conclusion
The above assertions have implications for policies relating to policing all over the world. The best way to assess the effectiveness of the respective current policies is through the measurement of public confidence in policing. Thus, in the USA, despite the media stories of police brutality and recent demonstrations against racial profiling and police conduct, the overall level of confidence in the police is high, being at the level of 52% as of 2015 (James et al., 2016, p. 2). This means that the majority of the population has a “great deal” or “quite a lot” confidence in the police, while 30% have some confidence, and 16% have “very little” confidence in policing (James et al., 2016, p. 2). The confidence rate varies according to income and race, with Blacks (30%) having the least confidence in the police as compared to whites (57%) and Hispanics (52%) (James et al., 2016, p. 2). With respect to income, higher income households have more confidence in policing than lower income ones. The U.S. confidence level is the highest in both Americas, which may be explained by its high ranking in the democracy index (Herrman et al., 2011, p. 1). Besides, the confidence level in the USA has decreased since 2011 when it amounted to 56.1% (Herrman et al., 2011, p. 1). Surprisingly, in 2011, Canada was ranked 11th in terms of its confidence rate with the level of 48.7% (Herrman et al, 2011, p.1). Nonetheless, contrary to the U.S. decline in confidence, the Canadian policies have managed to improve it. Thus, as of 2014, 73% of Canadians believe that the police were good at their job and were quite approachable. 70% believed that they successfully ensured citizens’ safety, 65% felt confident about proper enforcement of laws, and 68% reported that the police responded to the calls in a prompt manner and treated all fairly (Cotter, 2015, p. 3). The study by Chow (2012) shows that public confidence in policing among Canadians is directly impacted by individuals’ socio-economic status, neighborhood type, previous contact with the police, and criminal victimization.
Overall, it is evident that the Canadian policies have been more efficient and effective in ensuring and promoting public confidence in policing as its level has been increasing in the recent years, while, in the USA, the level has decreased and now covers slightly more than a half of the population. However, the policies put in place can significantly improve the existing confidence levels. Firstly, the current policies should be thoroughly assessed and critically evaluated in terms of their reflection of the topical social values and perceptions. Secondly, in order to understand the society’s perception of policing in general and the police in particular, it is necessary to conduct a nationwide study of the public perception of the police, including their strengths and weaknesses, as well as the key roles. Thirdly, the policy-makers should reconsider their reliance on the view of policing as a means of preventing and deterring crime and start seeing it as a way of promoting social stability, enhancing social cohesion, and establishing trustful and reliant relations between the law and the society. Fourthly, as proven by Larsson (2012), the modern society has become largely digitalized; consequently, this tendency should be taken into consideration when developing policies, for instance, by increasing the online presence of the police and implementing policies ensuring people’s safety online through relevant policing measures. Finally, the public should be more engaged in policing through the development of policies envisioning community participation and mobilization. The main purpose of the revised policies should be to make the police, as a formal policing agent, an integral part of the cohesive society, embedded into it not through force and normative law, but rather through the adoption of shared values and morals.
Withal, there are many topical issues relating to the field of the law and the society, with public confidence in policing being one of them. The present paper has argued that public confidence in policing should be considered from such theoretical perspectives as the neo-Durheimian and the sociology of knowledge, which means that, in practice, respective policies should incorporate public values, norms, and morals and be constantly adapted to changes occurring in them. The existing Canadian policies have proven to be quite effective and successful as the current level of confidence in policing in the country is rather high; however, they can be further improved by taking into account the views and values of individuals. Other countries can study and emulate the Canadian example by adapting the policies to their local contexts.