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Police legitimacy: identifying developmental trends and whether youths’ perceptions can be changed

Abstract

Objective

Examine youths’ perceptions of police legitimacy. Study one establishes age-graded trends in perceptions from childhood into adolescence. Study two tests whether a structured, in-school, non-enforcement-related program involving repeated prosocial exposure to police can improve youths’ perceptions of police legitimacy.

Methods

In study one, a cross-sectional sample (N = 959) of youth ages 7 to 14 was used to assess age-graded perceptions of police legitimacy. In study two, a 4-school, randomized controlled trial was conducted in Compton, California (N = 499).

Results

Age-graded differences in police legitimacy perceptions vary by race, but generally begin declining during late childhood. The program significantly improved youths’ perceptions of police legitimacy.

Conclusion

Racial differences in perceptions of police legitimacy can be traced to childhood, and perceptions of law enforcement appear to begin declining during childhood. Further, repeated exposure to law enforcement officials in a positive, non-enforcement capacity may improve youths’ legitimacy perceptions.

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Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank the schools, students, and officers for participating, the school district officials for their support, Julie Hudash and the Team Kids organization for orchestrating data collection, and the research assistants from the Youth Justice Lab at Arizona State University for their dedication. These studies would not have been possible without these collaborations.

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Fine, A.D., Padilla, K.E. & Tom, K.E. Police legitimacy: identifying developmental trends and whether youths’ perceptions can be changed. J Exp Criminol 18, 67–87 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11292-020-09438-7

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Keywords

  • Legal socialization
  • Perceptions of police
  • Police legitimacy
  • Procedural justice
  • Youth