Study Shows Police-Citizen Interactions Overwhelming Positive, Force Exceedingly Rare

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Highly publicized events like the deaths of Eric Garner in New York, Michael Brown, Jr. in Missouri, and Freddie Grey in Baltimore have ignited a national debate about the nature of police-citizen interactions, particularly those involving non-White citizens. While research shows that a majority of law enforcement action does not involve force, there is a nationwide push to confront perceptions that police are abusing their power.

Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi researchers have joined this ongoing conversation in an impactful way by studying 12 months of body camera footage from the Aransas Pass Police Department (APPD). The goal was twofold – first, to chronicle and classify the police-citizen interactions, and second, to determine whether specific factors (race/ethnicity, gender, who initiated contact, etc.) were correlated with the nature and outcomes of the interactions. For APPD, an additional goal was to use the results to enhance training programs and improve officer interactions with the public.

Dr. Sarah Scott, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice, and Dr. Wendi Pollock, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, led the research team. Scott has conducted local and state-level evaluations for numerous criminal justice agencies while Pollock is an accomplished researcher in the area of police-public contact. Additional team members included Eric Moore, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice who holds a J.D. from Harvard Law, and Emily Shafer, Islander graduate student in the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program. Moore acted as the team’s legal consultant while Shafer assisted by coding data.

“The majority of citizens have few personal interactions with police, but what they do have is a constant barrage of negative exposure to police-citizen interactions via the news or social media,” said Pollock. “Studying the number and nature of police-citizen contacts can potentially increase transparency between the two units, thereby improving safety, trust, and quality of these interactions.”

APPD began outfitting officers with body cameras in 2012 when fewer than 10 percent of police departments nationwide were using the technology. By 2014, the entire APPD was equipped with cameras, and unlike most departments that archive their footage for 60-90 days, APPD archives their footage for a full year. The city of Aransas Pass has a population of about 8,300 and is considered by the Census Bureau to be highly diverse. These reasons made Aransas Pass and APPD a natural choice as community partners.

“The APPD was really ahead of the national curve in adopting this technology,” said Scott. “They also gave our research team unfettered access to the entire database of body-camera footage. I was really impressed with the level of transparency, and I give Police Chief Eric Blanchard full credit for his dedication to serving the citizens of Aransas Pass fairly, even if that meant opening the doors for outsiders to look in.”

From the 30,000 videos uploaded by APPD from May 2016 to May 2017, the research team randomly selected 600 videos that included officer-citizen interactions to analyze – most of the clips having been recorded before officers knew the videos would be used in this specific study. It took the team about 18 months to properly scrutinize all the interactions.

“It was incredibly time-consuming to watch and code each interaction, somewhere around 325 hours of video,” said Scott, “but because we were watching video and not relying on research observations during a police officer ride-along, we were able to observe interactions as they occurred, without our presence influencing anyone’s behavior.”

Ultimately, researchers found that force of any kind was exceedingly rare and police and citizen interactions in Aransas Pass were not influenced by gender or race. Instead, the likelihood of a citizen receiving a citation or getting arrested was most strongly tied with whether they were intoxicated or pulled over for a traffic violation. Of the 600 videos reviewed by researchers, an overwhelming majority ended in a positive outcome, such as a conversation.

“In this case, what we found is that Aransas Pass Police are not only following policy and law, but they are generally very personable with the people they interact with,” said Pollock. “They do things like explain the law, give directions, laugh with folks, and give out collectable game cards to kids.”

Other major conclusions are as follows:

Police-citizen interactions were slightly more likely to be initiated by officers than members of public (38.2 percent versus 36.8 percent)
Interaction type was overwhelmingly initiated through a traffic stop (28.7 percent)
By a large margin, citizen interactions with police were most likely to end in a conversation (50.3 percent)
In only three incidences (0.5 percent) did citizens have force threatened or used against them, none of that force being lethal
Police interacted primarily with white and Latino citizens (83 percent), which is reflective of the demographic of Aransas Pass
“The people of Aransas Pass should feel good,” continued Pollock. “They can trust that their police officers generally see them as more than just someone being pulled over. Aransas Pass Police will listen to them, try to help them, and above all, seem to be willing to do their best to treat citizens with dignity and respect. Citizens can now trust that – not just because their PD says it – but because an outside group of independent researchers conducted a systematic observation of cases and found it to be true.”

Sylvia Carrillo, then City Manager for Aransas Pass and Islander MPA graduate, was the first to pitch the idea of this study to researchers at A&M-Corpus Christi. The study received major financial support from the City of Aransas Pass along with a smaller Research Enhancement Grant from the College of Liberal Arts, which supported Shafer’s work on the study.

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First State Update's Delaware editorial team covers New Castle County, Kent County and Sussex County breaking news, political news, and general news stories. We bring the reader the latest news from the Wilmington, Newark, Dover, Rehoboth Beach and all point in between. If you have news to share, email us at desk@firststateupdate.com.

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