By Ken J. Rotenberg1

Whatever one’s feeling towards the police, it is important to realize that trust in the police is essential to the maintenance of social order (Tyler and Huo, 2004). Without such trust, society is at risk for law-breaking/misconduct and police will find it difficult to carry-out their law enforcing duties (Goldsmith 2005; Sunshine & Tyler 2003). Let us emphasize that being a police officer is one of the most difficult jobs in contemporary society and, as research shows, it is a very stressful occupation (see Zhao He, & Lovrich, 2002).

At what level is trust in the police and is it declining? The answers to these questions are highly debatable. The British Crime Survey (2009-2010, Home Office) reported that across the UK 46% of people reported having confidence in the police indicating that 54% of people do not have that confidence. The level of trust in the police in the USA has been a continued source of controversy. Some authors have vehemently asserted that trust in the police in the USA is very strong (e.g., McNamara, 2012) whereas others have vehemently argued that trust in the police is low due to the brutality of police officers (e.g., Williams, 2010). As people might recall, former President Clinton was responsible for government initiatives designed to promote trust in the police (Seelyne, 1999). Research has shown that trust in the police in the USA is associated with race and that cultural minorities (e.g., African Americans) demonstrate lower levels of trust beliefs in the police than do other cultures. According to research, this difference is not due to cultural differences in social capital (e.g., the quality of the peoples’ communities) but rather to beliefs that police unfairly treat cultural minorities (see McDonald & Stokes, 2006).

One fact is worthwhile noting. Trust in the police varies strongly across countries and cultures. According to various sources, trust in the police is very high in Finland and northern European countries (Kaariainen, 2008) whereas there are trust in the police is very low in Australia (Murphy & Cherney, 2011).

Do policewomen get the respect they deserve? Women are latecomers to the policing profession and the question is how are they faring? Some studies have yielded evidence for the gender discrimination of police officers (see Wertsch, 1998). A number of studies have shown that policewomen endure greater stress, less satisfaction, and a greater frequently of receiving aggressive acts than do their male counterparts in the police force (e.g., Dowler & Arai, 2006; Hassell & Brandl, 2009). Dowler and Arai (2006) found that, compared to male police officers, female officers were: (1) more likely to be the target of gender-related jokes (which were associated with stress), (2) held to higher standards than were males, (3) viewed by male officers as being treated more leniently. We would like to emphasize that evidence regarding that hypothesis is mixed. A few studies have failed to find gender differences in the stress experienced by police officers (e.g., Ortega, Brenner, & Leather, 2007) and some have found the opposite gender differences in stress (e.g., Norvelle, Hills & Murrin, 1993). Although the bulk of the studies yield support for the gender discrimination hypothesis of police officers, its validity needs to be tempered by modestly inconsistency of the findings.

A BDT Framework Approach to Trust in the Police. Over the past 5 years, we have developed a multifactorial measure of trust beliefs in the police by adults and by adolescents. The research has been guided by the Basis, Domain, and Dimension (BDT) interpersonal trust framework outlined in previous Trust Matters Blogs. Trust beliefs according to this framework comprises an individual’s beliefs that police show: (a) reliability comprising fulfilling their word and promise; (b) emotional trust comprising refraining from causing emotional harm, such as being receptive to disclosures, maintaining confidentiality, refraining from criticism and avoiding acts that elicit embarrassment; and (c) honesty comprising telling the truth and engaging in behaviors that are guided by benign rather than malicious intent and by genuine rather than manipulative strategies.

Our research has yielded valid and reliable scales for assessing trust beliefs in the police by adults and by adolescents. We have found that adults’ and adolescents’ trust beliefs in police are associated with their willingness to co-operate with the police. The more adults and adolescents believed that the police keep promises, kept necessary information confidential, and told the truth, the more the adults and adolescents reported a willingness to help the police force. These findings support the notion that trust beliefs in the police are important for police officers to effectively carry out their duties because those often depend on the publics’ willingness to co-operate. We also found that adolescents’ trust beliefs in the police were: (1) negatively associated with their delinquent behavior and (2) positively associated with receiving authoritative parenting which is known to promote moral development. These findings support the conclusion that adolescents’ trust beliefs in the police are associated with law abiding behavior and an upbringing that promotes morality.

Trust in the police does matter! Despite the controversies surrounding the police, it is worthwhile to ponder what would happen if we -- as citizens -- stopped trusting the police. Consider what would happen to the security enjoyed by people in democratic societies today if that trust was absent.

Affiliations and Acknowledgment

1 Professor Ken J. Rotenberg, School of Psychology, Keele University, Keele, Newcastle -Under-Lyme, Staffordshire, UK, ST5 5BH, e-mail:


British Crime Survey for England and Wales (2009-2010). National Statistics, Home Office Statistical Bulletin.

Dowler K., & Arai, B. (2006). Stress, gender and policing: the impact of perceived gender discrimination on symptoms of stress. International Journal of Police Science and Management, 10, 123-135.

Goldsmith, A. (2005). Police reform and the problem of trust. Theoretical Criminology, 9, 443-470

Hassell, K., & Brandl, K. D. (2009). An examination of the workplace experiences of police patrol officers: The role of race, sex, and sexual orientation. Police Quarterly; 12 408-430.

Kaariainen, J., (2008). Why do the Finns trust the police? Journal of Scandinavian Studies in Criminology & Crime Prevention, 9, 141-159.

McNamara, J. D. (2012, March 15). Trust in American police remains high: Here’s why. Delivered at the 50th Anniversary Law Enforcement Event, San Francisco Bay Chapter, American Society of International Security, Foster City, California.

Murphy, K., & Cherney, A. (2011). Fostering cooperation with the police: How do ethnic minorities in Australia respond to procedural justice-based policing? Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 44, 235-257.

Norvelle, N., Hills, H., & Murrin, M. R. (1993). Understanding stress in female and male law enforcement officers. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 17, 289–301.

Ortega, A., Brenner, S & Leather, P. (2007). Occupational stress, coping and personality in the police: an SEM study. International Journal of Police Science & Management, 9, 36-50.

Seelye, K. Q. (1999, March 14). Clinton Initiatives to Promote Trust in Police. New York Times, 148, 24.

Sunshine, J. & Tyler, T.R. (2003). The role of procedural justice and legitimacy in shaping public support for policing. Law and Society Review, 17, 513- 547.

Tyler, T.R. & Huo, Y.J. (2002). Trust in the law: encouraging public cooperation with the police and courts. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Wertsch, T. L. (1998). Walking the thin blue line: Policewomen and tokenism today. Women and Criminal Justice, 9, 52–61.

Williams, K. (2010). Police violence, resistance, crisis of legitmacy: Politics of Killer Cops and Cop Killers. Against the Current, 25-29.

Zhao J. S., He, N., & Lovrich, N. (2002). Predicting five dimensions of police officers stress: Looking more deeply into organizational settings for sources of police stress. Police Quarterly, 5, 43–63.

About the Authors

Ken Rotenberg, Ph.D.

Ken Rotenberg, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Keele University in the UK. He researches trust, loneliness, and other areas.

Pamela Qualter, Ph.D.

Pamela Qualter, Ph.D., is a Reader in Developmental Psychology, School of Psychology, at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK.

Lucy Betts, Ph.D.

Lucy Betts, Ph.D., is a Senior Lecturer in the Division of Psychology, Nottingham Trent University in the UK.

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