In 2012, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a complaint in the Federal District Court for Oregon asserting that Portland had engaged in a pattern and practice of unnecessary or excessive force against persons experiencing a mental health crisis. This report is the result of a settlement agreement between Portland’s City Council and the DOJ, which specified the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) develop a means of assessing public perceptions.
The researchers examined the general attitude of residents regarding the PPB, specifically around the areas of legitimacy and trust, job performance, and use of force. The researchers also questioned whether people who asked the police for help, or who were stopped by the police, felt they were treated fairly. Lastly, they examined how residents’ perceptions of their contact with police related to their attitudes about the PPB.
Primary Research Question
How does residents’ perceptions of their voluntary or involuntary contact with Portland police relate to their general attitudes about the PPB?
Data for the report were obtained from a postal survey sent in July of 2013 to a random sample of Portland addresses, including an oversampling of Census tracks with higher percentages of African American, Hispanic/Latino, and younger residents.
Causal relationships between perceiving a police contact as fair and police trust cannot be confirmed with cross-sectional data. Similarly, researchers cannot confirm that perceptions of unfair treatment “cause” lower evaluations of trust, quality of services, and use of force based on the correlations noted; the people surveyed may have had lower opinions of police prior to the contact.
Contact with Portland Police
- 30.8% of Portland residents surveyed reported they had contacted the Portland police for help in the prior year (i.e., voluntary contact).
- 88.7% of those with voluntary contact perceived that they were treated fairly during their most recent encounter.
- 17.4% had an involuntary contact with Portland police in the past year (e.g., traffic stop, citation, arrest).
- 73.1% of people reporting an involuntary contact also believed they were treated fairly during their most recent encounter.
- Racial/ethnic minority respondents were more likely to perceive their treatment as unfair in both voluntary and involuntary contacts.
Legitimacy & Trust
- Those who perceived their treatment during a contact as “fair”, whether voluntary or involuntary, have greater or equal trust in the Portland Police compared to those who report no police contacts in the prior year.
- Perceptions of “unfair” treatment were related to lower trust in police.
Evaluation of PPB’s Performance
- Those who perceived their treatment during a contact as “fair” have similar evaluations of PPB’s performance across a number of indicators compared to those who report no contacts.
- Perceptions of “unfair” treatment were related to lower evaluations of police performance.
PPB’s Use of Force
- Those who perceived their treatment during a contact as “fair” have similar evaluations of PPB’s Use of Force compared to those who report no contacts.
- Perceptions of “unfair” treatment were related to greater agreement that officers use more force than necessary.
Overall, these findings suggest that Portland’s police officers have mostly been engaging with the public in ways that seem fair to those involved. The findings reinforce the importance of communication techniques that increase perceptions of fair treatment by police. The results indicate that perceptions of being treated fairly increases trust and legitimacy, whereas perceptions of unfair treatment are related to negative perceptions of trust, police performance, and use of force. Understanding what differentiates perceptions of fair and unfair treatment, and seeking community input, is an important next step to developing strategic efforts to improve contact experiences in the future.