In developing and developed countries alike, perceptions of the police vary widely. It is an unfortunate reality that many people feel threatened by or distrustful of the police, and even more regrettable that these views are often justified. Abuse of power, torture, extortion, violence, and corruption are known to all parts of the world, albeit to varying degrees. At the same time, how a population perceives its police force has important implications for the degree to which it cooperates with and depends on law enforcement.
Understanding the factors that lead to distrust of the police is thus crucial to developing interventions for civilians and proper training for police forces. It is in this context that researchers from Nigeria sought to explore how personality traits might contribute to police perception. Their study, published in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, sheds light on how one specific personality trait may affect police perception, but also uncovers a more insidious tendency in the data.
The authors looked specifically at the “Dark Triad” of personality traits: Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy, as well as demographic and socioeconomic information, plus history of police contact. Participants were 261 individuals, primarily university students.
Contrary to what intuition might tell us, neither psychopathy nor Machiavellianism were associated with more negative views towards police, despite both of these personality traits correlating in previous studies with propensity for crime. Narcissism, however, did negatively and significantly predict negative police perception, providing evidence for the impact of at least one personality trait on police perception.
Perhaps more importantly, however, the most significant factor to predict negative perceptions of the police was simply having interacted with them in the past. “We found that participants’ experience with the police negatively impacted how they saw the police,” report the authors. “Thus, the more contacts they had with the police, the more they resent the police.” While the authors draw conclusions based on the specific geographical context of the study, Nigeria, similar trends have been found in other studies, in the United States and elsewhere.
One of the primary problems with police distrust is that it is both a self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating prophecy. Poor police behavior leads to greater distrust, which engenders behaviors that further hinder police efficacy (like failing to report a crime or participate in an investigation). Furthermore, greater and more violent crime leads to a more stressed police force, given to reactivity, aggression, and corruption.
The authors present their paper as a “strong message to the management of the Nigerian Police Force … as well as policy makers,” but the results no doubt mirror the situation in a great number of countries. It is also worth noting that in the case of personality trait-based negative perceptions, it may take more than police reforms to instill trust and compliance. Specific interventions for at-risk citizens may also help decrease negative police perception, and may be worth exploring as well.
The study, “Dissocial Personality Traits and Past Experiences Matter in How People Perceive the Police,” was authored by Charles Tochukwu Orjiakor, Moses Onyemaechi Ede, and Chigozirim M. Emebo.