STUDY: Trust in police, law enforcement plunges among teens

A new study conducted by an Arizona State University professor shows that teenagers’ trust in law enforcement has plummeted in recent years, despite their view of other authority remaining about the same.

Adam Fine, an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at ASU, came across these findings by analyzing research from the Monitoring the Future survey, which collects data from roughly 50,000 students and teenagers annually. 

While Monitoring the Future mostly contains questions about drug use, the nationwide survey, according to an ASU news release, also included a question that measures attitudes toward different authority figures. Survey participants were asked to rate how well police and law enforcement agencies, the justice system, religious organizations, and public schools were performing their jobs on a scale of one (extremely bad) to five (extremely good). 

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Before 2015, results showed that teenagers trusted religious institutions the most, followed by public schools, and law enforcement, demonstrating the least favorability towards the justice system. From 2015 to 2017, teens’ attitude towards law enforcement shifted to be just as antagonistic as their view towards the justice system. Attitude towards the other institutions remained virtually the same, which seems to indicate that the decrease in trust towards law enforcement is not by chance.

“The research suggests that youths’ perceptions of legal authority, and in law enforcement, in particular, have declined in recent years, whereas their perceptions of other types of authority have remained comparatively more positive and more stable,” Fine told Campus Reform. “While the data cannot speak to whether declining views of law enforcement are justified, they indicate that something unique is happening when it comes to youths’ perceptions of law enforcement; youth do not appear to be ubiquitously anti-authority.” 

Fine’s complete findings are published in Developmental Psychology, a journal produced by the American Psychological Association.

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“I typically study kids in the juvenile justice system, but for this paper, I wanted to look at kids in the community. What do these kids actually think about law enforcement and the justice system?” Fine said in the ASU news release. “With the national conversations surrounding policing and law enforcement these days, this is huge.”

“A variety of studies have looked at exposure to social media and linked that to poor perceptions of police,” Fine noted. 

Fine indicated that the shift in perception is heavily influenced by the rise of social media, where various outlets and platforms have vilified police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), among other law enforcement officers. Campus Reform previously reported on an instance in which a professor called for the public shaming of ICE officials so they quit their jobs.

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In a research paper previously published by Fine, teenage perceptions of law enforcement were differentiated by political party. 

“Kids who identify as Democrats or liberals report substantially worse perceptions of law enforcement than kids who identify more as Republican or conservative,” Fine said, according to the news release.

A negative view of law enforcement is also much more likely for teenagers of color.

Fine is analyzing a California nonprofit organization called Team Kids, which brings police officers into elementary schools to team up with students on community service initiatives. Fine wants to see how this affects overall law enforcement perception.

“This organization is one of the few that’s trying to repair these relationships [with law enforcement] and rebuild them and create positive change,” he said.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @ethanycai