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The Impact of Perceived Alienation on Police Officers’ Sense of Mastery and Subsequent Motivation for Proactive Enforcement


Abstact: This study examines the impact of perceived community alienation on levels of self-reported mastery and motivation for proactive law enforcement for 272 police officers from eleven law enforcement agencies in a large Southeast Michigan County.  Also, it investigates the impact of three highly publicized “anti-police” judicial verdicts (i.e., Rodney King, Malice Green, and O.J. Simpson) on the predicted alienation-mastery-proactive enforcement relationship.

Results support the study’s major hypothesis that as officers’ perceived level of alienation increases, they will report less mastery, and express less willingness for proactive enforcement efforts. One regression model confirms the study’s second hypothesis that the inverse relationship between alienation and motivation for proactive enforcement increases significantly following the “anti-police” judicial verdicts.

The contemporary community policing movement emphasizes changing the role of law enforcement from a static, reactive, incident-driven bureaucracy to a more dynamic, open, quality-oriented partnership with the community (Brown and Wycoff, 1987; Eck et al., 1987; Goldstein, 1990). Community policing philosophy emphasizes that police officers work closely with local citizens and community agencies in designing and implementing a variety of crime prevention strategies and problem-solving measures. To accomplish these initiatives, it is crucial that officers feel closely integrated with the majority of citizens and agencies in the community they serve. Typically, this means that officers perceive themselves as sharing important community values, beliefs, and goals. It also implies that officers are confident of community support and involvement in their decisions and actions (Bobinsky, 1994; Burden, 1992; Mastrofski et al., 1995). It is the premise of the present study that as the perception of community alienation increases among police officers, their sense of confidence or mastery in decision-making will decrease, and so, too, their motivation for proactive enforcement.

Alienation is essentially a sociological concept developed by several classical and contemporary theorists (esp., Durkheim, 1951, 1984; Fromm, 1941, 1955; Marx, 1846, 1867; Seeman 1959; Simmel, 1950, 1971). According to these theorists, alienation is defined as a condition in social relationships reflected by a low degree of integration or common values and a high degree of distance or isolation between individuals, or between an individual and a group of people in a community or work environment.

The experience of community alienation among police officers would appear to be anathema to effective community policing efforts for at least two essential reasons. First, alienation appears to be closely tied to the experience of mastery. Mastery is typically defined as a state of mind in which an individual feels autonomous and experiences confidence in his or her ability, skill, and knowledge to control or influence external events (Wilson, 1989). Community policing requires departments to flatten their organizational pyramid and place even more decision-making and discretion in the hands of line officers. Thus, it would seem logical that as the level of community alienation or isolation that officers experience increases, there will be a corresponding decrease in officers’ sense of mastery in carrying out their expanded discretionary role.

Second, a strong sense of community integration for police officers would seem to be vital to the core community policing focus of proactive law enforcement. Proactive enforcement is usually defined as the predisposition of police officers to be actively committed to crime prevention, community problem-solving, and a more open, dynamic quality-oriented law enforcement-community partnership (Bobinsky, 1994; Taylor et al., 1998). Again, it would seem logical that the stronger the level of perceived community alienation, the weaker officers’ motivation to engage in proactive law enforcement behavior.

Several effects of alienation on police officers’ behavior have been demonstrated in the literature. For example, Berg et al. (1984), found that a lack of community support resulted in an increased sense of alienation and a greater degree of apathy among police officers. King (1995) and Mottaz (1983), found that a lack of community support and working in a larger populated community was associated with an increased sense of alienation and a greater degree of inactivity among police officers. Pogrebin (1987), discovered that an increased sense of alienation resulted in a greater degree of negative feelings and lethargy among police officers. Finally, Shernock (1988), found that the more police officers felt socially isolated from the community they served, the more they withdrew and the more negative they felt towards its citizens.

No empirical studies were found in the literature, however, that specifically focused on the relationship of alienation with mastery and motivation for proactive enforcement for police officers. Also, no empirical research was uncovered that investigated the impact of highly publicized “anti-police” judicial verdicts (i.e., Rodney King, 1991; Malice Green, 1992; and O.J. Simpson, 1994) on the proposed alienation-mastery-proactive enforcement relationship. Therefore, the present study was designed to test the following hypotheses:

H1. As the level of officers’ perceived community alienation increases, their level of mastery will decrease, and so too their motivation or willingness to engage in proactive enforcement behavior.

H2. The predicted inverse relationship between alienation and mastery/proactive enforcement will increase significantly following the “anti-police” judicial verdicts.

This study will also examine the relationship of gender, age, seniority, race, rank, education, degree of urbanism, and residency, to the predicted alienation-mastery-proactive enforcement relationships. A review of the research suggests that these variables be included as controls for the following reasons: gender, because it may influence an officer’s level of perceived alienation (Schmidt et al., 1982)[1]; age and seniority, because they may be associated with officer complacency, and thus, may influence motivation for proactive enforcement (Berg et al., 1984; King, 1995; Pogrebin, 1987); race, because it may influence an officer’s level of perceived alienation and motivation for proactive enforcement when it is different from the majority race in the working community (Berg et al., 1984; Crank et al., 1995); rank and education, because both have been shown to influence an officer’s level of perceived alienation (Crank et al., 1995; Mottaz, 1983); degree of urbanism, because the complexity, population density, and anonymity associated with urban communities, can influence an officer’s level of perceived alienation (Durkheim, 1984; Erikson, 1986; King, 1995; Mottaz, 1983; Schmitt, 1983; Simmel, 1950); and residency, because living in or choosing to live in the working community can impact an officer’s level of perceived alienation and motivation for proactive enforcement (King, 1995).

METHODS

SAMPLE
The present study surveyed 272 police officers from eleven law enforcement agencies. These agencies ranged in size from 15 to 850 officers, and included nine city police departments, one county sheriff’s department, and one university public safety department. Each department was located in a large metropolitan county in Southeast Michigan with a population density of 3,392 persons per square mile. The communities served by these departments ranged in size from approximately 10,000 to more than two million people. The racial make-up of this county was approximately 60% white and 40% black. There was a mean ratio of 18 sworn police officers to every 10,000 citizens. Racially, these nine communities ranged from predominantly white (99%) to mostly minority (69%).

Officers in the sample were predominantly male (95.2%). They ranged in age from 22 to 59 years, with a mean age of 37.4 years. The majority of police officers were caucasian (84.2%). Three quarters (75%) of the officers surveyed were line patrol officers, while the other 25% held the rank of sergeant or higher. Officers ranged in seniority from one to over twenty-one years, with a mean seniority of 12.9 years of service. Every officer surveyed had completed their high school education. Over half of the officers (50.4%) had at least some college, more than one fourth (28.7%) had a Bachelors Degree, and 14% had an advanced graduate degree. Close to two-thirds of the officers in this study (61.8%) lived in the community in which they worked.

DEGREE OF URBANISM

Officers from the eleven police departments in this study were grouped into three categories (high, moderate, and low-urban) based on the degree of urbanism of the community they served. Degree of urbanism was based on two factors proposed by Bartol (1982) and Theodorson (1979):

1) the distance in miles from the community to the center of any urban sprawl, and

2) the population density per square mile of each community. Using these criteria, one hundred officers (36.8%) worked in high-urban communities, one hundred thirty-one worked in moderate-urban settings (48.2%), and the remaining forty-one (15.1%) served in low-urban areas.

SURVEY INSTRUMENT

A survey instrument was developed by the authors to measure police officers’ level of perceived alienation, sense of mastery, and willingness to respond proactively both before and after “anti-police” judicial verdicts. The instrument contained eighteen items which were conceived and operationalized based on the conceptualization of alienation, mastery, and proactive enforcement, by the various social theorists and researchers cited earlier.

Alienation was measured in two ways: first, by three “Residence and Choice” items which asked officers if it was totally up to them, would they choose to live in the community where they worked, and second, by four Likert Scale items which asked officers to rate the degree to which they shared the family, religious, economic, and political values of the community they served. Mastery was measured using six Likert Scale items on which officers rated the degree to which their work community supported their enforcement efforts, encouraged them to actively enforce the law, was likely to turn against them when something went wrong, and the extent to which they could use their own judgement in responding to crime and felt that they were making a difference in the community.

Motivation for proactive enforcement was measured using five Likert Scale items on which officers rated the degree to which (assuming total volition) they were willing to respond proactively to various criminal activities in the community. They were then asked to rate the degree of change in this proactive willingness following the “anti-police” judicial verdicts.

SAMPLING PROCEDURE

The unit of analysis was individual police officers. Selection of the eleven departments surveyed in this study was done using a non-probability judgmental sampling method (Babbie, 1989). All uniformed patrol officers in these departments (402) ranked as lieutenant or below were asked to complete the survey on a voluntary and anonymous basis. These officers were selected because they work the street and typically confront law enforcement situations where they use their own discretion and initiative. Of the 402 officers surveyed, 272 (68%) completed and returned the questionnaire.

SPECIFICATIONS OF REGRESSION MODELS

This study concerns the relationship of officers’ perceived alienation on their sense of mastery and their subsequent motivation for proactive enforcement. The authors predict that perceived alienation is inversely related to sense of mastery and proactive enforcement; as alienation increases mastery will decrease and so too officers’ willingness to patrol proactively. The authors also predict that the inverse relationship between alienation and mastery/proactive enforcement will increase significantly following the “anti-police” court decisions.

These hypotheses were tested by hierarchical regression which is a procedure for regression analysis to test the hypothetical relationships among the variables and present the explanatory power of the incremental models. The statistic employed to indicate the explanatory power of a regression model is the “coefficient of determination” — R2. Thus, for the equation using the Mastery Scale as the dependent variable, two models were constructed to test the importance of alienation. These models differed in their inclusion of the explanatory variables: Model 1 contained demographic variables only. This model serves as a baseline for comparisons. In other words, if alienation is indeed an important factor effecting the dependent variable as hypothesized by this study, one should expect Model 1 (a model without alienation) to have very little explanatory power. By contrast, Model 2 which adds the measures of alienation to Model 1, should have much stronger explanatory power.

For the equation using the Proactive Enforcement Scale or Proactive Enforcement Since Verdicts Scale as the dependent variable, three models were constructed to test the importance of alienation. These models differed in their inclusion of the explanatory variables: Model 1 contained demographic variables only; Model 2 adds the measures of alienation to Model 1; and Model 3 adds the Mastery Scale to Model 2.

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