Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Elections as Focusing Events: Explaining Attitudes toward the Police and the Government in Comparative Perspective

Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Elections as Focusing Events: Explaining Attitudes toward the Police and the Government in Comparative Perspective

Article excerpt

Traditional views hold that citizens' attitudes toward the police are driven by local concerns. We contend that public attitudes toward the police are responsive to systematic and periodic national-level political factors. In particular, we show that national elections as a focusing event alter periodically the determinants of attitudes toward the police. Using a logistic regression model and diachronic data from Costa Rica, Mexico, and the United States, we find that attitudes toward the police and the national government are linked, and this linkage is responsive to the influence of national election campaigns in varying degrees. In addition, we find that attitudes toward the Mexican police are sensitive to partisan changes in the composition of the national political government. We find no such sensitivity in the police attitudes of Costa Rican and U.S. citizens. This suggests that police attitudes are not only affected by the performance of the national political government but also by the character (consolidated versus unconsolidated) of the national political government. In short, police attitudes in new democracies are an indication of the unconsolidated nature of the state apparatus.

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

Classie studies of public attitudes toward the police point to local factors as the predominant determinants in police attitudes (Whyte 1943; Wilson 1963). However, more recent studies indicate that attitudes toward national governmental structures also influence attitudes toward the police (Albrecht & Green 1977; Cao & Zhao 1998, 2005). Extending this research, we find that perceptions of the police are related to evaluations of the national government in three different countries. We also find that this relationship is stronger during national election years, when issues of crime and punishment are more likely to be on the national agenda. Elections serve as focusing events that impact public perceptions of the police in a systematic fashion.

Focusing events can be particularly important cues for citizen attitudes toward the police. Tuch and Weitzer (1997:647), Shaw et al. (1998), and Sigelman et al. (1997) show that highly publicized incidents of police misconduct affect public confidence in the police at both the local and national level (i.e., the Los Angeles policemen's 1991 beating of Rodney King). Cao and Hou (2001) also illustrate that public attitudes toward the police are related to major political events such as the 1990 Tiananmen Square incident. While these two examples indicate that idiosyncratic national focusing events affect the confidence that citizens hold for the police, we ask what effect national events that occur systematically, such as elections, exert on perceptions of the police.1

Local and state elections have definitive policy implications on police administration. For example, Levitt (1997) demonstrates that increases in the size of police forces are disproportionately concentrated in mayoral and gubernatorial election years. But what of national factors? During the 1996 presidential election, former U.S. President Bill Clinton proclaimed the deployment of 100,000 new local police officers as a legitimate accomplishment of his administration. Politicians often invoke themes of "law and order" in their campaigns (e.g., U.S. President George H. W. Bush in 1988). Moreover, McCann and Lawson (2003:69) show that Mexicans' attitudes toward crime control were responsive to campaign effects from the 2000 Mexican presidential campaign. Given the evidence cited above, which demonstrates the effect of national events on public opinion toward the police and crime and the policy effects of election cycles on police administration, it is surprising that the relationship between national elections and police attitudes has not been the subject of more systematic and cross-national analysis.

We argue that attitudes toward the police are more systematically linked to the national government than previously understood. …

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