Police Violence and Public Perceptions: An Experimental Study of How Information and Endorsements Affect Support for Law Enforcement
Status: Published 2019 in The Journal of Politics 81(3): 1101-1110
Abstract: Incidents of police violence can undermine trust in legal authorities. Whether such incidents have this effect will depend on how citizens evaluate victims, the police, and public officials. Citizens’ evaluations may be shaped by information about: 1) other police actions, and 2) government responses. We study citizens’ reactions to police violence by randomly assigning these two types of thematic information about the Stephon Clark shooting in Sacramento. We find that thematic information leads non-locals to blame the police more and support state intervention. Locals, however, blame the victim more and increase trust in the police. We demonstrate the importance of these outcomes with another experiment where we randomly assign police endorsements in law enforcement elections. Police endorsements increase candidate support, but only among citizens who trust the police. These results suggest a catch-22 whereby avoiding police violence benefits police organizations, but local opinion insulates them from backlash when it occurs.