Tensions between communities and their police departments have reached a boiling point over the last few years. Scenes of anger and chaos have played out across the country — from protests and riots to images of a burning Baltimore.
But just how do residents in the Lehigh Valley feel about their men and women in blue? Dr. Michelle Bolger, assistant professor in the criminal justice program at DeSales University, wanted to find out.
Bolger and her husband, P. Colin Bolger, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Kutztown University, recently conducted a community survey in Bethlehem called Perceptions of Neighborhood Crime and Resident Satisfaction with the Police. “The national attention that police are getting was a big motivation for it,” she says. “And there's really little authentic data on the topic.”
Bolger mailed a survey to more than 3,200 households across three zip codes. She received a 12 percent response rate, which she calls disappointing but still in the range of expectation. Overall, the study found very few problems with crime, physical decay, or social disorder. The biggest problem areas reported were speeding, vandalism, and issues with garbage and litter. In general, there was also low fear of crime and high levels of confidence in the Bethlehem police.
The study does note some problems with representation. Residents from the 18015 zip code, those under 35 years of age, and minority residents were underrepresented. Bolger believes the biggest obstacles were language barriers and issues with vacant addresses, as many of the mailings were returned even though she used a current address list.
Even with better representation, Bolger still does not believe the end result would have been dramatically different. “Historically, in other studies we do find minorities and younger people tend to have a less favorable view of police. It may have impacted the results, but I don't think we would have seen a major shift.”
She also points to the fact that Bethlehem hasn’t had any major use of force scandals or police-involved shootings recently. “They don't appear to have any documented patterns of discriminatory practices. I did have a couple people express some concerns, but it was remarkably rare.”
The chief of Bethlehem police is currently reviewing the survey, which was made possible thanks to an endowment that the University gave the criminal justice program. Bolger is willing to conduct a supplemental survey with residents from the 18015 area code, if the chief or mayor feels it’s necessary. “It's something I'd be happy to do,” she says. “I have an active plan to put into action should it be identified as a need or interest.”
Going forward, Bolger would like to take the survey to Allentown and other neighboring communities. She’s also planning on conducting another survey with police departments to find out whether the media has affected their perception of their jobs.
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