JRL NEWSWATCH: “Do Russians Trust their Police? Reform Must Start from the Top [Excerpt]” – PONARS Eurasia/ Lauren McCarthy, Noah Buckley
(PONARS Eurasia – Lauren McCarthy, Noah Buckley – October 29, 2018)
Lauren A. McCarthy is Associate Professor at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Noah Buckley is Postdoctoral Associate at New York University Abu Dhabi.
(PONARS Policy Memo) Despite some recent, seemingly half-hearted efforts, the police remain one of Russia’s most unreformed bureaucracies and Russians’ trust in police has been low throughout the post-Soviet period. Survey data from the NGO Public Verdict and the Levada Center, which asked an annual question from 2010 to 2015 about whether respondents trust the police in their town or region, shows that in 2015 nearly half of respondents (47.2 percent) either strongly or somewhat trusted the police, whereas in 2010 only about a third (32.9 percent) reported this level of trust. Other polls have shown similar results. Though understanding change over time is important, a measurement of general attitudes can only tell us so much. Most people’s attitudes are more nuanced than “trust/don’t trust.” For the police, such a stark dichotomy gives little guidance for concrete measures on how to develop a better relationship with the public.
For deeper insight, we examine data from a 2011 survey of Moscow residents that focuses specifically on attitudes toward the police. We find such attitudes to be more systemic than personal: more positive individual interactions with police are not enough to change people’s attitudes. Moreover, perceptions of police effectiveness, fairness, and corruptibility/misconduct each have independent impacts on Russians’ overall level of trust in their police. Reforms that address any one of these factors could have important impacts on public trust, but these will likely need to come from above. Survey respondents express a preference for top-down solutions to improve police work. Police can also increase trust by refraining from harsh crackdowns on protests, though frontline officers often have little control over this type of decision-making. Overall, the results are instructive in thinking through potential reform pathways for the Russian police, if indeed they do desire to improve their relationship with the public ….
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In sum, our research shows the value in looking at component parts of trust in the police. If they are truly committed to increasing public trust, Russian police leadership would be well advised to think about a multi-pronged strategy which addresses police effectiveness, fairness, and corruptibility/misconduct. Looking forward, an effective strategy could involve a comprehensive reform that addresses all three issue areas or, since each issue area has an independent effect, police could opt to address one at a time. Police should also be aware that simply improving individual-to-individual contact with the public, while a laudable goal, is not the solution to increasing trust. That said, the public’s responses about what might improve police work show that this process will likely need to be a top-down one. Citizens appear to be skeptical that bottom-up reform efforts will have any influence on an institution that is so hierarchical in nature.
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