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Survey Gauges Community Perceptions of State College Police, Safety Issues

A recent assessment found residents have a generally favorable view of the State College Police Department, but that not all community members share the same perceptions of the department and local safety issues.

State College contracted with the National Research Center at Polco to conduct the National Police Services Survey “to get a comprehensive and accurate picture of resident opinions related to police services,” Borough Manager Tom Fountaine said during Monday night’s borough council work session. The borough has worked with NRC in the past on the National Community Survey.

Michelle Kobayashi, NRC’s senior vice president for innovation, presented an overview of the findings on Monday. She said invitations to complete the survey were received by 5,432 households — about half in the borough and the remainder split between College and Harris townships, which also are serviced by the State College Police Department. Among those, 1,053 completed the survey.

The survey, conducted between September and November, came as protests related to the 2019 fatal police shooting of Osaze Osagie and debates over changes to policing in the borough reached a new intensity in tandem with a national spotlight on police shootings of Black men and women and distrust of law enforcement in some communities.

“Those of us who have been in local government for awhile know this didn’t all just happen once George Floyd was killed,” Kobayashi said of the national picture. “We know there were issues with community policing before. We know there were some communities that struggled with public trust.”

The goals of the survey were to assess residents’ perceptions of safety, gauge the quality of police-resident interactions, evaluate the quality of public safety services, measure public trust and identify public safety priorities. It measured responses against national benchmark studies conducted in 2018 and 2020.

Those who expressed the greatest satisfaction with police services tended to be older (55+), white, male and from higher income households. Residents reporting higher levels of safety tended to be male, people of color and from higher income households.

“What we find at the national level is that the white versus Black differences are very significant but if you do white alone versus persons of color, sometimes those differences get washed out because what we found at the national level is that Hispanic residents sometimes trust and perceive the services of the cops higher than white folks and Black folks. Sometimes Asians, as well, will also give higher ratings to the police,” Kobayashi said.

She said there were not enough responses from persons of color to break down the data for further analysis by race or ethnic group. More than 90% of respondents identified as white.

College and Harris Township residents reported higher levels of trust in SCPD and overall quality of services provided than borough residents.

Two-thirds of respondents rated the department as good or excellent for being trustworthy, acting in the best interest of the community and acting within the law. Each of those ratings was higher than the national benchmark.

For other trustworthiness measures, SCPD was similar to the national average for good or excellent ratings including: Caring about the well-being of the people they deal with (63%), being a positive influence in the community (63%), protecting individual civil rights (56%), using the appropriate amount of force (52%), treating all residents fairly (52%), and holding police officers accountable for their actions (45%).

For quality of police services, 72% gave a rating of good or excellent, which was higher than the national average. The highest rated categories were responding to emergency calls for assistance, managing political protests, maintaining public order and traffic enforcement, with 70% or more of respondents rating SCPD as good or excellent.

Two-thirds also gave high marks to working to increase school safety, crime prevention and assisting victims of crime, all of which also were higher than the national benchmark.

Lowest rated were inviting community members to provide input, showing residents how they can work together to make their neighborhoods safer and communicating regularly with community members, with between 54% and 58% rating SCPD as fair or poor. That is similar to the national benchmark.

About half of respondents said they had contact with police in the last 12 months. The most common reasons were casual encounters, calling for help, reporting a crime and encountering an officer at a school.

About 76% of respondents said that based on their interactions with police their overall impression was good or excellent. Responsiveness to requests, timeliness of handling the situation, treating all people involved in a respectful manner, knowledge, fairness and resolution of concerns each had 70% or more ratings of good or excellent, all above the national average.

“Even though you’re getting overall strong ratings it is important to note that not all people have the same experience in your communities and for the police agencies to work hard to mend those relationships or build those relationships with groups who have more disparities,” Kobayashi said.

“Even though they may be a small percentage of your community in terms of what the census says, that doesn’t mean their voices aren’t meaningful… I would make sure I focused on those disparity areas too and maybe dig a little bit deeper in terms of the people who are more disenfranchised, harder to reach, and make sure their voices are heard, because they just don’t come to the decision-making table often and that’s why some communities are in the situation they are in now.”

Respondents were asked to rate priorities for the next two years. At least 75% said that increasing connections with the community, increasing accessibility to police and police-related information and school safety and security were a high or medium priority. SCPD working with residents to solve neighborhood problems was a priority for 69% of respondents. Those priorities were similar to the national benchmark.

Enforcing nuisance or code violations was a priority for 56%, which was higher compared to the nation.

For perceptions of safety, 90% rated their overall feeling of safety in the community as good or excellent.

“That’s a great rating and it’s higher than what we find for the national benchmark,” Kobayashi said.

Feeling safe at night downtown (78%) and in recreational areas (71%) tended to be lower than daytime ratings, but still above the national average.

The top safety issues identified as moderate or major problems were sexual assault/rape (59%), underage drinking (43%) and disorderly conduct (42%). Those were each higher than the national average, but not surprising.

“This is not uncommon to be found in college towns,” Kobayashi said.

Other safety issues identified as moderate or major problems were:

Strained police/community relations: 41%

DUI: 39%

Racial/ethnic tension: 36%

Drug abuse: 35%

Domestic violence: 32%

Traffic problems: 31%

Litter: 26%

Hate crimes: 25%

Each was similar to the nation, except litter, which was lower.

In 21 areas related to safety issues, State College received more positive ratings than the national average
and 17 received similar ratings. Only the top three safety concerns were more negative than the national average.

The full report is available online.