Public perception of police may precipitate increased violence



percent dist. 3:21

Police officers in Maricopa County claim they are assaulted at a higher rate than elsewhere in Arizona, and Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s alleged abuses of power may be to blame.

According to data pulled from the Crime in Arizona Report for 2014 (the most recent report published), Maricopa County, which has 60 percent of the state’s population, accounted for 79 percent of all officers assaulted in Arizona the previous year, and that number keeps going up.

The percent distribution of aggravated assaults on police officers attributed to Maricopa County began rising in 2005 and peaked in  2014. 

 As shown below, the numbers of assaults on officers in the county has steadily increased at a similar rate. Since both the numbers of assaults and the percent distribution to Maricopa Co. are both rising at the same rate, that means that the numbers of such assaults in other counties in Arizona are falling while Maricopa Co. is experiencing an increasingly disproportionate amount of violence against its officers.


assaults by year 3:21

So what could be the cause for these increasing levels of violence?

Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who calls himself “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” has become a polarizing figure in politics. Since Arpaio took office in 1993, the department has shelled out $142 million in legal settlements, court awards, attorney’s fees, and compliance with court orders.

These payouts are the results of many wrongful death, conspiracy, false arrest, and malicious prosecution suits, as well as civil-rights violations, among others. Although the department does not account for all of the assaults on officers in the county, these legal troubles have created a perception problem that affects other departments in the county.

James Estrada, the community outreach coordinator for MCSO, agrees that there has been a problem with how the community sees the department in recent years.

“We knew we had to bridge some gaps that had been created in some communities around town, we knew we had to reach out and do a better job of explaining what the mission is of the folks in the Sheriff’s Office,” says Estrada, referring to a 2012 initiative titled “Integrity, Accountability, Community,” the first initiative of its kind undertaken by MCSO to address an increasingly negative perception of the department.

But how did this perception influence violence against police officers in the greater Maricopa County?

John A. Shjarback is a doctoral candidate with the School of Criminology at Arizona State University. He published a study in 2015 with Michael D. White which found that there was an observable correlation between the education levels of police officers employed by a department and the frequency of incidents of police-community violence. Departments which hired only those with an associate’s degree or higher saw less violence in encounters by their employees with the public. 

Having researched the causes of violence between police and the public, Shjarback believes abuses of power by police might be a cause for the public to view them as less legitimate, which could lead to increased levels of violence against officers.

“Research has shown that when the public views departments and the officers themselves as legitimate, they are more likely to obey the law, to obey officer commands during encounters, it has shown the importance and impact of perceived legitimacy,” says Shjarback. “In any cases of abuses of power if they might lead to the public to view the department as illegitimate, that certainly creates a problem for that department.”

Dan Saban, a former police chief for Buckeye Police Department, is running against Arpaio for the Republican nomination for county sheriff. According to him, the perception of the head of a department can not only have negative effects on the community’s opinion of that department, but also that of the other departments around it.

“The sheriff’s perception resonates into the community,” says Saban. “The network of fear throughout this county is unbelievable. It’s off the charts. Now this abuse and this process has become the ‘status quo’ and I talk to people that are engaged in and tired of this fight, and they say ‘that’s just him.’

A negative change in perception can lead to a rise in violence, according to Shjarback. Couple that with publicity nightmares such as “Tent City,” an outdoor jail notorious for numerous wrongful death, dog bite, and even food poisoning lawsuits and his hardline approach to immigration enforcement, and you have a recipe for a public that doesn’t trust its police officers and is increasingly likely to resist what it sees as an oppressive force.

MCSO is due to release an updated “Integrity, Accountability, Community” report in the next few months which will show the results of the departments increased efforts to improve its perception in the community.

Mike Beckwith is a reporter for the Arizona Sonora News, a service from the University of Arizona. Contact him at

Click here for high-resolution photos, as well as relevant charts and PDF copies of related documents.

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