Brian Schaffner, Newhouse professor of civic studies, conducted surveys last October and November of Medford and Somerville residents on their experience and perception of policing in their respective communities, as well as their opinions on future reforms. The survey reports, released on March 15, state that while residents of both cities are “somewhat satisfied with policing,” they see inequalities in how different populations are treated by the police, and they overwhelmingly support the creation of a civilian review board.
The research team behind the surveys, which were sponsored by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, also consisted of eight Tufts undergraduate students.
Schaffner detailed the questions that were on the surveys. He said the surveys asked for the residents’ experiences with the police, their perception of how police treated different groups and their general ratings of the police, as well as how they wanted to see policing reforms in their communities.
According to Schaffner, the surveys find that residents of color are more likely to have had negative experiences with the police than white residents, and residents perceived racial inequality in police officers’ interactions with residents.
“In both communities, about one in five residents had had a negative experience with police officers … and that was more likely to be the case for residents of color than for white residents,” Schaffner said. “People in the communities also perceived that police officers treated African American residents and Hispanic residents more unfairly than they treated white residents, so there’s a perception of inequality that exists there.”
Schaffner noted that residents of color were less likely to say that the police made them feel safe. They were also less likely to say that they were less comfortable with calling the police if they needed help.
The surveys also found clear support for the implementation in both communities of a civilian review board, a platform where citizens can hold the police accountable, according to Schaffner.
“One of the overwhelming findings of the surveys is that residents in both communities really strongly supported creating a civilian review board, which would give civilians oversight over the police department,” Schaffner said. “Cambridge, for example, uses such a system right now, but neither Somerville nor Medford uses that, so there’s a lot of support for that.”
Schaffner added that most residents opposed the police’s using a variety of enforcement methods. He cited chokeholds as one method that residents adamantly opposed. He also said that many residents expressed a preference for the employment of social services workers — instead of police officers — as first responders.
Jaime Givens, a student co-author of the reports, said she joined Schaffner’s team last summer because she believed it was an important social and political moment for marginalized communities.
“It was a really exciting opportunity … coming out of the summer of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and … politically as well as socially, I think it was a really important moment,” Givens, a sophomore, said. “It made me feel like I was doing something or was potentially helping these communities have their voices heard and then hopefully in the future, this information could be used to improve policing and residents’ feelings of policing practices.”
Leah Yohannes, another student co-author, elaborated on how the students contributed to Schaffner’s research and how they devised the survey questions.
“We came up with the questions for the survey, and then Professor Schaffner helped us distribute the survey; then, after, we helped just analyze the results,” Yohannes, a senior, said. “[To generate the questions] we did general research on the top trends and what other surveys have touched on … and then we divided the team up into different groups depending on … tactics and use of force, and then general perceptions, and we separated our questions out that way.”
Schaffner praised the students’ efforts and ingenuity in designing the surveys, noting that students brought in their own perspectives, which allowed them to think creatively.
He also explained that the goal of the surveys was to inform local officials of their constituents’ opinions on pressing issues, especially since data covering small communities is lacking and skews to the conservative side.
“There’s not really good systematic data for local officials on what their constituents want, because most of the polling that’s done is done nationally or done at the state level, and very little is done for small communities,” Schaffner said. “There’s a lot of recent political science studies that actually show that elected officials tend to think that their constituents are more conservative than they actually are … The main thing I hope that comes out of this is that elected officials in both communities recognize and see how much support there is for some major reforms in both communities.”
Schaffner added that the survey reports have reached city government officials, and that Tisch College’s support for the research demonstrates its commitment to better informing public policy.
“So far, at least, it seems like a good sign that officials of both governments have seen the report and are paying attention to it,” Schaffner said. “Tisch College sponsored and paid for these surveys, and I think it’s just an example of the fact that Tisch College tends to get involved in things to make a real difference in the real world.”