Public Perception of Law Enforcement’s Success

The purpose of this study is to discover factors that influence public perception of law enforcement’s role in the Secure Border Initiative. The study is based on the assumption that there are factors working to shape public perception of law enforcement and officer roles in securing the nation’s border.

I. Introduction and Statement of the Problem

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The events of September 11, 2001 served as a wake up call for Americans.  As terrifying and horrific as such images and memories remain in the public eye, since that day America has been at war.  This war is a complex animal, which stems from Terrorist actions against the American way of life.  Still these events have put into action legislation to promote higher security for America’s people.  One such action is the creation of the Secure Borders Initiative, which was enacted to develop greater control of America’s borders.  Recently, it has been proposed to build an actual wall along the Arizona/Mexico border (Contreras, 2006, par. 1) that will detour illegal immigration.  This announcement has been met with public outcry or shock at such a notion and in juxtaposition, positive press for key members of Bush’s administration.  There is the feeling something is finally being done because security begins at home, right?  These current events brought to mind many ideas in need of exploration.  What actions has the Initiative put into place and what is public perception of law enforcement’s role?


This study will examine the public perception of law enforcement’s role in securing the nation’s borders.  The foundation of this work comes from examining numerous headlines presenting negative public perception of not just law enforcement in general but the Secure Border Initiative and its politics.  Many issues pre-exist in this situation when it comes to the public’s perception of secure borders.  Basically, secure borders reflects public outcry for greater issues such as: the war in Iraq, a need for increased security from weapons of terror and a lack of leadership.  Specifically for this paper and the framework of the Secure Borders Initiative, the focus will be on illegal immigration and technology used in facilitating infrastructure.

The objective is to study two groups of Americans living in border towns to discover if there are factors influencing his or her perception of: (1) law enforcement in general, (2) the Secure Border Initiative (success or failure), (3) law enforcement’s role in the Secure Border Initiative, and (4) his or her view of issues specifically immigration and infrastructure.

Research Questions:


Do factors play a role in public perception of law enforcement and  law enforcement’s role in securing American borders?


Do these factors influence his or her opinion of the initiative’s success with issues like illegal immigration and infrastructure technology?




Yes, there are factors that influence public perception of law enforcement’s in general and law enforcement’s role in securing borders.  Yes, these factors influence success.


It should be noted here that in though the initiative is relatively early in being enforced, it is important to continue looking at the public’s perception in order to implement new stages of the plan.  This study is feasible because pre-existing issues like immigration and infrastructure have impact not only on America as a whole but specifically border towns.

Problem Significance:

Timely: Border security has been an issue in the past because illegal immigration and lack of funding for improved infrastructure.  Recent events like 9/11 and the continued war in Iraq bring to the forefront issues of security in America.  No one can know when the next terrorist attack will happen.  The American public wants to know what is being done to protect the country from intruders but also the country’s wellbeing.  Because of this, leadership comes under fire and public perception of the situation becomes important.  Legislation like Secure Borders Initiative brings to light the strengths and weaknesses within our own society, which is reflected in public perception.

Wide Population: It is very difficult to know when security will be breeched by an outside force.  The American borders encompass over 7, 000 miles of land in many places completely vacant and insecure.  Such vastness leaves many areas in need of patrol but especially critical areas where illegal immigration is rapid and infrastructure is non-existent.

Research Gap: With consideration to border patrol and security, the initiative aims to provide a backbone for action to combat pre-existing issues to 9/11 but also combat new ones.  There is neither the manpower nor the funds to provide adequate coverage especially when terrorists and illegal aliens have numerous resources.  What does not help the situation is public perception of law enforcement.  Problems still exist despite increased patrols and strengthened infrastructure in the forms of computer, infrared technologies, heightened security procedures when traveling but still there is not much research to suggest that the initiative has been effective.  There is however, much literature suggesting that there are factors influencing public perception of law enforcement and the initiative.

Resulting Policy Change: Public perception of law enforcement’s role of securing borders has changed rapidly in the last ten years because there are factors at work within society that influence people.  Increased public dissatisfaction with the War and increased illegal immigration especially to metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and Tucson has increased public perception of the initiative as negative.  This in turn has resulted in the Bush administration to promote building a wall to secure borders.  It has promoted changes in identification processes at the border.  Starting in January 2007, everyone will need a passport to cross the border into areas and territories where you once only needed a driver’s license or birth certificate.


II. Literature Review/Theoretical Framework
In this review of previous studies and related literature, information is presented in support of and in anticipation of the methodology and the analysis of this study.  In order to constrain the literature review to a manageable yet representative account of the development of the concepts and constructs employed here, the focus was on studies within the framework of the Secure Border Initiative and work done by the State Department and Homeland Security as a joint venture.  The initiative is in its infancy as it begins its second year in 2007 (Carafano, 2006, par. 1).  Of these, a wide range of research studies on America’s borders, its components and history, application within the two different regions (Mexico and Canada), American opinion, influence on performance and implications of technology infrastructure as well as rates of success or failure for the plan; particularly those related to societal perception and law enforcement’s ongoing role were reviewed.

With this in mind, what do we know about the Secure Border Initiative and the public’s perception of law enforcement’s role?  What is the public opinion and how does societal perception of law enforcement impact this opinion?  How doe issues of immigration and the war on terror play factor into this opinion?  At what expense are we protecting the borders when much of the world is becoming borderless because of telecommunications?  Are we only protecting the American way of life in a world of negative opinion by outsiders?  If so, why are so many wanting to come here?  The answer is pure economics mostly, but also marketing of patriotism. The Rice-Chertoff joint vision of securing America’s borders has required to a degree some positive marketing of American life (Erlichman, 2006).  As the Secure Border Initiative states from the program guide available at the State Department’s web site:


We share nearly 7,000 miles of borders with Canada and Mexico.  Millions of tons of cargo as well as more than a million people each day cross our borders…Our goal is to allow these legal travelers and cargo in, while keeping illegal and dangerous people and cargo out (Rice-Cheroff, 2006, p. 6).


The point of such an initiative is to put into place policies that adhere to successfully achieving this objective.  However, there are many challenges to the initiative that pre-existed that influence public opinion of law enforcement’s role. Two issues presented in literature are: immigration and infrastructure.

It is important to understand the economics of migration especially with respect to the Mexican-American border.  This has been a problematic area.  Existing theory like the neo-classical theory insists that, out-migration should be highest from the ranks of the unemployed in states with the lowest wages and it should flow to the states with the lowest unemployment rates and the highest wages.   Sociological studies indicate that those who in fact migrate are generally not the poorest within sending states and they do not necessarily go where they could earn the most.  Sociologists have demonstrated through detailed case studies that transnational social networks are the best predictors of migratory flows.  One could argue that immigrants flock to areas like Los Angeles, El Paso or even Miami or New York City because those are cities with greatest potential for employment.  Studies suggest that people go where they know someone. This is not about supply or demand but about society and values.  People are going to move where they find a support base.

Once an understanding of the Secure Border Initiative is set in place as part of the framework for analysis, one can explore the impacts it has on society in order to answer part of the problem statement.  As much as Miguel Contreras (2006, par. 6) would like to belief the issue is about illegal immigration and its control, the deeper issue remains in public opinion and policing of American society.  Is it thought that by protecting the borders, we can protect the American way of life the Terrorist tried so hard to destroy?  Or is it just a matter of economics?  Personally, I believe it is a matter of protecting the American standard of life because technology and globalization can easily allow another region greater financial success, look at China’s economic growth.  Still this study is not about personal opinion but what is found in literature.  Part of what inspired me was the idea of not only American opinion on this initiative but American perception of law enforcement and the job that officers of the law do everyday to uphold the progress of such work.

Part of making such progress is slow because many areas of the country lack IT infrastructure.  While the U.S. government is spending money to deploy the tools needed for such protection (as weak links that stand out are those states, ports of entry, airports, etc. that have not effectively modernized information systems used for operations, surveillance and law enforcement) the American public worries about this time of weakness (Carafano, 2006, par. 4 and Dizard, 2006).  Therefore, the competitive dynamic in the future may be less a matter of ever-stricter asylum and immigration policies but rather of larger IT budgets for border control and law enforcement agencies, better implementations of systems purchased and more interdepartmental and interagency information sharing.  Moreover, the multilateral cooperation necessary to combat smuggling may move beyond harmonization of laws and policies and on to automated information exchanges among states’ border control and law enforcement authorities.  Part of the current problem is lack of quick implementation to all states where areas are found as targets.  Part of the American opinion outstanding today in its negative tone is that many see flaws and weaknesses in his or her backyards and wonder why nothing is being done (Strohm, 2006, par. 1).  This is the draw back to implementing an IT infrastructure; not many see the hard work being done.

Much of public opinion may come from preconceived notions of law enforcement.  Connie McNeely (1995, p. 2) writes that most of what Americans understand about law enforcement comes from what they view in the media, mainly television and movies.  Aside from these media experiences, many Americans do not have first hand knowledge of the inter-workings of border patrol or general law enforcement at the community level.  Because her insights are somewhat outdated in this day and age of televisions shows like CSI and Without a Trace, it would be interesting to carry out further study of this idea.  Still her study warrants close examination as she furthers her argument by writing:


Research has suggested that a majority of knowledge of the criminal justice system comes through the media, in particular through entertainment television viewing.  Indeed, in some ways, the most direct “contact” that most persons have with the criminal justice system is through the “television experience”. (McNeely, 1995, p. 2)


Any other influence such as that of school or parenting is waning in numbers.  Other studies suggest that continued exposure to media on all levels and constantly being exposed to reality TV and news, has created a whole new way Americans perceive media and facts.  Continued exposure has created a population of people who question everything but as a result have become numb.  Nadler’s (2005, p. 1399) study shows that such public displays of law enforcement working negatively can influence public perception.  Such cases like Rodney King and O.J. Simpson allows the average American to question the vary purpose of the law and officer of the law. Nadler (2005, p. 1400) writes such media play “can undermine the public’s perception of the legitimacy of law enforcement generally.  This loss of legitimacy and distrust of the fairness of the legal system, can in turn lead to more widespread lawbreaking.”  Because we live in a society where information is even more readily available than ten years ago, how does this affect opinion on such crucial issues as security and our borders?  This is what I aim to find out with this study.


Furthermore, it is also important to explore the role of technology in providing effective law enforcement of the borders.  The practice of innovation also begins with embracing or adopting the unexpected. Peter Drucker (1998) describes, “unexpected successes and failures are such productive sources of innovation opportunities because most business dismiss them, disregard them, and even resent them” (p. 149) and this type of behavior represents people’s resistance to change but at the same time creates recognition of new opportunities within the market. The impact of change, both positive and negative in the forms of conflict and innovation; brings up other implications.  With telecommunications, a new breed of crime has been created with identity theft and corporate brand protection becoming important.  With innovations come new inventions that make our lives easier but also have a higher risk when used.  This is the nature of the realm of possibility.  This age has given permission to anyone to create and discover.  This can backfire as it can also destroy and impose new rules of conduct upon communities.  This in turn can change public opinion.  It changes political views as the world becomes border-less and as a result changes society.  This new age brings up issues of responsibility and accountability for everyone involved.

By introducing such technology, what kind of risks is the country opening itself to and what can be done to alleviate risk?  Assessment of risk and weakness at the border begins with leadership (Strohm, 2006, par. 2).  Strohm (2006) furthers the debate by voicing a need for strategic alliance among not only contracting company for IT infrastructure but also members of Congress (par. 3).  Research into the competitive nature of companies bidding on government work at the borders suggests that this is a main weakness for the initiative (Dizard, 2006).  There is too much time bidding and not enough action being taken.  This leads to the public having a weak opinion of the process and the people carrying out the process.  This brings up issues of leadership within the construct of the federal government as an organizational culture.

The government must have leaders without fear of the unknown; those who enjoy the uncomfortable feelings of change but also those that take past experiences make them relative to the present.  A leader must also display curiosity and have the guts to be daring.  Warren Bennis (1989) reflects, there are two kinds of people “those who are paralyzed by fear, and those who are afraid but go ahead away.  Life is not about limitation but options” (p. 185).


III. Methods
As part of any scientific approach, it is important to focus on the correct segmentation of the population needed to prove the hypothesis.  For this purpose, the groups needed for this study will need to live in areas affected by the initiative.  For this reason, it is thought focusing on border patrol centers in towns like El Paso, Texas and Niagara Falls, New York will be important.  In order not to be biased, it was important to focus on both of the American borders: Canadian and Mexican; also to chose cities that are relatively the same size and that have same amount of border traffic.  It was not the purpose of this study to test the success of the border patrol but rather to randomly survey people of varying demographics, his or her public perception of the Secure Borders Initiative, law enforcement’s role and the issues discussed.

Experimental groups:  These will be patrol centers (one at each border) that have a positive and active presence with the community they serve where infrastructure is strong.

Control group:  These will be patrol centers (one at each border) that very little presence in the community where little is being done either due to lack of funds or manpower.  This will be the control group because the public perception is impartial.


Ethical Considerations:

It is important that the people being surveyed as part of the control group not be singled out but that all groups be surveyed at random.  In this respect, the purpose of the survey must not be communicated at any time in order to reduce bias and media attention.



There are limitations or variables to any study and these variables below may alter the results of the study.

Independent Variables:

Anything that may categorize the subject as a threat to the border patrol mission, i.e., terror attributes or unstable human behaviors; not being an American citizen or trying to enter the country illegally.

Dependant Variables:

Race, gender, average income, population density, and economic status.


The Sample:

The topic applies to members of the community being affected by the secure borders initiative and those with opportunity to cross the border at some time during the survey period.  All participants will be over the legal age of 18 years and a legal citizen of the United States with a permanent mailing address within the zip codes of El Paso and Niagara Falls respectively.  During the survey period, 1000 participants will be randomly selected during the checkpoint procedure.  This will mean that 250 participants will be selected at each patrol center.



In the community population traveling across the borders, all people under the age of 18 years and those who are not a legal citizen of the United States residing in the zip codes within El Paso and Niagara Falls will be excluded.

Because the survey is entirely random, there is the chance that a fellow law enforcement agent working or with knowledge of the border patrol may be surveyed.  In this case, unless the person declines due to professional affiliation, they may be included.


Data Collection:

A survey of ten questions will be used as methodology for this study.  As part of the survey, participants will be encouraged to go into detail about his or her answer.  The following is a sample of what survey questions could look like.


What is your gender?
What is your race?
What is the highest degree matriculated?
What is your employment status?
What is your opinion of law enforcement (in general)?
What experiences have you had with law enforcement?
Do you think the Secure Borders Initiative is working?
What is your reasoning?
What factors do you think influence this reasoning?
What do you think of a wall being constructed at the border of Arizona and Mexico?
These surveys will be completed during the checkpoint process and returned for analysis.


Human Subjects:

A computer upon a participant arriving at the checkpoint will randomly generate the survey.  There should not be any pressure but officers should use a customer relations approach to facilitating this action.  At any time, a participant can choose not to be surveyed and that survey will be excluded from the analysis.  Not at any time will the participant be judged by making this choice nor will they not be allowed entry based on this fact, only on illegal ones.


Data Collection Schedule:

Phase One:  Surveys will be distributed at random at the northern border crossing.

Phase Two: Surveys will be distributed at random at the southern border crossing.

Phase Three:  Should not enough surveys be completed, another survey period will be arranged.