Officers are also accused of working on crude stereotypes when dealing with the young, Afro-Caribbean and Asian people and being superior when handling cases involving the working class.
However, citizens become more sympathetic and supportive of the police as they grow older and richer.
Young people were particularly influenced by negative experiences with the police while on the street. Young black and Asian groups complained about the police being ignorant of their cultures and using negative and outdated stereotypes.
Researchers identified "key social groups for policing" and questioned small focus groups representing different ages, sexes, economic backgrounds and ethnicity.
The groups had varying policing priorities. The young, ethnic minorities and working-class groups were particularly concerned with issues such as drugs and street crime, while older people worried about burglary and violent crime.
The authors of the report, Public Expectations and Perceptions of Policing, which was carried out by the Home Office's policing and reducing crime unit, suggest that the police tailor strategies and styles to deal with different groups. They recommended introducing a "customer segmentation" approach, similar to the system used by marketing companies.
The most worrying finding of the study was the wide range of people who held negative images of the police. In line with many of the submissions made to the inquiry into the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence, these often involved ethnic minority groups.
Paul Boateng, a Home Office minister, said: "Negative perceptions of the police service, particularly amongst young people and ethnic minorities, are a cause for concern. Too often the police are seen as distant, out of touch and unsympathetic to the needs of these groups.
"This presents us all with a challenge - effective policing requires strong working relations with all sections of society regardless of age or race."
The study identified three distinct approaches to policing that are supported by different social groups. Young people and working-class adults want more proactive and focused policing, such as anti-mugging strategies. They were in favour of undercover and covert action by the police.
The use of visible patrolling as a means of reassurance was attractive for middle-aged middle-class adults, older men and ethnic minority groups, although they were easily persuaded that proactive policing was more effective.
Older women and retired people believe visible "beat bobbies" were not just a means of reassurance, but also reduced crime and made them feel better protected.
The researchers concluded that the police "should regard the public not as a single entity, but as a number of separate and distinct communities. This would involve a form of `segmented' policing; different styles, but not different standards, of policing".
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