In a recent episode of Blue Line, The Podcast, editor Brittani Schroeder was joined by Dr. Rylan Simpson, an assistant professor in the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University, to speak about the importance of police vehicle designs and the public perception of police based on those designs.
Q: Can you speak on your extensive research on the effects of police vehicle aesthetics?
Most public observations of police occur when officers are in their vehicles. I wanted to understand when the public sees a police vehicle, what kinds of thoughts do they have about that vehicle and the occupying officer? I partnered with police departments to be able to collect hundreds of photographs of different police officers in different aesthetic capacities, including when occupying different types of police vehicles. I was particularly interested in trying to understand how the very characteristics and aesthetics of vehicles could impact public perceptions of police.
What the results have shown is a couple of key themes. First and foremost, the public tends to prefer police in marked police vehicles than non-marked vehicles. We also find that the general public really doesn’t like the unmarked police vehicles, which don’t include any kind of police identifiers or markings.
The last set of findings that we observed if we compare across patrol strategies was that, generally speaking, police officers as a whole were perceived less favourably when in any type of vehicle relative to when they were presented on foot or on a bicycle. These are very interesting findings that speak to the importance of police vehicles and their designs, and suggest that this is a matter of more than just aesthetic taste.
These designs are implicated in important perceptual judgments that the public make about police. Therefore, we should pay much attention to thinking about how we might be able to enhance perceptions of police through vehicle designs.
“Perception is an important component in police vehicle design, but so is functionality.”
Q: When judging the Blue Line Best Dressed Police Vehicle contest submissions, what are you looking for?
One of the first and foremost criteria that I use when assessing submissions for this contest is the identifiability of the vehicle as a police vehicle. Going back to that earlier conversation, the intent in most instances with police vehicles—particularly those that are marked—is to be seen, so that the public recognizes that the vehicle is a police vehicle, and the public sees that the police are present. So, when I’m looking at these submissions, I want to be confident that the public would recognize the design to be associated with police.
The second thing I look for, of course, is a design that is aesthetically pleasing; a design that features complimentary colors, smooth lines and directionality. As I said before, perception is an important component in police vehicle design, but so is functionality. In this respect, directionality, as one case, helps to ensure the safety of the officer in the vehicle, as well as the safety of the public and other motorists who might have to navigate around that vehicle if it is obstructing traffic or presented in any other kind of a high-risk situation.
I think it is the combination of those two that really scores the prize for me: a vehicle that’s bold, that identifies as police, that communicates it is police, and simultaneously, is eye catching and looks good. A vehicle that appears to have been designed with consideration of a lot of the colour wheel elements we talk about in other fields of research, and therefore is more than just a talking point, but also an important piece of police equipment that helps to achieve the police goal.
Q: What are you hoping to see in police vehicles of the future?
I think the opportunities are endless. We continue to see the boundaries being pushed on what a police vehicle can look like. In terms of the “core” marked police vehicle function, I think we do have to remain mindful of the intended goal of the vehicle, which is identifiability and recognizability. So we’re a little limited in where I think that particular category could go in the current context. Introducing the Battenburg or checkered-style design, I think could exhibit promise, once the public adjusts to that new recognition of “checkered equals police, police equals help,” as a very simplified, condensed version of that mechanism. I think we’re going to see more of that design make its way into the Canadian context. That’s probably where I would envision the future going.
As long as the vehicle can still score high on those key criteria, the actual way in which it is presented aesthetically could vary and is open to interpretation of those in charge of designing the vehicle.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. To listen to the full episode, visit blueline.ca/podcasts.
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