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The perceptual effects of police appearance

November 18, 2019  By Rylan Simpson

In the context of policing, appearance matters for more than just personal taste. From debates regarding the presence of heavily armed officers at community events, to the inclusion of uniformed officers in pride parades, to the designs of new police vehicles, questions surrounding perception and appearance rest firmly at the root of modern police work.

Working in collaboration with the Irvine and Newport Beach police departments, I devised an experiment which allowed me to empirically investigate the effects of appearance on perceptions of police. With the assistance of more than a dozen departmental staff, I collected hundreds of photos of officers in different aesthetic capacities to include as part of the experiment. For example, I collected photos of uniformed and non-uniformed officers occupying different styles of police vehicles, riding bicycles, and standing on foot wearing different accoutrements, like vests, gloves, batons, sunglasses, and hats. I then compiled all of the photos into an experimental paradigm which I randomized and presented to participants under the guise of a memory study: asking participants to make meaningful categorizations of each photographed officer along several outcomes.

I have now conducted the experiment, titled the Police Officer Perception Project (POPP), on nearly 800 participants. My findings consistently demonstrate the importance of appearance: by communicating information about officers’ intentions and philosophies, appearance characteristics can fundamentally change the ways in which citizens perceive officers.

For example, I find that officers are perceived more favourably when presented on a bicycle or on foot than when presented in a vehicle; but, that the marking and colour scheme of the vehicle matter as well. When presented on foot, I find that some accoutrements (e.g., high-visibility vests) enhance perceptions of officers, whereas other accoutrements (e.g., black gloves, longstick batons, sunglasses) tarnish perceptions. And across all of the poses, I find that officers are generally perceived more favourably when presented in uniform than civilian clothing.

Given that appearance is embedded within all practices that involve the physical observation of police, I argue that these findings have much relevance for the field. Most interactions with the police are quick, routine, and unceremonious, like when passing an officer on a roadway or when observing an officer inside of a building.

With that being said, variation in the appearance of officers is enough to derive variation in perceptions of them: depending upon what citizens “see” in or on that officer may impact their evaluation of the officer and eventually their behaviours when and if they interact with the officer.

These findings thus have much potential for police. Officers can change themselves via variables like their appearance much easier than they can change the citizens whom they police and/or the conditions under which they police. For example, police agencies may tailor the perceived intentions of their foot patrols by strategically manipulating the appearance of their officers who walk the beat. Police agencies may also enhance the perceived legitimacy of their officers by strategically manipulating the aesthetics of their patrol vehicles, as recently done by the Irvine Police Department.

The implementation of these findings within the policing environment is symbolic of the evidence-based policing movement, which is gaining traction and support among police officials across the globe. Indeed, I write this column on the heels of the third annual conference of the American Society of Evidence-Based Policing, where I had the opportunity to present and discuss my findings from the POPP with police practitioners from both Canada and the United States. Each practitioner brought an interesting perspective to the discussion and a sense of enthusiasm for what these findings might mean for their own agencies.

By strategically equipping and deploying officers with proper consideration of their aesthetics, police agencies may improve their relations with the public and enhance perceptions of their officers.

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Rylan Simpson, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University. His research interests include policing, perceptions of police, police organizations, legitimacy, experimental criminology, theories of crime, and social psychology. He has recently published his work in the Journal of Experimental Criminology, Policing and Society, and Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice.

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