The Police Officer Perception Project (POPP): An experimental evaluation of factors that impact perceptions of the police

A Correction to this article was published on 16 November 2017

This article has been updated

Abstract

Objectives

To experimentally evaluate the effects of attire and patrol strategy esthetics on participants’ perceptions of police officers.

Methods

Using a rigorously controlled experimental methodology, I present participants (N = 307) with images of police officers in different attire (i.e., uniform and civilian) and patrol strategies (i.e., on a bicycle, on foot, and in a vehicle) and measure their perceptions of these officers as aggressive, approachable, friendly, respectful, and accountable.

Results

Participants express relatively positive perceptions of the police; however, their perceptions vary as a function of sociodemographics, attire, and patrol strategy. Police officers are generally perceived more favorably when presented in police uniform than when presented in civilian clothing. Police officers are also generally perceived more favorably when presented on a bicycle and/or on foot than when presented in a vehicle.

Conclusions

Merely observing police officers in different attire and patrol capacities produces substantial variation in perceptions of those officers. Given that most ‘police interaction’ occurs in relatively unceremonious settings without any exchange of formal dialogue between the public and the police (e.g., observing a police officer in passing), these findings are particularly fruitful for informing both research and practice. This is the first known study to use an experimental methodology to examine how esthetic factors of different patrol strategies can impact perceptions of the police.

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  • 16 November 2017

    As part of the production process, the numerical values for negative and positive police contact in Table 1 were erroneously swapped.

Notes

  1. 1.

    It is important to note that the differences in non-adversarial contact between these patrol strategies are likely underestimates due to the difficulties in measuring informal interactions between the public and the police.

  2. 2.

    Although informative, a couple of potential limitations of this particular study must be noted. First, Singer and Singer (1985) employed a between-subjects design that hindered their ability to make inferences regarding within-officer variability. Second, the authors did not take into account the diversity of patrol strategies frequently utilized by the police in a patrol context.

  3. 3.

    Joseph and Alex (1972) argued, “Since no other statuses, or any touch of individuality, are recognized in the uniformed individual by others, he is encouraged to act primarily as an occupant of his uniformed status” (726).

  4. 4.

    The human subject pool provides opportunities for undergraduate students to participate in research in order to obtain course credit.

  5. 5.

    This study’s procedures (including the use of deception) were all approved by the Institutional Review Board at the university where it was conducted.

  6. 6.

    The four different occupations are artificial and not of interest in the present research. They were simply included in the experiment’s methodology in order to minimize potential demand characteristics.

  7. 7.

    Consent was orally obtained from all participants prior to the commencement of the experiment.

  8. 8.

    Verbatim instructions: “ATTENTION: Please rate the following images as either [dependent variable] or not [dependent variable]. When making your decisions, please move as quickly as you can observe the image in its entirety.”

  9. 9.

    However, I only analyzed data for 40 of the 64 images for the purposes of the present analyses because the remaining 24 images (6 images/officer) varied as a function of the phase of the experiment, and, therefore, could not be included in analyses that utilized the full sample of participants from all phases (as done in this manuscript). With that being said, the poses featured in the images that were excluded from these particular analyses were identical for all officers, and, thus, removing them did not impact the integrity of the experiment and/or its conclusions; i.e., the composition of officers (gender/race/number) remained balanced (there were no expected differential impacts on the outcomes of any particular groups of officers as a result of this decision; see Table 2).

  10. 10.

    All of the images used in this experiment were collected during a choreographed photo shoot with local police agencies, and, therefore, feature real police officers, real police vehicles, and real police equipment.

  11. 11.

    No participants identified as other gender.

  12. 12.

    These racial categories were obtained from the United States Census Bureau.

  13. 13.

    There were only ten Black or African American, one American Indian and Alaska Native, and one Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander participants, and, therefore, these participants were categorized as other race for the purposes of my analyses.

  14. 14.

    First, I determined participants’ parents’ highest level of education and then standardized this variable. Next, I standardized the variable for participants’ parents’ annual income. Finally, I combined these two standardized variables in order to form a single socioeconomic status variable.

  15. 15.

    Although I collected images of eight different police officers for the purposes of this experiment, each participant only observed four of the eight officers during the experiment in order to manage the vast number of images associated with each officer.

  16. 16.

    All reasonable attempts were made to match the physical characteristics of the police officers featured in this experiment. All of the images of the officers were also digitally resized to the aforementioned proportions in order to further minimize any potential perceived differences in physical size.

  17. 17.

    All models were two-level, with individual image ratings nested within participants.

  18. 18.

    For these particular analyses, I generated proportion variables in order to calculate the percentage of images categorized as a given dependent variable (regardless of patrol strategy, attire, etc.).

  19. 19.

    Given that it is not technically appropriate to report correlations of binary variables, I recommend caution when interpreting such values.

  20. 20.

    Although examining the effects of the race of officer and participant separately were of interest in the present analyses, examining the interactions between the race of officers and participants were outside the scope of the present manuscript.

  21. 21.

    Although my findings provide strong evidence to suggest that these effects would exist in a broad range of populations, such conclusions still warrant further empirical validation in more diverse settings.

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Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank John Hipp, Michael Gottfredson, and Carroll Seron for their guidance, support, and feedback on this project; Tam Vu for his help running participants for this project; and David Maggard Jr., Mike Hamel, Julia Engen, Tim Knight, and the many officers and support staff from the Irvine and Newport Beach Police Departments for sharing their time and equipment in order to make this project possible. The author would also like to thank the editorial team and anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments regarding this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Rylan Simpson.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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The author declares that they have no conflict of interest.

Additional information

A correction to this article is available online at https://doi.org/10.1007/s11292-017-9316-0.

Appendix

Appendix

Table 4 Graphical depiction of the randomization embedded within the experiment’s methodology
Table 5 Composition of the master set of police officers featured in the experiment

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Simpson, R. The Police Officer Perception Project (POPP): An experimental evaluation of factors that impact perceptions of the police. J Exp Criminol 13, 393–415 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11292-017-9292-4

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Keywords

  • Bicycle patrol
  • Experimental criminology
  • Foot patrol
  • Patrol strategies
  • Perceptions of police
  • Policing
  • Procedural justice
  • Social identity theory
  • Uniforms
  • Vehicle patrol