Police vehicles as symbols of legitimacy

Abstract

Objectives

To experimentally evaluate the effects of police vehicle types and esthetics on participants’ perceptions of police officers.

Methods

Using participant data (N = 307) from the Police Officer Perception Project (Simpson 2017), I experimentally assess the effects of police vehicles on perceptions of police officers. Specifically, I evaluate the impact of presenting officers in marked police vehicles (black and white versus white and blue), unmarked police vehicles, and unrelated (or civilian) police vehicles on perceptions of them as aggressive, approachable, friendly, respectful, and accountable.

Results

Police officers are perceived differently when occupying different types and colors of police vehicles. For example, officers are generally perceived more favorably when occupying marked police vehicles than when occupying non-marked police vehicles. When occupying marked police vehicles, officers are generally perceived more favorably when such vehicles have a black and white color scheme than a white and blue color scheme.

Conclusions

Police vehicle types and esthetics impact perceptions of police officers in significant and meaningful ways. Like uniforms, police vehicles can be important symbols of legitimacy which exude presence and nonverbally communicate philosophies and intentions to the public. Police departments may tailor the perceived intentions of their motorized patrols by strategically manipulating the appearance of their vehicles.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Participants were led to believe that they would rate images associated with a randomly selected occupation and then recall such images during a later memory test, despite always observing police-related images.

  2. 2.

    All of the images feature real police officers in real police vehicles.

  3. 3.

    See Simpson (2017, 2018) for evaluations of accouterments, attire, and patrol strategy esthetics on perceptions of police officers.

  4. 4.

    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” (Simpson 2017).

  5. 5.

    City identifiers were removed from these vehicles using photo-editing software.

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Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank John Hipp and Michael Gottfredson for their feedback on this manuscript; 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 he has no conflict of interest.

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Simpson, R. Police vehicles as symbols of legitimacy. J Exp Criminol 15, 87–101 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11292-018-9343-5

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Keywords

  • Experimental criminology
  • Legitimacy
  • Motorized patrol
  • Perceptions of police
  • Police cars
  • Policing
  • Procedural justice
  • Vehicles