Police vehicles as symbols of legitimacy



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


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.


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.


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  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.


  1. Bahn, C. (1974). The reassurance factor in police patrol. Criminology, 12, 338–345.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Bell, D. J. (1982). Police uniforms, attitudes, and citizens. Journal of Criminal Justice, 10, 45–55.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Bickman, L. (1974). The social power of a uniform. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 4, 47–61.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Bradford, B. (2014). Policing and social identity: procedural justice, inclusion and cooperation between police and public. Policing and Society, 24, 22–43.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Bradford, B., Murphy, K., & Jackson, J. (2014). Policing, procedural justice and the (re)production of social identity. British Journal of Criminology, 54, 527–550.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2011). Law enforcement management and administrative statistics (LEMAS), 2007. Available from: https://doi.org/10.3886/ICPSR31161.v1.

  7. Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2015). Law enforcement management and administrative statistics (LEMAS), 2013. Available from: https://doi.org/10.3886/ICPSR36164.v2.

  8. Durkin, K., & Jeffery, L. (2000). The salience of the uniform in young children’s perception of police status. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 5, 47–55.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Frank, M. G., & Gilovich, T. (1988). The dark side of self- and social perception: black uniforms and aggression in professional sports. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 74–85.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Johnson, R. R. (2005). Police uniform color and citizen impression formation. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 20, 58–66.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Johnson, R. R., Plecas, D., Anderson, S., & Dolan, H. (2015). No hat or tie required: examining minor changes to the police uniform. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 30, 158–165.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Jones, B., & Tilley, N. (2004). The impact of high visibility patrols on personal robbery. London: Home Office.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Joseph, N., & Alex, N. (1972). The uniform: a sociological perspective. American Journal of Sociology, 77, 719–730.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Kaplan, J. L., Wright, M. J., Lazarus, L., Congemi, N., duTreil, K., Arnold, R., Mercante, D., Diaz, J. H., Vrahas, M., & Hunt, J. P. (2000). Use of an unmanned police car to reduce traffic speed. The Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, 49, 43–46.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Kelling, G. L., Pate, T., Dieckman, D., & Brown, C. E. (1974). The Kansas City preventative patrol experiment. Washington, DC: Police Foundation.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Koper, C. S. (1995). Just enough police presence: reducing crime and disorderly behavior by optimizing patrol time in crime hot spots. Justice Quarterly, 12, 649–672.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Mazerolle, L., Bennett, S., Davis, J., Sargeant, E., & Manning, M. (2013). Procedural justice and police legitimacy: a systematic review of the research evidence. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 9, 245–274.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Nickels, E. (2008). Good guys wear black: uniform color and citizen impressions of police. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 31, 77–92.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Piza, E. L., & O’Hara, B. A. (2014). Saturation foot-patrol in a high-violence area: a quasi-experimental evaluation. Justice Quarterly, 31, 693–718.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Powell, B. (2016). Canadian police forces’ switch to darker cruisers ‘a disturbing trend,’ critics say. The Star.

  21. Ratcliffe, J. H., Taylor, R. B., Askey, A. P., Grasso, J., & Fisher, R. (2017). The Philadelphia predictive policing experiment: impacts of police cars assigned to high crime grids. Available from: http://www.jratcliffe.net/research/the-philadelphia-predictive-policing-experiment/.

  22. Ravani, B., & Wang, C. (2018). Speeding in highway work zone: an evaluation of methods of speed control. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 113, 202–212.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Schnelle, J. F., Kirchner, R. E., Casey, J. D., Uselton, P. H., & McNees, M. P. (1977). Patrol evaluation research: a multiple-baseline analysis of saturation police patrolling during day and night hours. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 10, 33–40.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Sherman, L. W., & Weisburd, D. (1995). General deterrent effects of police patrol in crime “hot spots”: a randomized, controlled trial. Justice Quarterly, 12, 625–648.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Simpson, R. (2017). The police officer perception project (POPP): an experimental evaluation of factors that impact perceptions of the police. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 13, 393–415.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Simpson, R. (2018). Officer appearance and perceptions of police: accoutrements as signals of intent. Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1093/police/pay015.

  27. Singer, M. S., & Singer, A. E. (1985). The effect of police uniform on interpersonal perception. The Journal of Psychology, 119, 157–161.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Strebly, J. V. (2016). Why did Canadian police cars become so menacing? National Observer.

  29. Sunshine, J., & Tyler, T. R. (2003). The role of procedural justice and legitimacy in shaping public support for policing. Law & Society Review, 37, 513–548.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Telep, C. W., Mitchell, R. J., & Weisburd, D. (2014). How much time should the police spend at crime hot spots? Answers from a police agency directed randomized field trial in Sacramento, California. Justice Quarterly, 31, 905–933.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. The Canadian Press. (2016). Toronto police halt new ‘militaristic’ cars after council steps in. CTV News.

  32. Thomas, M. D., & Williams, C. C. (2012). Police car visibility: detection, categorization, and defining components. The Journal of Law Enforcement, 2, 1–29.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Tyler, T. R. (1990). Why people obey the law. New Haven: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Tyler, T. R. (2004). Enhancing police legitimacy. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 593, 84–99.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Volpp, J. M., & Lennon, S. J. (1988). Perceived police authority as a function of uniform hat and sex. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 67, 815–824.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Williams, S., & Coupe, T. (2017). Frequency vs. length of hot spots patrols: a randomised controlled trial. Cambridge Journal of Evidence-Based Policing, 1, 5–21.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Zhao, J., Schneider, M., & Thurman, Q. (2002). The effect of police presence on public fear reduction and satisfaction: a review of the literature. The Justice Professional, 15, 273–299.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


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.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Rylan Simpson.

Ethics declarations

Ethical approval

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.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.

Electronic supplementary material


(PDF 173 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

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

Download citation


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