Despite governmental orders to stay home and socially distance, police have maintained their frontline services during the COVID-19 pandemic. In doing so, officers have continued to engage in close contact with members of the public who potentially could be carriers of the virus. Ensuring the safety and well-being of these officers and preventing further spread of the virus have thus remained goals for both the law enforcement and public health communities. The consequences of an infected police agency are high: not only could it leave communities without first responders, but as a function of their role, it could also mean the widespread infection of many people. Given that police penetrate the networks of so many people (e.g., via their attendance at different homes, workplaces, and public spaces), one infected officer could infect many different social groups during the course of any shift.
In an effort to reduce the risks of the virus, police among others worldwide have adopted the use of PPE, which has been identified as providing many health and safety benefits (e.g., Chu et al. 2020; Cook 2020; Thomas et al. 2020; WHO 2020a, b). The implications for the use of PPE, though, are not necessarily consistent across all people: the use of PPE could create a conundrum for police, whereby their use of the equipment to protect themselves and others could potentially induce negative perceptions which could then tarnish their ability to effectively conduct their duties. This is largely because several items of PPE that are used by police, including gloves, specific types of face masks, face shields and eye protection, have traditionally been associated with negative messaging in policing (including hostility and militarization; e.g., Boyanowsky and Griffiths 1982; Kraska 2007; Lawson 2019; Simpson 2020a) and/or hinder the display of expressions found to enhance perceptions of police (e.g., Simpson 2020b). Until now, however, no known research has empirically tested these claims and/or the effects of PPE on perceptions of police in a pandemic context. Considering the magnitude of esthetic change that using PPE has induced for police, understanding the effects of PPE on perceptions of police helps to conceptualize the broader impact of this public health crisis on the criminal justice system. As part of the present research, we thus employed an experimental paradigm with multiple levels of randomization to test the perceptual effects of different items of PPE on perceptions of police in the context of PPE awareness.
As introduced at the outset of this article, one potential complication surrounding perception regards awareness. People observe police in different capacities and with different levels of awareness about the rationale for why officers use particular equipment. Although some equipment may exhibit baseline effects in the absence of any contextual information (for discussions, see Simpson 2019, 2020a), other equipment may exhibit different effects depending upon an observer’s belief about the utility of the equipment in a specified context. Testing this effect of awareness in the context of COVID-19 and PPE was a primary goal of the present research. As part of the experimental paradigm, participants were randomly assigned to read a fictitious news article that either highlighted the health benefits of PPE (i.e., pro-PPE condition), the lack of health benefits of PPE (i.e., anti-PPE condition), or never mentioned PPE at all (i.e., neutral condition), and then immediately after rated images of a police officer using the very items of PPE that the article discussed along eight dimensions: accountability, aggression, approachability, competency, friendliness, intimidation, professionalism, and respectfulness.
The results from the ANOVA tests provided limited evidence to suggest that simply reading a fictitious news article about the health benefits, or lack thereof, of PPE could substantially impact perceptions of police using PPE: participants in all conditions generally perceived the officer favorably. Despite not reaching statistical significance, however, many of the differences in means across conditions still trended in the directions in which we predicted in Hypotheses #1 and #2. For example, participants in the pro-PPE condition typically perceived the officer most favorably, followed by participants in the neutral condition, and then by participants in the anti-PPE condition. These findings suggest several important conclusions.
First, making participants immediately aware of the health benefits of PPE via a fictitious news article may have been enough to help magnify positive perceptions of an officer using PPE (as evidenced by the magnitude of favorable perceptions among participants in this condition). Second, and conversely, making participants immediately aware of the lack of health benefits of PPE via a fictitious news article was not enough to induce completely negative perceptions of an officer using PPE. In this case, participants identified the messaging of their assigned article (i.e., PPE does not present health benefits), yet they still rated the officer more favorably when using PPE. Thus, a shallow manipulation similar to that employed as part of the present research may not be salient enough to dramatically change people’s perceptions about officers who use this equipment during a public health crisis. Indeed, 80% of participants (regardless of condition) agreed or strongly agreed that the police should use PPE whenever possible during the COVID-19 pandemic and participants in the anti-PPE and neutral conditions who inaccurately answered the manipulation check question overwhelmingly specified that they thought the fictitious news article suggested that PPE was beneficial.
Although we did not observe as much variation across our conditions as expected, we found many significant effects for specific items of PPE within conditions. For example, using a surgical mask or N95 mask alone and/or in combination with medical gloves unilaterally enhanced perceptions of the officer. The full-face respirator mask, on the other hand, exhibited more mixed effects. Consistent with Hypothesis #3, we found that using this particular mask alone and/or in combination with medical gloves amplified perceptions of aggression as well as intimidation, and reduced perceptions of friendliness for participants in the anti-PPE condition. We found fewer effects for the face shield, and any perceptual effects that we did observe were positive. Finally, we found that using combinations of PPE elicited further perceptual effects, but that such effects were largely a function of some perceptually salient items of PPE as opposed to the completely additive effect of multiple items.
The findings from the present research exhibit important implications for both the scholarly and practitioner communities. For example, the present research provides insight into the relevance of awareness for perceptions of police in the absence of formal contact. Consider gloves as one case in point. Gloves have been previously identified as eliciting negative perceptual effects when rated without context and when black in color (Simpson 2020a). Yet, in the context of a public health crisis, gloves are an arguably necessary piece of equipment (WHO 2020d), and our participants seemed to generally agree: we did not observe negative perceptual effects for the (light blue) medical gloves tested in the present research.Footnote 5 Building strong messaging around the benefits of equipment (and the support for such benefits from non-policing entities, like governments and/or health authorities) may thereby help to minimize the potential negative effects that the equipment could otherwise induce for police. In this way, the present research complements previous research that has tested the effects of officer appearance in isolation (e.g., see the work of Simpson) as well as related research that has investigated the effects of subtle manipulations regarding depictions of policing styles on perceptions of police (e.g., see Wozniak et al. 2020).
With that being said, relying upon awareness as a mechanism to dramatically sway opinions about police in the context of publicly prominent topics, like COVID-19 and PPE, may be a challenging task. In these cases, shallow interventions may be able to help magnify perceptual effects consistent with one’s pre-existing beliefs, but much more intensive interventions may be required to actually sway opinions toward the opposite direction of such beliefs. For example, the pro-PPE condition seemed to generally exhibit more favorable perceptions of the officer than the anti-PPE condition, but participants in the anti-PPE condition still generally perceived the officer using PPE as at least somewhat favorable even though they were led to believe that PPE was not beneficial for reducing the spread of COVID-19. We attribute this finding to the prevalence of mainstream messaging which, whether explicit or not, suggests that PPE either offers at least some benefits, or at minimum, no real harms. This challenge of inducing change in perceptions via group manipulations is consistent with the findings of Wozniak et al. (2020) who observed that a very subtle manipulation which experimentally exposed participants to different styles of policing images (e.g., militarized versus community policing versus stop-and-frisk) did not differentially influence their global assessments of police.
In this vein, the present research demonstrates how experimental paradigms can be rapidly mobilized to assess scientific questions of an applied nature. By quickly revisiting questions of perception in this specific pandemic context, the present research was able to help identify the effects of particular equipment during a time of tremendous uncertainty. It would be fruitful for future research to consider how similar paradigms may be implemented to study the effects of other social changes on related outcomes. As society changes, research must adapt and change with it in order to ensure that the evidence base remains current and relevant for policy and practice.
Finally, the findings from the present research offer some practical implications for police who continue to provide frontline services during the COVID-19 pandemic. By educating the public about the rationale for their use of PPE, police may be able to help enhance perceptions of their officers who must use the equipment.Footnote 6 Moreover, by combining their use of such awareness campaigns with other principles like procedural justice (Farrow 2020; Jones 2020; Mazerolle et al. 2012), police may be able to help promote positive perceptions during a time of much unrest. And this may soon become even more important if more extreme public health precautions become necessary. Although PPE has been shown to be helpful for preventing the spread of COVID-19, its use is still not perfect: even with it, police officers have continued to contract the virus. For example, as early as April 2020, more than 2000 employees from the New York City Police Department had contracted the virus (McCarthy and Marsh 2020), and by late July, approximately 440 employees from the Los Angeles Police Department had contracted it (Queally and Rector 2020). Given these numbers, it is expected that public health precautions will continue and may even intensify while policing during the pandemic. The need for these kinds of public health precautions makes education about such precautions particularly important so that perceptions are not compromised in pursuit of health and safety.
In light of the preceding discussion, it is important to still recognize that in the absence of legislation or formal policy, the decision to use PPE is ultimately at the discretion of the officer. And officers may articulate different reasons for why using some items of PPE can present other risks and challenges, including a difficulty to communicate with people whom they may be engaging. For example, if the use of a mask hinders an officer’s ability to effectively communicate with an individual, and such individual then reacts poorly to the officer because of the communication barrier, the use of the mask may complicate the nature of the interaction and amplify the risk of other consequences, including potential force. There are thus other (unmeasured) factors that may be relevant for the officer’s decision to use PPE that are independent of the risk of the virus, and such factors, including officer safety and well-being, should also be included in these kinds of discussions.
The present research exhibits several limitations. First, and foremost, we employed a laboratory-style framework to test the effects of PPE and awareness about the utility of such PPE on perceptions of police. Although we enhanced the validity of our stimuli by ensuring that our news articles appeared as authentic as possible and capturing images of current officers in natural environments where members of the public were present but not focal, we recognize that real-world interactions which involve formal contact with police may be more dynamic and subject to greater perceptual pressures. It is also possible that variables which could not be measured as part of the present research, like officer speech and mannerisms, may impact perceptions of police independently of PPE; however, these kinds of variables could not be tested as part of the current experimental paradigm. Future researchers working within this domain should seek to test questions about perceptions in field environments and/or by using live-action stimuli which more closely mirror dynamic interactions.
Second, a sizeable proportion of our sample failed their manipulation check question, particularly in the anti-PPE and neutral conditions. As described earlier, we theorize that this failure rate may be the result of our shallow manipulation. Reading a single news article may not have been salient enough for participants to internalize messaging about such a publicly prominent topic, and therefore, participants may have favored their pre-existing beliefs about COVID-19 and the benefits of PPE over the content of their assigned article (especially when considering that our fictitious articles were intentionally generic and did not make any mention of police). This logic is further substantiated by the findings from a concluding survey question which assessed participants’ opinions about the use of PPE by police: participants overwhelmingly agreed that officers should use PPE whenever possible during the COVID-19 pandemic, even among the anti-PPE and neutral conditions. In this vein, we suspect that the conceptual issue was likely more a result of too shallow of a manipulation than too small of a sample: we would not expect that continuing to oversample these conditions to increase the sample size would improve the success rate for the manipulation check question given our theoretical arguments presented above. With this in mind, future research should employ more qualitative analyses to test dosage effects for interventions aimed at changing perceptions about police and their associated equipment.
Third, and finally, we used images of a single officer who self-identified as male and White as part of the present research. It is possible that different effects may have been observed if different/more officers had been included in our experimental paradigm. With that being said, we do not believe that the use of a single officer limits the value of our findings for at least two reasons. First, our research question was largely exploratory, and our primary focus was to develop an internally valid test of the perceptual effects of PPE in the context of PPE awareness. Second, we do not expect that the effects of individual items of PPE would systematically vary as a function of officer characteristics: although differences may exist in perceptions of officers at baseline, the independent effects of specific items of PPE should not theoretically vary.