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It Might Not Seem Odd to You, but ... (Research into Visual Perceptions of Policing)

Yesterday I was out walking the pups, when the neighbors called me over. "Why", they keenly inquired, "were there two police cars parked in the park nearby?" Having just come out of the park, this was easy to answer: LPS was running some kind of a cops-kids sports day. It was clear the neighbors were a bit disappointed with my response. Presumably, they thought there was some nefarious park activities going on. I get the same thing from Mr. Huey (not his real name). We live next door to a place where officers frequently park to catch up on their paperwork. Whenever a car is out there - and no matter how many times I say "paperwork" - I still get asked, "what's going on?" For many citizens, police cars mean one of two things: crime or speeding tickets.

These anecdotes speak to a larger issue at the heart of questions of police legitimacy, trust and community engagement: how the public perceives police officers when they experience them in everyday settings. The reality, as you well know, is that most citizens only experience cops in one of 3 ways:

1.on TV,

2. getting a ticket (or some other unpleasant experience), or

3. when they see an officer from a distance out in public.

All three appear to give citizens a strong sense they understand what policing is all about*, and all three can lead to serious biases and knowledge errors. My interest here is #3: visual cues about policing and why research into this is important. Let me start with a hypothetical scenario: You decide to run a hot spot project in a residential area. It happens that your K9 unit has some downtime between calls. Why not send officers out to the area to walk their dogs (and kill two birds with one stone)? Aside from some potential research problems associated with this (and from an operational point of view, 'who cares if eggheads don't get good data?'), what could possibly go wrong? Now let's flip the script: you are my neighbor next door. You live in a residential area and you start to see police cars turning up at all different times of the day/evening. Uniformed people with guns get out with big scary-looking dogs, dogs that could kill you. Not the cute shepherds on police calendars. The other ones. The Malinois, with drool glistening on their very pointy, sharp fangs. Remember: your entire knowledge of policing is built on TV, getting a ticket, or what you can see from a physical and mental distance. What might you possibly think? A. terrorists have moved in down the street B. drug dealers have set up a meth lab in that house you always thought looked a bit sketch C. some other really serious shit is about to go down ... there goes your property values. Fortunately, you don't need to take my word for it that citizens view police through a lens that is not always shaped by how things are, but how you appear to them. There is somebody who actually studies this: Rylan Simpson.

Rylan has studied how the public appraises police officer appearance in relation to such important factors as approachability, friendliness, accountability and respectfulness. Some sample findings include: - high visibility vests are viewed more positively - black gloves, batons and sunglasses are viewed more negatively.

Full access to his paper on this can be found here: Rylan has also looked at citizen perceptions of police car livery (pay attention folks from Toronto!). - marked cars are viewed more favorably - unmarked cares are viewed more unfavorably (no surprise: see comment above about people's experiences with police and receiving tickets). - black and white cars are viewed more favorably than blue and white cars** This branch of work is still in its relative infancy, but it is a huge area of potential knowledge to be mined. Can you imagine if a couple of easy administrative or operational decisions could instantly increase favorable public perceptions? Check out his Police Officer Perception Project here:

*I've written on/researched this problem in relation to the CSI Effect and police officers' experiences of being questioned on their work by civilians at crime scenes. ** This was an US-based study, so this experiment really needs to be redone in Canada.

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