Police Less Proactive After Negative Public Scrutiny, Study Finds

AUSTIN, Texas — Here’s a fact that is indisputable, regardless of a person’s personal feelings towards police: It’s hard to be a cop. Unlike most other jobs, police officers put themselves in harm’s way on a daily basis, and are also subject to a great deal of scrutiny. Sometimes that scrutiny is well deserved, but just how much is the average officer affected by the negativity that seems to surround police work so often these days? A study conducted at the University of Texas, Austin finds that police and public safety officers tend to become less proactive if they perceive negative attention from the public, even if they are deeply motivated to help people.

The recent phenomenon of “cop shaming” is making it much harder for police and other safety officers to cultivate positive reputations in their local areas. Officers are less likely to build relationships and solve problems in their communities if they feel that the public does not understand the difficulties of their jobs, researchers say. This ultimately ends up creating a volatile “us vs. them” mentality among both police and community members.

“In the vast majority of jobs, it is really difficult for other people outside to understand your job, but people don’t realize how much this misunderstanding can actually influence the behavior or of police officers,” says lead author Shefali V. Patil in a media release.

The research team questioned 183 police officers in six agencies and 238 firefighters in eight stations across the southern United States. Each officer was asked about whether they believed the public adequately understood what they do and the difficulties of their jobs. Researchers also surveyed the officers’ supervisors and asked them to rate their proactivity.

The results showed that police officers and firefighters who said the public didn’t understand their jobs were much less likely to be rated as proactive by their superiors, even when the officers insisted that they were passionate about helping people.

“When proactive officers see something that’s happening in a local neighborhood, they get out of the patrol car and go to help somebody even though they don’t need to and nobody’s actually watching them,” Patil says. “But being less proactive would mean taking a less active role while on a shift and basically only doing what your boss tells you.”

Researchers say the key to fixing this seemingly broken relationship between safety officer and community member is to improve public perception. If an officer feels he or she is respected and appreciated, they are much more likely to be proactive in the community and interact with the public in a positive way.

“Our research is trying to show how important it is for us to take the next step to try to figure out how we can actually change the public image of law enforcement officers,” Patil says. “It’s also helping police officers believe that the public truly cares, and it’s just not lip service.”

The study is published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

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