UT Study Claims Public Scrutiny Reduces Police Effectiveness

July 12, 2018 by

Increasingly, volatile interactions between police and civilians are reaching large public audiences. While some argue that it’s because such incidents are increasing, others assume it’s related to increased visibility due to body cameras and cell phones.

In response to the increased public scrutiny, some police departments say that their officers feel targeted and, as such, perform worse because of apprehensive feelings over handling situations. A new study from the University of Texas breaks down that problem, questioning the impact of public scrutiny on police departments.

The study, authored by Shefali V. Patil, found that as public scrutiny increases, effectiveness among empathetic officers decreases. While initially the findings may seem shocking or questionable, a closer look and some sorting through terminology, reveals something that we’ve known all along: good cops get discouraged when given a bad reputation.

Patil, assistant professor for management at UT’s McCombs School of Business, interviewed 164 officers on their views of the criminal justice system and “how well the public understands the challenges of their job.” She concluded that an officer’s political ideology greatly impacted how they dealt with perceived animosity and appreciation, or lack thereof, from the public.

On top of the interviews, Patil had independent parties analyze nearly 800 bodycam videos of the officers doing duties like jail transports, traffic and DUI stops, transient arrests, accidents, searches, and house calls.

“[Patil] found that those who favored a more compassionate approach to justice struggled to be effective when they felt underappreciated. These officers were more likely to score lower on overall performance, competence and use of tactical best practices for officer safety.”

A number of questions arose about the study, particularly the small dataset, but more importantly the question of “liberal” and “conservative” labels used by the author.

“More-liberal individuals believe in creating communal relationships between authority figures, like employees, and the people over whom they hold power, while more-conservative individuals believe in maintaining the dominance of authorities and us-versus-them power dynamics,” read the report.

The “ideological” groups in the study aren’t so much politically ideological as much as they are simply “good cop” versus “bad cop” as Scott Henson points out in his blog, Grits for Breakfast:

“If you’re a cop who believes the sum total of your profession amounts to ‘maintaining the dominance of authorities and us-versus-them power dynamics,’ you don’t understand your job and probably should find other employment.”

Cops who view their role as “us-versus-them” rather than a collaborative role are going to be less impacted by the way the public perceives them. Others, who take a collaborative, community-driven approach will be impacted by those perceptions, as expected. If you put it in terms of most forms of employment, employees who take the concerns of the population they serve into consideration are typically better employees.

Understanding and being empathetic towards to the way the public perceives police is the only way for police to tailor their interactions to counteract the public apprehensiveness. While it might seem like conceding to public pressure, it’s rather doing what’s necessary to address the problem of community and police relationships.

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About the Author

Charles operates the Houston office for Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.