Tuesday, 19 February 2013

It's not just criminals who feel unsafe when the police are around

The idea that police on our streets makes people feel safer is usually taken as a given. It's the basis of the so-called "reassurance policing" agenda, which advocates higher numbers of visible front-line police. And when increased police numbers are announced, members of the public often welcome the news. "I'm all for more police on the streets," said a Chicago resident earlier this month after the announcement of increased patrols, "It makes me feel safer seeing them around my community."

A new study challenges this received wisdom. Whereas most surveys ask people to reflect on whether they'd feel safer with more visible police, Evelien van de Veer and her colleagues took a different approach, looking at how the presence of police affected people's sense of safety right at that moment.

The researchers quizzed over 200 Amsterdam residents out shopping about how safe they currently felt. For some, two to four police were currently visible patrolling the vicinity; for others no police were present. Overall, the presence of police made no difference to participants' answers. However, focusing just on the male participants - those who answered when a police patrol was nearby actually reported feeling less safe.

Next, the researchers showed 124 students pictures of a street scene and asked them to rate how safe it seemed. The photos were doctored so that some of the participants saw a police officer in the scene. The key finding here was that a graffiti-daubed alleyway was rated as safer when a policeman was in the scene, but a leafy residential street was rated as less safe when a policeman was present. This difference was found for both sexes, but was more pronounced for men.

Van de Veer and her colleagues proposed two possible explanations for what they described as this "ironic" consequence of police presence. They said the sight of a police officer could act as a warning signal, directing people's attention to potential danger in the vicinity. Or they suggested the sight of police could trigger automatic mental associations of concepts like crime or violence (this would be a social priming effect - an area of study that's currently under close scrutiny).

Why were men particularly prone to feeling unsafe in the presence of police? The researchers suggested this may be because they are more often the victim of violent crimes, and more often the cause of police needing to be called to a scene. This reasoning seems vague and van de Veer's team admitted "further exploration of this issue is required."

The researchers concluded that their findings have real-life implications for police forces and policy makers. "A general increase in the number of visibly present police officers may not have the intended effect," they said.

Past research covered on the Digest has shown that CCTV cameras can also increase feelings of insecurity; so too neighbourhood watch signs.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

van de Veer, E., de Lange, M., van der Haar, E., and Karremans, J. (2012). Feelings of Safety: Ironic Consequences of Police Patrolling. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 42 (12), 3114-3125 DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2012.00967.x

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

7 comments:

  1. Anonymous11:15 am

    This might be very cultural. The first quote is from a citizen of Chicago, currently one of the top murder cities in the USA. Yet the study was done in Amsterdam, a city renowned for its peaceful character.

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  2. Anonymous3:00 pm

    Interesting. This summer there was a patrol car in our quiet cul-de-sac about once a day. It did not make me feel safer! It just made me wonder who they were checking on and why.

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  3. I think people feel less safe with the police around since their presence suggests trouble. But knowing that the police provide protection they feel like they should say that they feel safe. Although I'm a little surprised that men feel less safe than women.

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  4. There's one or two issues not being addressed:

    1) Did people feel less safe because they felt the police may be after them?
    2) Does this reflect people being less trusting of authority like the police?

    It's also harsh to compare two different cities because policing can be different in them - as is most certainly the case between Chicago and Amsterdam.

    (As a side note, I've always found Amsterdam police to be very laid back until they have to get involved and then they really don't hold back.)

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  5. I grew up in a communist dictatorship and I always feel unsafe when policemen are around.

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  6. This is just speculation- but the finding that people felt that an alley was safer with a policeman and a "suburban" scene less safe might have something to do with how people view policemen's roles in those areas. I would guess that a lot of people think that policemen who patrol suburban/"safe" areas spend their time giving parking and speeding tickets or dealing with things like trespassing or minor vandalism and therefore ill-equipped to handle a dangerous situation, even though that might not be true. I can't seem to see the original article- did they do any preliminary surveys/questionnaires about what people thought of policemen in general?

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    1. Anonymous8:06 am

      I think Cat hit the nail on the head. It's also worth pointing out that from a different angle, you could construe these same cops as the instigators of conflict. In a low-crime neighborhood, you're far more likely to get harassed by a patrolman than a criminal.

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