Problematic Behavior or Activity
Given current public discourse, a positive perception of police in their communities is important for rebuilding trust and enhancing public safety. When citizens distrust the police, they are less likely to call them for help, cooperate with their directives, and work with them to solve problems in their communities (Sunshine & Tyler, 2003). With increased public scrutiny regarding use of force incidents in the media, citizens may be primed to view the police as “warriors" instead of “guardians." Although community perceptions are driven by several factors, many of which are outside the control of local police, agencies can take steps to improve community trust. One such method is by associating “police" officers with the term “peace" officers.
Impact on the Community
As recognized in recent years, word choice may have a significant impact on perceptions (e.g., Farrow et al., 2018). The term “police" can evoke feelings of anxiety for certain people, especially those from marginalized backgrounds. Conversely, the term “peace officer" may have more positive connotations, such as support, help, and care (Bush & Dodson, 2014). It perpetuates the idea that the role of an officer is to have compassion and a peace-oriented mindset as opposed to an aggressive enforcement style.
According to Police2Peace, the term “Peace Officer" indicates to the public that the department intends to change to a more positive framework with a focus being on improving relationships with citizens. The desire is for police to be viewed as peacekeepers who use more empathetic and just policing methods. These methods also make it safer for the officers themselves. It is designed to be a more cultural shift to support the goals of both officers and citizens.
As such, this cultural shift will provide an overall benefit to local communities. The desire is to build and maintain positive community perceptions and relationships with officers. Increasing positive perceptions of the police reduces crime, improves public safety, and increases police effectiveness (Sunshine & Tyler, 2003). Viewing the police as guardians should provide a more cooperative environment, helping officers and citizens work together to solve problems in their communities.
In order to combat negative perceptions of the police, the Ashland Police Department with the help of the Ashland Culture of Peace Commission and the Police2Peace Initiative, added “Peace Officer" decals to all Ashland Police vehicles and motorcycles in 2019. The goal of this program was to create a culture of peace whereby citizens view these vehicles and understand that officers are friendly and desire to keep the community safe.
The mission was to transform attitudes and behaviors in order to foster congenial, well-balanced, and positive relationships with each other. As such, the program was more than just putting a decal on the car. It was designed to create visibility in the community and demonstrate to citizens that the police department wants to partner with them to build a safer environment.
Based On Research
Research has demonstrated that the appearance of officers and the vehicles they drive can impact both how citizens perceive the officer and how the officer behaves (e.g., Simpson & Sergeant, 2023; Simpson, 2019). For example, the color and style of their uniforms as well as equipment used can influence whether people view them as approachable, reliable, professional, and/or legitimate (see Simpson & Sergeant, 2023 for an overview). In one study, officers were viewed as less professional when their uniforms appear unkempt (Jenkins et al., 2021). Conversely, another study demonstrated that officers were perceived as more professional, respectful, competent, and accountable when viewed using personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic (Simpson & Sandrin, 2022). Likewise, police officers themselves feel safer and more powerful when wearing a standard uniform as opposed to civilian clothes (Simpson & Sergeant, 2023).
Bennell and colleagues (2023) assessed whether perceptions of [Canadian] officers changed based on the type of pin/patch they had on their uniforms. The results demonstrated that when these officers were wearing a Breast Cancer Awareness pin, a poppy, or gay pride patch, they were perceived more positively compared to officers without a pin/patch. Additionally, the gay pride patch and breast cancer awareness pin increased ratings for how approachable and kind the officer was perceived to be by the respondent. However, officers were perceived more negatively when they were wearing a Black Lives Matter pin or Punisher patch. This research suggests that the way an officer is perceived primes the way a citizen may interact with him/her. If they perceive the officer as more professional and approachable, they may respond to the officer in a more positive way as well. Conversely, they may be more aggressive if they view the officer as unprofessional and incompetent. This effect may even extend to police vehicles.
Simpson (2019) assessed whether different police vehicle types influenced perceptions of police officers. He compared black and white, white and blue, unmarked, and civilian police vehicles with respect to citizens perceptions of officer accountability, aggressiveness, respect, and friendliness. Officers in black and white vehicles had higher ratings of these characteristics compared to blue and white and unmarked vehicles. Simpson suggests that vehicles can “communicate philosophies and intentions to the public" and police departments may be able to enhance police legitimacy through “strategically manipulating the appearance of their vehicles." As such, he argues that different types of vehicles espouse different policing philosophies. For example, in marked vehicles it might suggest a more transparent orientation while unmarked vehicles suggest a more deceiving/unfair type of policing orientation. In line with the procedural justice model of policing, which suggests treating people with respect and dignity in a transparent and procedurally just way elicits cooperation (and a host of other positive outcomes), officers in these marked vehicles may come across as more procedurally just. Therefore, identifying police as peace officers on their vehicles, it may produce better perceptions of the officers. Likewise, the officers themselves may be more inclined to live by those words.
At its implementation, it cost roughly $1500 to apply the peace officer decals. The cost to initially apply a decal on each police vehicle was around $150. However, when setting up a brand-new vehicle, the cost was around $75. Police2Peace, an initiative created to improve public trust in police agencies across the nation, can provide funding to cover the cost of the program for any agencies who would like to participate. In addition, they may provide research to evaluate the program at no cost for the agency. Because evaluation costs were covered, it was a relatively budget-friendly program for Ashland Police Department to implement.
With the help of Police2Peace and BetaGov (an independent research collaboration between New York University and the University of California Los Angeles), Ashland Police Department's decal program was evaluated in 2019. A survey was given to participants before the decals were applied as well as two months after application. In this initial run, there were nine cruisers and one motorcycle that had “Peace Officer" decals applied. Both community members and Ashland PD staff completed surveys.
At Time 1, 332 community members, 18 police staff, and 10 students completed the survey. At Time 2, 128 community members, 21 staff, and 1 student completed the survey. Although well intentioned, at the time of the evaluation, Ashland was amid an unpopular police-led ordinance initiative that likely impacted the results. In addition, given the nature of the data collection (participants self-selected into the survey) and the much lower response rate at Time 2, the results of the pre/post comparisons are difficult to interpret. More research is needed to determine if citizens recognized the decals and whether it improved their perceptions.
Critical Success Factors
- Collaboration among multiple stakeholders.
- Officer participation and endorsement to create a culture of peace.
- Community involvement to build trusting relationships.
- Top-down endorsement
Although the results of the evaluation were inconclusive, the program has a lot of potential if citizens are aware that the police department is actively trying to cultivate a culture of peace. Departments need to show that the term “peace officer" is more than just words.
Bennell, C., Simpson, R., Makeen-Brazé, L., Ackert-Fraser, R., Lanzo, L., & Bennell, N. (2023). Public perceptions of police officers who wear pins or patches on their uniform. Police Practice and Research, 1-9.
Bush, M. D., & Dodson, K. D. (2014). Police Officers as Peace Officers: A Philosophical and Theoretical Examination of Policing from a Peacemaking Approach. Journal of Theoretical & Philosophical Criminology, 6(3), 194-205.
Farrow, K., Grolleau, G., & Mzoughi, N. (2018). What in the word! The scope for the effect of word choice on economic behavior. Kyklos, 71(4), 557-580.
Jenkins, B., Semple, T., Bennell, C., Carter, E., Baldwin, S., & Blaskovits, B. (2021). Examining the impact of uniform manipulations on perceptions of police officers among Canadian university students. Police Practice and Research, 22(7), 1694-1717.
Simpson, R. (2019). Police vehicles as symbols of legitimacy. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 15, 87-101.
Simpson, R., & Sandrin, R. (2022). The use of personal protective equipment (PPE) by police during a public health crisis: An experimental test of public perception. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 18(2), 297–319.
Simpson, R., & Sargeant, E. (2022). Connecting Officer Appearance with Officer Safety: A Survey of Police Officers' Perceptions of Uniforms and Accoutrements. In Policing & Firearms: New Perspectives and Insights (pp. 385-403). Cham: Springer International Publishing.
Sunshine, J., & Tyler, T. R. (2003). The role of procedural justice and legitimacy in shaping public support for policing. Law & Society Review, 37(3), 513–548.