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.
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