Officers aren’t as likely to go ‘above and beyond’ when they feel misunderstood, new research shows.

Texas McCombs
Aug 15 · 4 min read

Police officers who perceive negative public opinion toward their profession are less likely to get out of their patrol cars to help someone when they don’t have to, according to new research.

While public safety workers who care about others are generally more likely to want to help people, Shefali V. Patil, assistant professor of management at Texas McCombs, found they are less likely to go above and beyond their normal job duties if they feel that the public doesn’t understand the difficulties of their jobs.

Patil studies public image, scrutiny, and criticism of law enforcement and has published numerous papers on the topic over the past few years. She recently explored the relationship between perceived public scrutiny and willingness to help others in her new paper, coauthored with R. David Lebel at the University of Pittsburgh, “‘I Want to Serve but the Public Does Not Understand:’ Prosocial Motivation, Image Discrepancies, and Proactivity in Public Safety.”

In the paper, she asked 183 police officers across six agencies and 238 firefighters across eight stations in the southern United States about whether they believe the public understood the difficulties of their jobs. She also surveyed their supervisors about their proactivity. She recently discussed her findings.

What were you hoping to learn by conducting this study?

One of the biggest issues that law enforcement has been facing in the past four to five years after a series of high-profile fatal shootings of African Americans is how they are dealing with increased public scrutiny. There’s debate about whether police officers are actually being affected by the scrutiny. So, I set out to do a series of studies to figure out how police officers were reacting, particularly when it came to their image, and whether they believe the public actually understands how difficult and challenging their jobs are.

Assistant Professor Shefali Patil found police are less likely to go above and beyond their normal job duties if they feel that the public doesn’t understand the difficulties of their jobs.

How does the public’s lack of knowledge about their jobs negatively impact police officers’ motivation?

Even if police officers really want to help people, they’re not going to be as proactive if they think that the public doesn’t understand how difficult their jobs are. When proactive officers see something that’s happening in a local neighborhood, they would get out of the patrol car and go to help somebody even though they don’t need to and nobody’s actually watching them. But being less proactive would mean taking a less active role while on a shift and basically only doing what your boss tells you.

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 of police officers. It doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but when your day-to-day job is dealing with the public — and parts of the public that other people just never see — it can be highly influential.

Being proactive means different things for police and firefighters, who can make changes to the way firefighting duties are done at the station. But did you find any other major differences between the two groups?

There were not significant differences. We actually found that firefighters were reacting the same way. It’s just that because firefighters are not expected to engage in community policing, we asked the more generic questions about firefighters’ activity because it is a different domain of work. But we found a very similar pattern of behavior where, even if firefighters are super motivated to help the public, they are also going to be less proactive if they think that the public doesn’t understand their job as well.

What can be done to improve the public’s perception?

Trying to reduce the image discrepancies is important. Law enforcement agencies are now inviting journalists to attend simulations where they are placed in scenarios where they have to decide how to use force like a police officer. This allows the journalists to see how difficult the decision to use force can be. But the problem is we don’t know how much impact that is having or whether that’s fundamentally changing how police officers are viewing their own public image.

How else can the problem be addressed?

My 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. It’s also helping police officers believe that the public truly cares and it’s just not lip service. But we don’t know how effective trying to change public opinion is.

Story by Megan Menchaca

Big Ideas

Research and insights from Texas McCombs

Texas McCombs

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News, business research, and ideas from the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin. Learn more at www.mccombs.utexas.edu

Big Ideas

Big Ideas

Research and insights from Texas McCombs

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