Public scrutiny significantly impacts police officer behavior, study says

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — A new study conducted by a researcher from UT-Austin found that the performance of employees in highly visible, high-risk jobs often depends on how they feel the public perceives them. 

In the realm of public safety, where the actions of police officers are often broadcast through body cameras, dash cameras and smartphones, the study found their motivation and proactive behaviors are especially limited if the first responder believes the public does not understand the difficulties of the job. 

“Negative videos and events get circulated far more than positive ones,” said Shefali Patil, an assistant professor of Management at UT-Austin’s McCombs School of Business. “Police officers are actually pulling back from their jobs, they are being less proactive. They are just sticking to their job and doing what they are told.”  

Patil, an organizational psychologist, spoke to hundreds of officers in Texas and across southern states. In a day and age where videos can be posted online in an instant, she found police officers across the nation feel as if they are on the hot seat. It often leads to poor performance and they’re less likely to engage within their community.

FULL STUDY: “I want to serve but the public does not understand:” Prosocial motivation, image discrepancies, and proactivity in public safety

“Police officers under increased scrutiny, especially when they feel the public doesn’t understand their job, they are pulling back and being less proactive.”

Shefali Patil, Assistant Professor of Management, McCombs School of Business, UT-Austin

The Austin Police Department said they have ensured, through training, that their officers maintain the highest level of professionalism, especially when all eyes are on them. 

“The reality that everything being on video is a given in this day and age,” said Rick Randall, APD’s Wellness Bureau Director and Senior Chaplain for the department. Randall pointed to a specific arrest as an example of when his department was highly criticized.

In June 2015, APD officer Brian Richter is seen on dashcam violently slamming Breaion King to the ground.

RELATED: Woman slammed to the ground by APD officer gets $425K settlement

“That was a difficult moment and led to some serious training for our officers,” Randall said. He said the public backlash the department faced after that arrest sparked change. 

After taking over APD, Chief Brian Manley said one of his first priorities was to re-focus efforts on employee wellness. The police department launched an anonymous survey for the first time which polled sworn officers. Randall said those results have helped them improve their performance and stay positive. 

The survey, which questioned more than 1,000 Austin police officers, showed similar results to Patil’s UT study. Most officers admitted they felt concerned for their safety and felt people treated them with less respect than in the past.

The Austin Police Department surveyed over 1,000 sworn officers earlier this year. Most officers admitted they felt concerned for their safety and felt people treated them with less respect than in the past, among other results. (Courtesy Austin Police Department Wellness Bureau)

However, despite these findings Austin police officers also maintained a positive attitude towards Austinites, with the majority saying they trusted their community and would go beyond the call of duty to comfort victims of crimes.

Despite survey findings showing officers felt highly scrutinized, the majority said they trusted most community members and would go beyond the call of duty to comfort victims of crimes, among other results. (Courtesy Austin Police Department Wellness Bureau)

The Austin Police Department also tracks how often officers are personally calling in reports when on duty. Randall said this is a telling statistic to show how closely an officer is paying attention and cares about what’s happening around them. Over the last year, the number of self-initiated calls increased by nearly 35 percent. 

“When you do the right thing, that video is your friend,” Randall said. “There’s thousands of videos every day that show officers get it, they are doing the right thing. And 99.9% of the time, the video shows an exoneration of the officer rather than an officer doing something outrageous.”

Randall said everyone, from APD cadets to officers, are reminded their actions could be on camera. The slogan on the side of each patrol car, “Keeping you, your family and our community safe,” reinforces who they serve. And a new emphasis on employee wellness keeps officers positive, knowing their department has their back if they make the right decisions out in the field. 

“Day after day after day, they’ll show that they will put their own lives on the line to make other people’s lives better,” Randall said. “Our officers are amping up their engagement, so we are seeing a higher percentage of self-initiated activity.”

Patil hopes other police departments across the nation can invest resources to update their training protocols and for the public to make an effort to see the struggles officers go through when they go to work. 

“There might be bad apples, there are bad apples in every profession. But to paint the entire profession in a broad stroke, I think that’s what police officers feel upset about,” Patil said. 

Operation Blue Wave

The Austin Police Department has also shown a willingness to connect with their jurisdictions. Operation Blue Wave is their personal way of engaging with community members. 

Officers go out and find a meaningful way to interact with the people they serve.  In July, we told you about what the “Charlie sector” was doing. They serve a large part of East Austin. At Givens Park, officers teamed up with a local boxing coach to work out and teach children in the area how to box.

RELATED: Local boxing coach and APD work to heal community after murder in park

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