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Officer Appearance and Perceptions of Police: Beyond an Instrumental Function, Toward a Signaling Framework


As an institution, the police are particularly sensitive and vulnerable to public opinion. Building upon existing research, this dissertation contributes to the policing literature by employing an experimental methodology in order to explore the effects of aesthetic factors associated with the police on perceptions of the police. As part of the experimental design, participants from a large public university (N = 399; Chapters 1-3) and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (N = 349; Chapter 4) were presented with images of several different police officers under the guise of a memory study, and asked to rate them along six important outcomes: aggressive versus not aggressive, approachable versus not approachable, friendly versus not friendly, respectful versus not respectful, accountable versus not accountable, and competent versus not competent. In each image, the appearance of the pictured officer was carefully manipulated in order to empirically test the effects of different elements of appearance on perceptions of officers. For example, when presented on foot, officers were equipped with different accoutrements, including vests, gloves, batons, sunglasses, and baseball hats (Chapter 1). When presented in a police vehicle, officers occupied different styles of vehicles, including marked and non-marked vehicles with different color schemes (Chapter 2). Across all of the different aesthetic capacities, officers exhibited either a neutral facial expression or a smile (Chapter 3). The results revealed that police appearance significantly impacted perceptions of officers along all of the dependent variables. The validation analyses also revealed that the effects of police appearance were consistent across both samples of participants (Chapter 4). I argue that different elements of police appearance signal different types of officer intent, influence perceived legitimacy, and shed insight into the philosophical orientations of police. I conclude the dissertation by discussing the results from the experiment in the context of theory and methodology as well as policy and practice.

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