Police officers who believe in a more empathetic approach toward criminal justice do not seem to perform as well when they feel they are underappreciated by the public, according to a new study published in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly.

The findings reveal that an officer’s ideology — whether more liberal or conservative — tends to correlate with how well they handle perceived animosity and lack of appreciation from the community.

For the study, 164 officers answered questions about how they view the criminal justice system and how well they think the public understands the challenges of their job. In addition, independent experts analyzed 794 bodycam videos of the officers conducting their everyday duties, including jail transports, traffic and DUI stops, transient arrests, car crashes, building searches and house alarm calls.

The findings show that officers who favored a more compassionate approach to justice struggled to be effective when they felt underappreciated. These officers were more likely to score lower on overall performance, competence and use of tactical best practices for officer safety.

On the other hand, officers who had a conservative leaning — favoring punitive rather than rehabilitative approaches to justice — did not see their performance falter in the face of the same negative public perceptions. The expert raters found that these officers generally performed as trained.

“Conservative cops believe there should be a divide between themselves and the community,” said study author Shefali V. Patil, an assistant professor of management in McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin. More empathetic officers, on the other hand, may strive for mutual understanding and thus experience more frustration in the effort.

Patil warns that this frustration and the inability to cope with misunderstanding could cause an exodus of empathetic officers from law enforcement over time.

Based on these findings, she urges policymakers to accept public misunderstandings as a given in today’s climate and to rigorously seek out the most effective ways to help officers — both liberal and conservative — continue to perform their duties despite these perceptions.

“What I’ve found in another paper is that when officers face these misperceptions, they actually perform better if they have standard protocols that they have to follow in specific situations,” she said. “In effect, having less autonomy and discretion can actually be a good thing for officers who feel that the public doesn’t understand them.”

Also helpful, particularly for the more empathetic officers, are public policy initiatives focused on helping police agencies feel more appreciated by their communities, creating an environment where scrutiny is balanced with a sense of understanding and empathy for the realities that police face, she said.

Source: University of Texas at Austin