“The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed contemporary society and the ways in which people operate and engage with each other.”

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Does officer appearance matter? SFU Criminology assistant professor featured as SFU's Scholarly Impact of the Week

July 27, 2021
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By Adriana González Braniff

Updated weekly, Simon Fraser University’s Scholarly Impact of the Week, selected by the Office of the Vice-President, Research and International, celebrates scholarly milestones and research impacts from across the SFU research community. SFU Criminology assistant professor Rylan Simpson was recently chosen to be featured, as his findings are helping police leaders make evidence-based decisions about the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic.

Simpson, who has participated in over 1,000 hours of police ride-alongs with dozens of police organizations in several countries, understands the value and importance of first impressions. His passion for “conducting research, particularly research that is relevant, timely, and can exhibit a meaningful impact on practice,” has resulted in important insights for pandemic policing. 

Back in 2017, Simpson created The Police Officer Perception Project (POPP), evaluating the effects of attire and patrol strategy esthetics on people’s perceptions of police officers. The project was among the first works of its kind to study in-depth people’s first impressions of officers based on appearance, before any formal public-police interaction. 

His most recent study, The use of personal protective equipment (PPE) by police during a public health crisis: An experimental test of public perception, aims to test whether police are perceived favourably or not when using PPE, such as face masks, goggles, face shields, and/or medical gloves. Overall, the study’s findings showed that 80% of participants agreed or strongly agreed that police should use PPE whenever possible during the COVID-19 pandemic. The study’s findings also showed that most types of PPE impacted public perception favourably. For example, the use of a surgical mask or N95 mask enhanced perceptions of accountability, professionalism, and respectfulness. 

Simpson’s additional research interests involve various areas of policing such as police organizations, legitimacy, experimental criminology, theories of crime, social psychology, and public-police relations. 

Read the interview below to learn more about Simpson’s work and research on PPE use and police perception: 

About Rylan Simpson:

Rylan Simpson, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University. He approaches his research using a variety of different methodologies, including experimental and quantitative analyses. He has published his work in several peer-reviewed journals, including Criminology & Public Policy, Journal of Experimental Criminology, Policing & SocietyPolicing: A Journal of Policy & Practice and Women & Criminal Justice, and presented it for scholarly and policing communities across the world. He has also participated in approximately 1,000 hours of police ride-alongs in Canada, Australia, the United States as well as the United Kingdom and has worked as a police dispatcher in British Columbia since 2012.

How did the interest in your specific research topic begin?

Rylan Simpson: The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed contemporary society and the ways in which people operate and engage with each other. As a policing scholar, I was curious about how such changes could impact policing, and, particularly, people’s perceptions of police officers.

 

According to your research, how are police who use PPE perceived by the public? 

Rylan Simpson: With few exceptions, police are perceived more favourably when using PPE than when not using PPE.

 

What are some of the implications that the use of PPE could have for police in the future?

Rylan Simpson: Policing a public health crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, presents many challenges for both health and safety. Frontline police officers cannot stay home and often cannot socially distance because of the unique demands of their job. For such reason, police must identify ways to help keep themselves safe so that they can then help to keep the public safe (e.g., police must not only continue to respond to calls for service during the pandemic, but they must also minimize the risk of spreading the virus while attending such calls). One of the ways in which police can achieve this goal is via their use of PPE.

 

According to your research, are some forms of PPE (different items) perceived more favourably than others by participants?

Rylan Simpson: Yes, different items of PPE elicit different perceptual effects. For example, surgical masks, N95 masks, and face shields, elicit favourable perceptions. Full-face respirator masks elicit mixed effects, with some negative effects in the context of perceived aggression and intimidation. Goggles, on the other hand, elicit no significant effects.

 

Why is this research topic important to you personally?

Rylan Simpson: I am passionate about conducting research, particularly research that is relevant, timely, and can exhibit a meaningful impact on practice. In this case, my findings are helping police leaders make evidence-based decisions about the use of PPE by their officers.

 

Can you offer reflections on the process of publishing this piece?

Rylan Simpson: The first article published as part of this project in the Journal of Experimental Criminology has been very well-received by both the practitioner and scholarly communities. It now has more than 4,000 accesses and has been covered by several media outlets.

The second article has just been published in a special issue of Policing: An International Journal, which is dedicated to policing during the pandemic.

 

In your opinion, what are some important next steps going forward for police and PPE use?

Rylan Simpson: For as long as the pandemic continues and a significant risk of virus transmission exists, I suspect that police will continue to use PPE as appropriate. Research should continue to explore the effects of officer appearance on people’s perceptions of police in all different contexts.