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Female police officers’ use of force seen as more justified

March 20, 2020

ASU researchers collected data from 452 participants for new study

Police officers’ use of excessive force — as well as the resulting legal outcomes — have shaken communities across the United States. Police departments are increasingly requiring their officers to wear body cams and to film their interactions with the public. It’s thought that video provides an objective take on what occurs during officers’ interactions with the public.

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Jessica Salerno. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

But new research from Arizona State University researchers Jessica Salerno and doctoral student Justin Sanchez suggests that people believe police use of force is more situationally justified when a female officer uses it. Furthermore, people’s interpretation of video footage may not be objective when it comes to gauging force during policing, according to the researchers.

In this study, Salerno and Sanchez tested how 452 study participants interpreted the same “objective” video of an officer using force based on what they believed the officer’s gender and race to be. The study, “Subjective Interpretation of ‘Objective’ Video Evidence: Perceptions of Male versus Female Police Officers’ Use of Force,” was published March 12 in the journal Law and Human Behavior.

The researchers found that even though all participants were watching the same interaction, participants believed that when a male officer used force, it was driven by internal traits, such as aggressiveness or emotional reactivity, which was associated with decreased trust and perceived effectiveness.

In contrast, participants who believed they saw a female officer use force believed her actions were driven more by external aspects of being in a dangerous situation, which was associated with increased trust and perceived effectiveness.

All participants were randomly assigned to view a segment of the same police-civilian interaction that either did or did not include force. The force used was obvious on the dash cam video. However, the officer was wearing dark clothing against a dark background and the interaction occurred far away from the dash cam, so it was difficult to determine the gender and race of the officer.

To determine how participants would interpret the incident differently based on the officer’s gender and race, the researchers randomly assigned participants to view one of a set of different photographs of an officer. They were told that the officer in the photo was the officer in a video they were about to watch. Each participant saw a photograph of either a white male officer, a white female officer, a black male officer, or a black female officer. 

“Because we don’t stereotype women as aggressive, it’s surprising when a woman is physically aggressive,” said Salerno, an associate professor in the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences. So, participants tend to attribute a female officer’s behavior to external factors, not to stable personality traits.

“People explain her use of force by looking at the dangerous situation,” she said.

However, when officers of either gender used force, participants trusted officers less and perceived them to be less effective than when they did not use force.

“We definitely saw people having very negative reactions to use of force,” Salerno said.

Research conducted over decades shows that people tend to attribute others’ behavior to internal motivation; in essence, who they are, Salerno said.

“For example, if someone commits a violent act, people tend to say it’s because they’re a violent person,” she said.

Salerno said she was surprised by the study’s results. “I have to say I was very surprised because I’ve been doing years of work that keeps showing over and over that when women in their professions act in masculine ways they tend to get penalized for it. I think that’s why this particular study is interesting.” 

“There’s this idea that video is going to get rid of the controversy and disagreement about police use of force,” Salerno said. “But this study shows that people are still going to disagree because their viewing of the same interaction is going to be filtered through their own biases and stereotypes.”

The study also has bearing on our justice system, Salerno said. “We hope that everyone will be treated the same, but if jurors were looking at the video of the police using force it would seem that male officers might be punished more harshly than female officers. They’re all watching the same incident, but they might judge that person more harshly because they make different assumptions about what drives a male versus female officer’s aggressive behavior. It’s an example of how gender stereotypes can potentially lead to different outcomes.”

This research was supported by a grant from the American Psychology-Law Society awarded to Justin Sanchez.

Top photo credit: Getty Images

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Battling burnout and finding your 'core genius' at work

March 20, 2020

Americans are often stressed out by work. And given the current global pandemic and social distancing guidelines, workers might feel added pressure in the days or weeks to come. Fortunately, there are ways to battle the burnout, especially as more businesses transition into virtual work zones.

Sarah Tracy, a professor of organizational communication and qualitative methodology at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and co-director of the Transformation Project, hosted her first at-home webinar Thursday titled, “From Surviving to Thriving: How to Battle Burnout and Craft Meaningful Work.”

According to Tracy, stress develops when expectations are too high. “Sometimes those high expectations are given to us by our employers, but also, many of us just carry them on our back.”

For example, Tracy admitted she had to tell herself the webinar might not be perfect since she was home. It wasn’t void of distractions. Tracy’s dog interrupted at least once and her phone rang. She encouraged attendees to be honest and compassionate with themselves, which often means lowering personal expectations. Because as Tracy points out, stress leads to burnout — a three-pronged concept connected to emotional exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy. In other words, Tracy said, “We can’t do what we think we are supposed to do.”

Signs of burnout:

  • Quick to feel irritation.
  • Chronic fatigue.
  • Frequent procrastination.
  • Impaired concentration.
  • Feeling emotional for no good reason.
  • Sense of detachment and alienation.

The triggers:

  • High expectations.
  • Social comparison.
  • Underpaid and in debt.
  • Constant evaluation/fear of rejection.
  • Uncertainty, lack of control, feeling overwhelmed.

As more workers navigate virtual work spaces for the foreseeable future, Tracy warned about one burnout trigger: social comparison. Even if workers aren’t in the office right now, they’re increasing screen time, and may start comparing their lives to their co-workers’ lives through social media. Instead, she suggests using online platforms as virtual dialogic spaces (water cooler spaces) by increasing interactions and commenting more; even scheduling one-on-one phone conversations to keep a sense of community alive in these virtual spaces.

“We as human beings are social beings,” Tracy said. “And we know from the happiness research that the most social people in the world are the happiest people in the world. And so, when people are working virtually, there is necessarily a decrease in that social time.”

ASU professor Sarah Tracy

ASU Professor Sarah Tracy

Finding your core genius

Tracy is a big advocate of saying “no to good, so you can say yes to great.” She believes tackling every small request stiffens a worker’s core genius — their core talent. If workers say yes to all the “good,” they don’t ever to get to focus on the “great,” which according to Tracy, often reveals a worker’s true talents.

Her reminder: “We are never going to get it all done.” In fact, she warns, thinking we’ll get it all done is a recipe for suffering. She encourages people to create a management system by structuring activities and making priorities visible in time and space. In other words, she suggests: One life, one calendar. Organize your priorities in one central location.

Lastly, Tracy is a proponent of sharing vulnerabilities, especially in this time of virtual work spaces.

“The kind of stress and uncertainty we are all feeling right now is beyond the norm,” Tracy said. “It’s a new context. But with any new context, there’s also some opportunity that comes with it.”

That opportunity presented itself during Tracy’s first online class this past week. During a short break, the microphones stayed on and students started singing and playing instruments, creating an improvised moment of humanity in a virtual setting. Tracy said that’s really important for social connection and belonging, which can stave off some of those triggers of stress and burnout.

It’s new territory for America’s workers, at least for now, and Tracy wonders if maybe forgetting to mute a Zoom meeting is all that bad in this new work space. She hopes adaptations will be made so people don’t lose moments of humanity like pet interruptions, laughter, and yes, even the occasional accidental burp.

Top photo by Getty Images/iStockphoto

Jimena Garrison

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations and Strategic Communications