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ASU professor studies link between police building design, perceptions of justice

Expert researches how feelings toward 'welcoming' or 'hostile' stations differ

Exterior of police station building
September 07, 2023

An Arizona State University professor is exploring a little-studied aspect of criminal justice — how police station design affects the way people feel about justice.

Kwan-Lamar Blount-Hill, an assistant professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, studies group-based identity and how that influences people’s perceptions of justice.

“That would be any situation where the issue of fairness is highlighted in the mind of the perceiver, which would include the criminal justice process and policing,” said Blount-Hill, a former police officer.

“I don’t know of anyone else looking at this,” he said.

“These are the only studies I’m aware of looking at police architecture.”

His new research, published in the Policing and Society journal in late June, looks at how people perceived police buildings based on whether they had previous police encounters. It’s the second of a three-part series based on a survey experiment done in 2021 by Blount-Hill and his collaboratorsVictor J. St. John of Ohio State and Andrea M. Headley of Georgetown University. In that survey, the team tested how perceptions of “welcoming” versus “hostile” police architecture differed by racial groups.

The survey participants read a brief summary of a crime with the option to report the crime in person at the local police station. They were randomly assigned to then see a photo of either a "welcoming" or "hostile" police station, and asked to describe their perceptions: Did they feel safe, confident, nervous, worried or relaxed in walking up to the building? There were 16 measures.

The results were surprising. While white respondents expressed more positivity toward the “welcoming” building, Black and Latino respondents were more positive toward the “hostile” building.

“It seemed that Black and brown people seemed to respond more favorably to buildings that looked less welcoming by that scale, buildings that were more decrepit and a little worse for wear,” said Blount-Hill, who also is affiliated faculty with the Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety at ASU.

Why would that be? The researchers wrote: “Black and Latino respondents may not be as reactive in the face of hostile buildings due to their familiarity with hostile conditions in the U.S. ... The police building itself may communicate messages to the respondent with regard to the racial, ethnic or class composition of the surrounding community.”

But a pleasant and efficient design isn’t always enough to generate positive feelings. The team’s second study looked at how building perceptions differed among people based on whether they had previous police encounters.

“Those who had previous contact with police seemed more comfortable or had a more favorable response to buildings that were more welcoming,” Blount-Hill said.

The researchers are finalizing the third research paper now, which looks at how those reactions influence perceptions of legitimacy and justice and the need to be obedient to the police.

“We’ll be breaking out the impact of emotional states – ‘Do I trust the police?’ and ‘Do I feel the police have the best interest of my community at heart?’ as separated from the longer term perception of ‘Do I need to obey the police?’ and ‘Should I follow the direction of police officers?’” said Blount-Hill, who also is the program lead for Justice and Equity in Conservation at the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes at ASU.

In 2017, the team wrote an article for Police Chief magazine about how “open, transparent and inclusive” design in police buildings could make them more welcoming and potentially increase legitimacy.

“Actual research shows that travel difficulties can impact people's likely use of a building, so we looked at reachability – is it in a bad neighborhood?” he said.

“You want the public to be able to engage and for a place to have community events that are close and reachable.

“If the spaces are chopped up, it will feel less welcoming,” he said.

The article also addressed “neutrality,” or the power dynamics within a building’s design.

“A police station is usually equated with prosecution,” the article said. “Thus, any aspect of the building conveying dominance will cause suspects to immediately be on guard and make even innocent citizens nervous.”

Blount-Hill said that one example of that would be a raised reception desk that looks down on visitors.

“You may have some issues feeling like this space is made for them and not for you and feeling the power differential,” he said.

But Blount-Hill said that there’s no way to ensure that incorporating design principles will lead to specific outcomes.

“We focus on police architecture but the issues of fairness and power and inclusion are becoming important across contexts. We are very much just starting and we need many more studies,” he said.

“It’s important to tie the environmental psychology across other fields, and ASU is a good place for that because we have strong programs in psychology and architecture.”

Top photo courtesy iStock/Getty Images