Science - January 17, 2013

Blue uniforms not reassuring everywhere

Only in shady areas do police make people feel safer.
'Police streets selectively.'

When people see police in a quiet neighbourhood, they think there must be something going on.
Putting more blue uniforms on the streets is believed by many politicians to increase people's sense of security. In practice it does not appear to work that way. Social psychologist Evelien van de Veer of the Marketing and Consumer Behaviour chair group questioned 209 passers-by in three relatively safe neighbourhoods in Amsterdam at a time when police were visibly keeping an eye on things. The police presence did not make women feel any safer and among men it even had the opposite effect: they felt less safe. 'If people see the police, they know why they are there and they immediately assume there is something going on,' explains van der Veer.
Dangerous neighbourhoods
She also showed people photos of safe and unsafe places in Nijmegen, having used photoshop to include policemen in some of the photos and not in others. The responses to this also suggested that people do not feel any safer when the police were around in safe neighbourhoods. They do feel safer in unsafe neighbourhoods, however. People know that the crime rate is high in these areas and then they find a police presence reassuring, explains the PhD researcher.
The government should not therefore randomly release a bunch of policemen to increase the sense of security among the public. They should make use of targeting policing in unsafe area, concludes Van de Veer. An additional advantage of this is that the police can combat crime at the same time.
Van de Veer did her research in 2008 when she was working for the police in Amsterdam. She and fellow social psychologists from Nijmegen published the findings recently in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. 
 

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