The power of perception

By giving police a better way to engage with people, UQ researchers are helping change citizens' perceptions of police and their subsequent behaviour.

Neighbourhoods worldwide rely on police departments to 'protect and serve', even when the relationship between the general population and law enforcement is not always harmonious.

UQ researchers have developed a script to change how police interact with citizens from diverse backgrounds – a breakthrough that proponents say is building trust between communities and the officers tasked with defending them.

The scripted dialogue spearheaded by Professor Lorraine Mazerolle and Dr Sarah Bennett from UQ's School of Social Science adopts concepts of procedural justice, empowering police in Australia to inspire mutual respect during street-level exchanges and help people understand the reasons for police actions.

Researchers say injecting trustworthiness and legitimacy into law enforcement is transforming the way police handle a range of encounters, from traffic and drug law enforcement to burglary incidents and the de-escalation of highly charged domestic disputes.

Enhancing police legitimacy in communities is particularly critical, considering effective policing requires voluntary public cooperation.

“With procedural justice training and the script developed by our team, police are conveying trustworthy motives for their actions and remaining neutral, particularly in highly charged situations," Professor Mazerolle says.

She points out that the script “is more precise than police just talking nicely. It’s important for all communication to be done in a respectful manner.”

In a post-September 11 world, tensions have increased between police and people of colour and religious beliefs, Professor Mazerolle notes.

She says Australian police do not have enough training to properly engage with people from other cultures, and encounter similar problems with younger people.

Image credit: Getty Images/Light Bulb Works

In response, Professor Mazerolle and her team established a unique structured police engagement script initially field-tested in 2010 during random breath-test traffic stops in Brisbane.

Working closely with the UQ team, local police tested 21,000 drivers as part of the Queensland Community Engagement Trial (QCET).

While the program aimed to change people’s views about drinking and driving, an equally important outcome was examining whether the use of a script during a routine traffic stop could increase the public’s trust and confidence in police.

According to Professor Mazerolle’s findings, drivers reported a change in their driving behaviour following the scripted QCET stops.

Other Australian states are now using the QCET script on more drivers during random breath tests – a trend that police officials say is halving the number of alcohol-related accidents and saving an average of 96 lives per year across the country annually.

The UQ-developed dialogue is being also expanded throughout Australia into other kinds of police training programs. For example, Queensland police are embedding the QCET script in recruitment training for crime-scene investigators targeting residential burglaries and hotel-room drug deals.

When detectives start a conversation with a citizen, they’re trained to employ the four tenets of procedural justice: being neutral in decision-making, conveying a trustworthy motive for the stop, treating people respectfully, and giving 'voice' to citizens. Ultimately, providing this context is a means of defusing a potentially acrimonious situation, Professor Mazerolle says.

“Police will say we’re here on the street because we want to make sure people can get home safely at night,” she says.

“They’ll tell a person they’re not being singled out, but there have been complaints in the area about break-ins or other criminal activity. Or they’re pulling people over for traffic infringements because of traffic deaths in a certain area.

"For minorities, they’re already suspicious of police, so context matters for them, and police have to work extra hard with disenfranchised groups in society.”

The engagement script being field-tested by police during random breath-test traffic stops in Brisbane.

The engagement script being field-tested by police during random breath-test traffic stops in Brisbane.

The engagement script being field-tested by police during random breath-test traffic stops in Brisbane.

Making the job easier

QCET’s rollout met some pushback from departments insisting that fair treatment was already a precept of police training. However, the explicit integration of procedural justice into existing instruction is now a focal point for Australian law enforcement in their engagement with a wide range of people.

Some promising results include reduced reoffending rates among truant students, reduced drug dealing in city hotel rooms, and increased clearance rates in residential burglary cases.

"When citizens see the police as more legitimate, that's going to make the police department's job easier."
- Professor Lorraine Mazerolle

Meanwhile, international police departments have adopted the UQ-developed dialogue for various levels of police teaching. QCET principles are currently used for road police training in Scotland and terrorist intervention tactics at Birmingham Airport in England.

Officials in South Carolina’s Richland County adopted QCET techniques for roadblock operations, and Maryland’s Prince George’s County employed the script in response to neighbourhood break-in investigations. Turkey’s national police force is using the University’s scripted dialogue to improve how it interacts with citizens.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice identified QCET on its Crime Solutions website as evidence of how police could better engage with the populace.

Meanwhile, Mazerolle and her fellow researchers are continually seeking ways to improve the script so it fits different situations, including how police respond to young people and mentally ill citizens. For now, ideals of fairness and transparency are beginning to result in the type of equitable outcomes that, in the long term, can protect communities from crime and violence.

“If people have a better experience with police, they will be more willing to cooperate and comply with directives during future encounters,” Mazerolle says.

Image credit: Getty Images/Nigel Killeen

The story so far

2009: Professor Lorraine Mazerolle joins UQ’s Institute of Social Science Research (ISSR) and is appointed the Foundation Director and UQ Node leader of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security (CEPS).

2010: Professor Mazerolle is awarded an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship titled: Multi-Site Trials of Third Party Policing: Building the Scientific Capacity for Experimental Criminology and Evidence-Based Social Policy in Australia.

2012: UQ researchers led by Professor Mazerolle publish a series of papers and a Campbell Collaboration systematic review on Legitimacy Policing based on research undertaken at UQ from 2009 to 2012.

2012: In partnership with the Queensland Police Service, Professor Mazerolle and her team test a world-first structured police engagement script with 21,000 drivers during the Queensland Community Engagement Trial (QCET).

2012–2015: UQ’s QCET structured dialogue is replicated in studies in Scotland, England, the United States and Turkey.

2014: A video about QCET, filmed in partnership with the Queensland Police Service, was featured at the 2014 Conference of International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) in Chicago, attended by 12,000 police chiefs around the world.

2015: UQ’s foundational work is cited in President Obama’s Task Force Report on 21st Century Policing.

2016: The U.S. Department of Justice identified QCET on its Crime Solutions website as evidence of how police could better engage with the population.

2017: Professor Mazerolle is selected to be a Fellow of the American Society of Criminology.

2018: Professor Mazerolle receives the American Society of Criminology’s 2018 Thorsten Sellin & Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck Award.

2019: Professor Mazerolle receives the Jerry Lee Lifetime Achievement Award of the Division of Experimental Criminology.

Contact details

Professor Lorraine Mazerolle School of Social Science
Phone: +61 7 334 67877

Read more about how UQ researchers are making an impact.

Professor Lorraine Mazerolle. Image credit: Jeff Camden

Professor Lorraine Mazerolle. Image credit: Jeff Camden