Simply Wearing Police Uniform Can Cause Bias, Study Finds

ONTARIO — The debate over racial profiling among law enforcement has taken front and center repeatedly over the past few years, and now new data offers an alarming perspective. Simply wearing a police uniform may cause an individual to feel biased towards others, a new study finds.

Researchers at McMaster University in Canada conducted an experiment with college students to examine the impact of stereotyping and profiling. The study sought to “explore whether the uniform itself might have an impact, independent of all other aspects of the police subculture, training or work experiences,” Sukhvinder Obhi, the study’s senior author, says in a release.

Researchers found that just putting a police uniform on may affect one’s bias towards others.

Student participants, some of whom were instructed to wear police-style garb, were examined to determine how they held their focus during attention-demanding tasks.

The primary exercise involved students identifying a simple shape on screen, while different characters also appeared to serve as a distraction. These characters included a white male, a black male, an individual dressed in a hoodie, and an individual wearing business attire.

No difference in reaction time was found in between black and white male faces, which surprised the researchers to some extent. They theorized that while this finding may hold true in Canada, it may not be as accurate in America.

Interestingly, the depictions of a hoodie-wearing individual were found to be distracting, but only to those who were wearing a police uniform, which served as the study’s defining finding.

“We know that clothing conveys meaning and that the hoodie has to some extent become a symbol of lower social standing and inner-city youth,” Obhi says. “There is a stereotype out there that links hoodies with crime and violence, and this stereotype might be activated to a greater degree when donning the police style uniform.”

It’s the hope of the researchers that an awareness about the biases that law enforcement can potentially harbor will reduce problematic profiling and abuse.

The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.