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Do women prefer female police officers?

This research, undertaken by Dr Sharon Barnhardt and her colleague, delves into public perceptions of female officers' effectiveness, particularly in handling violence against women cases, revealing nuanced findings that underscore the need for tailored law enforcement strategies and challenge assumptions about women's expectations from the police

In their recent research article exploring attitudes towards law enforcement, Sharon Barnhardt, Director of Research at the Centre for Social and Behavioural Change at Ashoka University, and Nirvikar Jassal, Assistant Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics and Political Science, bring a nuanced perspective by examining the often-overlooked influence of gender. This topic is critical for two reasons. First, from a public policy perspective, the existence of women-only police stations and women’s help desks in police stations could discourage victims from reporting crimes if women and their families do not want their complaints to be assigned to female officers. 

Second, from a career perspective, female officers are routinely assigned to ‘women’s cases’, which are among the most challenging to clear. For example, rape and dowry harassment often happen behind closed doors, making the gathering of witness testimony or forensic evidence nearly impossible. 

Their analysis of a nationally representative survey conducted by CSDS-Common Cause revealed that a majority of Indians believe women lack the ‘physical force or forceful behaviour’ required for police work. The question arises: Is this perception due to their gender or because female officers are typically assigned different cases—those that many citizens prefer to see handled with physical force? To address this, Prof. Barnhardt and her team designed an experiment to unravel how citizens perceive female and male police officers handling the same case. Their research sheds light on the intricate relationships among gender, violent crime, and public trust in law enforcement.

NDTV affiliates helped in creating video bulletins, wherein a news anchor from a fictional channel called ‘KDTV’ reported on crimes. Some of these crimes were related to violence against women (VAW includes rape and dowry harassment), while others were generic violent crimes such as murder and kidnapping.

Within the context of these news bulletins, the variation was introduced in the officer in charge of the ongoing investigation, alternating between Shri Kumar and Shrimati Kumar. The challenge lay in making the officer’s gender salient without introducing other potential differences between Shri and Shrimati Kumar. A makeup artist and theatre troupe helped the team overcome this hurdle. Photos of a single actor donning the uniforms of a policeman and a policewoman were taken. These images were featured in the news bulletin while the journalist narrated the details of the case and investigation.

In the image above, the actor is seen wearing both the uniform of a policewoman (left) and that of a policeman (right)

All respondents were presented with precisely one news bulletin, wherein the news story randomly incorporated variations in crime type and officer gender. Subsequently, the researchers gauged how respondents evaluated officer performance. Consistent with previous research, inquiries were posed regarding trust, efficacy, and procedural fairness, which were amalgamated into a unified ‘legitimacy’ index.

The results indicate that, overall,  both female and male respondents do not exhibit a preference for policewomen over policemen. However, the nature of the crime under consideration influenced the officer’s legitimacy in an unexpected direction. Police legitimacy is higher when a male officer investigates VAW. Policewomen are perceived as less effective and less trustworthy in VAW cases, and this effect is more pronounced among female respondents. Interestingly, female officers garner greater legitimacy in regular crimes, as male respondents believe they will be more fair in such cases compared to male officers. While the differences are small, they are statistically significant.

To be clear, these findings do uncover discrimination against the female officer in the videos. She is taking precisely the same actions as her male counterpart in exactly the same VAW case, yet respondents rate her performance less favourably. The source of this discrimination may stem from citizens’ expectations that, to be ‘considered effective’, police should employ physical force in VAW cases, and the female officer is found wanting.

These nuanced findings underscore the need for tailored approaches in law enforcement strategies, recognising the importance of police legitimacy in any democratic society. Additionally, there is a need for female victims to feel comfortable approaching the police and professional considerations for women who work as police officers should be taken into account. 

Careful research has already demonstrated the benefits of help desks for women (Sukthankar et al., 2022), but women-only police stations can backfire and reduce reporting (Jassal, 2020). Crimes against women are generally under-reported; many women never make it to a police station. The research highlights a surprising possibility: for a woman who has suffered a violent act, the anticipation of meeting a female officer may act as a barrier to stepping forward because she believes the officer assigned to her case will be less effective than others around.

Reconsidering assumptions about what women want from the police and examining case assignments can enhance citizens’ perceptions of police legitimacy. Some states have used quotas to get more women into the forces, but how would they compete and get promoted if they are over-assigned hard-to-clear VAW cases? Police leadership can leverage administrative data to investigate whether gender-based case assignments hinder women’s equal opportunities for performance and advancement within the police force.

(Written by Dr Sharon Barnhardt, Director – Research, Centre for Social and Behaviour Change
Edited by Dr Yukti Arora, Senior Manager, Academic Communications, Research and Development Office)

References articles:

  • Jassal, Nirvikar, and Sharon Barnhardt. “Do women prefer in-group police officers? Survey and experimental evidence from India.” Comparative Political Studies (2023): 00104140231194070.
  • Jassal, Nirvikar. “Gender, law enforcement, and access to justice: Evidence from all-women police stations in India.” American Political Science Review 114, no. 4 (2020): 1035-1054.
  • Sukhtankar, Sandip, Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner, and Akshay Mangla. “Policing in patriarchy: An experimental evaluation of reforms to improve police responsiveness to women in India.” Science 377, no. 6602 (2022): 191-198.
Study at Ashoka

Study at Ashoka