‘If they participate once, they are likely to do it again’

| Michaela Nesvarova

If regular citizens collaborate with the police, they can help to fight crime. However, it is unclear what motivates people to do so. PhD candidate Wendy Schreurs aimed to uncover these reasons in her research. She even used her grandmother in one of her experiments. Schreurs is presenting her findings during her PhD defense today.

Wendy Schreurs is a PhD candidate in the research group Psychology of Conflict, Risk and Safety at the UT. The title of her doctoral thesis is ‘Crossing lines together – how and why citizens participate in the police domain’.

Why was it important to study this topic?

Schreurs: ‘Citizens are becoming more and more active in society. They collaborate with the police, but police don’t know what drives citizens to be active. It is like a black box. And while they would like people to report crime and help in other ways, it is not always desirable for citizens to participate. People can go too far. For example, some post pictures of a suspected robber on social media, which violates the privacy law. Or imagine that there is a missing person case and hundreds of people go out looking for the person. If there is a hundred people searching a forest, for instance, they might destroy evidence.’

Did this research topic come directly from the police?

‘No, but I did collaborate directly with the police on one of my studies. First, I looked into the various ways citizens can help, because there are many forms of participation: everything from calling 112 to neighborhood watch WhatsApp groups. After that, I did a study on whether we can influence citizen behavior. This study was done in collaboration with a TV show “Onder de loep” by RTV Oost. In this show, viewers are asked to assist in solving crimes based on reconstructions, images from surveillance cameras and photos of suspects. We went to their studio and made videos with manipulated crimes. Actually, my grandmother played the victim in two of these videos. She enjoyed it very much, by the way. The videos depicted a bike theft and distraction robbery, which is a robbery when the offender talks his way into the house of the victim and then robs them. Some videos also showed the victim’s statement, some did not. We wanted to test what motivates people to report the crime.’

Did these videos air on TV?

‘No, we only showed them to people in a special police mobile media lab. We asked passerby’s to watch them and once they exited, they could see the offender from the videos – wearing the same clothes – standing outside. We wanted to see in which cases people would report him.’

What was the result?

‘There were no huge differences, so we didn’t gather any significant data on this, but we saw a trend: it seems that people are more likely to report the robbery, it is a more emotionally charged crime. However, the small differences show that it is very hard to influence people’s behavior.’

What were the main findings of your overall research?

‘There are several categories of citizen participation and the motivation to be involved differs per category. If it comes to social control and responsive collaboration, meaning calling the police and reporting a crime, the motivation is more emotional. However, more long-term collaboration such as neighborhood watch is rationally motivated. We also saw that if people participate once, they are likely to do it again. Plus, there is so called response efficacy. If people think their behavior will be helpful, they are more likely to be active. Police could use this and share success stories, for example.’

What is the next step? How will your research be used?

‘I think we need further research into how to influence citizen behavior, but this study gives insight into what drives citizens in general. I myself am working at the police academy now. I’m doing research into intelligence, but would like to continue with research on citizen participation in the future.’

Wendy Schreurs. Photo by: Jellien Fotografie 

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