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Study suggests respirator masks used by police could hurt perception

The study shows people may react negatively to police wearing full-face respirator masks possibly due to their use in public disorder situations where tear gas is deployed
A recent study shows respirator masks could hurt the public's perception of police officers.

If over the course of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic you’ve felt uneasy seeing police in full-face respirators, you're not alone. 

Such are the findings of a study conducted by Simon Fraser University and published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology earlier this month. The online study drew on a sample of 117 participants living in North America and analyzed their reactions to various kinds of PPE worn by police.

In the study, led by SFU criminology assistant professor Rylan Simpson and MA student Ryan Sandrin, the participants were randomly assigned to read one of three fictitious news articles. Each article had one of three angles, pro-PPE (highlighting health benefits), neutral or anti-PPE (lacking health benefits). Participants then rated 12 images of a uniformed male officer wearing various types of PPE alone, in combination or without any PPE.

The PPE worn ranged from a surgical mask, an N95 mask, a full-face respirator, goggles, a face shield and single-use medical gloves.

“Seeing police officers routinely use what has traditionally been medical equipment is both novel and important for functionality and perception,” says assistant professor Rylan Simpson.

“Historically, we have seen police use full-face respirator masks and face shields during public disorder situations where tear gas and/or other chemical agents are deployed. Now, we are seeing police use this equipment in response to situations where carriers of COVID-19 may be present,” Simpson said.

The researchers found that most types of PPE did have an impact on perception. Findings showed that police wearing either a face shield, surgical mask or N95 mask enhanced perceptions of officer accountability and professionalism. 

Full-face respiratory masks weren't so cut and dry though. While the authors of the study note that respirators have been traditionally associated with negative messaging when used by police, some study participants perceived full-face respirator masks as having greater accountability and professionalism. Other participants, however, felt the masks were more intimidating.

Participants who read the anti-PPE article, using a full-face respirator mask also amplified perceptions of aggression and made the officers appear less approachable or friendly.

Study authors note that the Vancouver Police Department has supplied their officers with gloves and personally-outfitted respiratory masks and recommend their use whenever applicable. 

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has also recommended that officers use eye protection, such as face shields and goggles, to protect themselves from virus exposure.