Whether you are a sworn law enforcement officer, EMS professional, corrections officer, or firefighter, being an effective public safety professional requires strong relationships with the public, the media, and each other. As high-profile incidents often bring to light, building and fostering these relationships is a challenge that requires constant attention by even the most congenial professionals.

Thankfully, a body of psychological research around intergroup biases can explain not only why this tension between first responders, the public, and the media occurs, but how it can be overcome.

Public safety is a shared mission
It is obvious that the public is a major component of public safety. Following a tumultuous two-year span characterized by high-profile and controversial use-of-force cases, however, public confidence in these institutions is at or near all-time lows. In the 2014 Gallup poll, the percentage of Americans who would rate police officers very high or high in ethical standards and honesty dropped to 48%.  This figure rebounded to 56% in 2015, but still reflects a general decline over the past 15 years.

Public ire does not always discriminate between first responder disciplines. Click To Tweet

This dissatisfaction and unrest with public safety is not localized to law enforcement. Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, firefighters topped Gallup’s annual poll as the profession with the most honesty and integrity. Nevertheless, after Freddie Gray died in Baltimore while in police custody, rioters pelted on-scene firefighters with rocks and debris. Firefighters and EMTs are accustomed to being assaulted while on duty, but the level of violence directed at first responders seems to be escalating, as evident by life-threatening incidents making the news.

Clashes with the public inevitably lead to negative media attention, which can impact behavior and further endanger first responders. In Birmingham, Alabama, for example, a police detective was pistol-whipped unconscious after he hesitated to use force for fear of media reprisal. Several bystanders openly mocked and photographed the bloodied officer as he was face-down on the concrete.

While news outlets were sympathetic to this particular officer’s situation, it is fair to question whether or not the same would have been true had he defended himself.

In a 2009 article on leaders becoming effective at media relations, Police Chief Magazine noted that misbehavior on both sides lead to law enforcement and reporters viewing each other as the enemy. Other public safety agencies struggle with the media, as well. The IAFC recognized that fire chiefs often believe the “the media is their enemy.” Similarly, corrections officers openly begrudge the media for ignoring the positive contributions of the profession:

The media often covers stories of heroic efforts by Police Officers who stop a bank robbery, Firefighters who rescue people from burning buildings and Prosecutors who obtain a conviction in a major murder trial. The media generally does not cover the story of a Correction Officer who prevents an inmate suicide, stops an assault or evacuates an offender from a cell that is on fire. 

Similarly, EMS professionals have remarked that they “don’t get the same level of exposure as police or firefighters… I don’t think we are there for the glory.”1 This reflects not only a degree of resentment towards the media, but towards those in other public safety disciplines.

Inter-service rivalries may build pride, but can also hinder cooperation. Click To Tweet

Beyond the embarrassing public relation gaffes—arresting a firefighter for not moving his emergency vehicle, or the massive brawl during an exhibition hockey game—interdisciplinary rivalries can become more dangerous than any bruises and lacerations received while on duty. The most damaging effect on public safety may be the deterioration in communication and collaboration between agencies.

In Milwaukee, firefighters returned to their stations and left police officers in charge of an active gas leak. These officers had not received the same training as the firefighters, and failed to take measures that might have prevented the resulting explosion. Moreover, the 9/11 Commission Report famously found that World Trade Center emergency response suffered from the lack of a unified command. These cases should serve as a constant reminder that public safety agencies are part of a common brotherhood, but do not always respond accordingly.

Intergroup biases can be overcome
For the better part of the last century, social psychologists have been working to explain group behaviors. Membership in a group can shape our perceptions, attitude and behaviors about others. We perceive members of our own group to be diverse individuals with whom we can closely identify, but members of other groups to different than us and very similar to each other. This stereotyping occurs even when groups are selected randomly. In other words, bias happens naturally.

In the domain of public safety, these biases can cause dangerous misunderstandings. During a protest at a European Union Summit in Sweden in 2001, demonstrators did not expect their protest would become violent. However, police officers went into the protest expecting a riot, and as such, high levels of violence were reported.2 When police anticipate violent behavior, they respond in kind.

In turn, public perception of how police treat them can affect their willingness to obey the law and obey the police, creating a cycle of escalation. Consequently, when one person—police officers, demonstrators, reporters or firefighters alike—views someone else as part of a collective rather than an individual, any fears about the other group will be superimposed on that person.

If the mission of public safety is best served by cooperation, then it is important to overcome intergroup biases that cause unnecessary friction between first responders, the media, and the public. Recategorization—a cognitive process in which where outside members are intentionally perceived as a peer group—helps two groups to work as a team. If firefighters, police officers, corrections officers, and EMS professionals consciously think of themselves as public safety professionals, they will find commonalities and empathize with each other.

After mergers in the 1980s, firefighting and EMS embraced the concept of “two brotherhoods” in self-identifying as a fire and rescue department. A blended agency is a novel concept in law enforcement, however. In one case, a blended fire-police agency joined forces helped to breed understanding about differences in organizational cultures and emphasize their common foundation of public safety.3

This new awareness affects decision-making. When off-duty firefighters assisted a police officer trying to subdue a suspect resisting arrest, they noted that “we’re all first responders and we’re all in this for the same thing; and I don’t want to see a fellow first responder get hurt.”

We are hardwired to not work well with other groups. But that doesn't mean we can't change it. Click To Tweet

Despite their differences, police officers and members of the media also share common traits, such as ambition, a strong sense of justice, and a desire to help others. Moreover, the public they serve often criticizes both professions.  Aside from sharing a common mission, public safety professionals and the media have a lot to offer each other.  The media is great at disseminating information to the public, which can help departments receive useful tips or communicate vital safety information.  Likewise, the media needs the attention-grabbing visuals and headlines that police are responsible for.

Be proactive

Perhaps influenced by media depictions of their own professions, many in public safety feel unappreciated by the public. When they believe that their peers have negative beliefs about the populations they serve, these professionals are more likely to adopt such attitudes themselves. According to research conducted by Montana State University, however, public beliefs can be different than what the mainstream media reports. Even in cases where high-profile stories paint police in a negative light, the nationwide impact on public views are “modest and not enduring.”

Professionals must take ownership over regaining public trust. When it comes to perceptions about police, people form opinions based on their own interactions with officers as well as experiences they hear about from trusted friends and family. Public safety agencies can therefore improve approval ratings by increasing the positive direct interactions they have with their communities. Attending public meetings, increasing visibility within neighborhoods, and simply talking with citizens outside of authoritarian roles can break the loop of negativity. Sharing those stories with other first responders can reinforce both good tactics and positive attitudes within the profession.

Because of intergroup biases, collaboration between the media, the public and other public safety agencies can be challenging. However, social psychology has shown that when you find commonalities with individuals and groups, rather than focusing on differences, it becomes easier to empathize with them, foster cooperation, and prevent situations from escalating. Likewise, by opening channels of communication, you have the power to help shape their understanding of both you and your profession. Thus, agencies must ensure that “intergroup bias” becomes a call to action, and not merely an excuse.

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1 Sanders, C. (2014). Need to know vs. need to share: information technology and the intersecting work of police, fire and paramedics. Information, Communication & Society, 17(4), 463-474.

2 Hylander, I., Guva, G. (2010). Misunderstanding of out-group behavior. Different interpretations of the same crowd events among police officers and demonstrators. Nordic Psychology, 62, 25-47.

3 Stinchcomb, J., Ordaz, F. (2007). The Integration of Two “Brotherhoods” into One Organizational Culture: A Psycho-social Perspective on Merging Police and Fire Services. Public Organization Review, 7(2), 143-161.