Optimizing Written Hate Crime Policy: An Analysis of the Impact Content Variation Has on Hate Crime Policy Effectiveness

William D. Johnson

Advisor: Christopher Koper, PhD, Department of Criminology, Law and Society

Committee Members: Cynthia Lum, James Willis, Gary Cordner

Online Location, Online
October 27, 2022, 01:00 PM to 04:00 PM


Research to date has demonstrated that having a written policy on hate crime increases the ability of police officers in that agency to correctly identify hate crime incidents and investigate them as such. This finding is consistent with the broader literature base on written policy in police agencies which finds that the existence of a written policy can help to guide officer actions to align with agency goals. This dissertation seeks to expand our understanding of written policies on hate crimes by examining the extent to which differences in the content of those policies impact their effectiveness. To date, no research has been conducted on this question, and the findings here enable a clearer understanding of what those policies should include. To answer this question, my dissertation tested three different variations of written hate crime polices by providing police academy students with one of the three policies based on random assignment and scenario-based questions. The three variations of the written policy are based on previous research this author has conducted into the content of written hate crime policies. One policy was very minimalistic and only briefly covered the core topic areas. The second policy was comprehensive but in a way that was as brief and concise as possible while still covering the needed policy components. The final policy included each topic area with the maximum level of detail I have encountered for that policy area. Respondents provided a written response to a scenario and their perception of the utility of the policy.

A total of 349 academy students participated in the study. A review of the demographic variables collected found no statistically significant variations in the distribution of the sample over the three policy versions. The responses to the scenario were coded looking for six content areas and scored on a scale of 0-6.  The results here showed strong support for policy version 2. Respondents who were given Policy version 2 left more detailed written responses than their counterparts with a mean score of 3.21 compared to mean scores of 2.76 and 2.73 for policies 1 and 3.
The second primary area of analysis was the responses to the five-question survey which was coded to identify positive or critical comments left by respondents with an overall score per policy on a zero to five scale. Here respondents showed a preference for policy versions 2 and 3 in comparison to policy version 1. Of responses scored as positive or critical, 92% for policy 3 and 89% for policy 2 were positive. In comparison, for respondents given policy version 1, only 70% were positive. Taken together these responses show strong support for the balanced approach of policy version 2. Respondents had a positive view of policy version 3 but had difficulty applying its components in their written response. Policy 1 had the lowest level of satisfaction among respondents and their written responses reflected their feelings that the policy left questions unanswered.
The findings in this study offer further guidance for agencies looking to adopt written hate crime policies and advocacy groups looking to offer best practice policy models. Both should look to written policies in line with policy 2 that have a strong balance between comprehensive content and policy readability. These findings also offer implications for the broader field of policing as police agencies rely on written policy to guide officer discretion and actions in a wide range of situations, from use of force to specific calls for service, to interacting with citizens. The findings here suggest that police officers want written policies that offer clear guidance but may have difficulty applying the policy into practice if the policy becomes too unwieldy for officers to understand or retain.