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Aligning Perceptions: A Model for Intergroup Contact and Culture Change

The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, pillar 5, embraces the value of higher levels of education and recommends in-service training specific to interpersonal and communication skills. Using pillar 5, and subsequent recommendations as inspiration, the Santa Barbara Police Department partnered with Santa Barbara City College to create a California Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) certified course, Aligning Perceptions. In this course, police officers are integrated, as participants for two weeks, in an in-progress Administration of Justice class with registered college students.

The objectives of the class are to (a) provide a pedagogical platform presenting a selected topic involving the criminal justice system, (b) engage officers and students in critical thinking exercises, (c) develop partnerships between students and officers within working groups to create inclusive responses to challenging scenarios, and (d) align perceptions between law enforcement and civilian community members through intergroup contact.

Research shows that intergroup contact, under certain circumstances, lowers intergroup prejudice (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2011). Intergroup dialogue occurs when two groups engage with each other more so based on their social category memberships than their personal attributes (Giles & Maass, 2016; Giles & Harwood, 2018). As law enforcement leadership continues to address public concern of prejudice and bias in policing, creating places for intergroup dialogue between police officers and civilian members of the public offers a safe space for both groups to hear each other’s perceptions and build relationships and perspectives that allow for better communication.

In this model, officers join an in progress, semester long course in a Criminal Justice program at a local college or university. The officers attend the regularly scheduled classes for two weeks with the civilian students, and participate in the lectures and group work. At the end of the two weeks, the officers and students participate in a final assignment where they are given a scenario during which they must, in groups, determine a sentence for a convicted person. In this assignment, the groups take into account aggravating and mitigating circumstances, sentencing guidelines, and the rules of the court, causing them to consider both the legal and human components of sentencing. The attached video link provides some insight into the structure of the course, as well as the officer and student experience.

Any questions regarding the creation and implementation of this project can be directed to Lieutenant Shawn Hill at the Santa Barbara Police Department at


Giles, H., & Harwood, J. (Eds.). (2018). Oxford research encyclopedia: Intergroup communication. New York, NY: Oxford University Press

Giles, H., & Maas, A. (Eds.). (2016). Advances in intergroup communication. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 751-783. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.82.3.300

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