Britt Nestor knew something needed to change. 

Nestor is a police officer in North Carolina. Unlike many in her field, who recite interview-ready responses about wanting to be a police officer since childhood, Nestor admits that her arrival to the field of law enforcement was a serendipitous one. 

Told by teachers to start rehearsing the line “do you want fries with that?” while in high school, Nestor went to college to prove them wrong—and even graduated with a 3.9 GPA solely to prove those same people wrong—but she had absolutely no idea what to do next. When a local police department offered to put her through the police academy, her first thought was, “absolutely not.” 

“And here I am,” says Nestor, 12 years into her career, working in Special Victims Investigations as an Internet Crimes Against Children detective. 

A Calling to Serve Community 

Brittany Nestor, New Blue Co-Founder and President

Though she’d initially joined on a whim, Nestor stuck around and endured many growing pains, tasting some of the problematic elements of police culture firsthand. As a woman, there was particular pressure to prove herself; she resisted calling for back-up on dangerous calls for fear of being regarded as weak, and tried out for and joined the SWAT team to demonstrate her mettle.  

It took time to realize I didn’t need to make the most arrests or get the most drugs and guns to be a good cop. What was important was recognizing that I was uniquely positioned and given opportunities every single shift to make a difference in people’s lives—that is what I wanted to focus on.

Britt Nestor

Nestor found she took great pleasure in interacting with different kinds of people all day. She’s deeply fond of her community, where she is also a youth basketball coach. One of her greatest joys is being on call or working an event and hearing someone hail her from the crowd by yelling, “hey, coach!” When she landed in the Juvenile Investigations Unit, Nestor truly felt she’d found her calling. 

Still, what she’d witnessed in her profession and in the news weighed on her. And she’s not alone; while there is continued debate on the urgency and extent of changes needed, 89% percent of people are in favor of police reform, according to a CBS/YouGov poll.  

A few weeks after George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Nestor’s colleague Andy Saunders called her and told her they had to do something. It felt like the tipping point.  

Andy Saunders, New Blue Co-Founder and CEO

“I knew he was right. I needed to stop wishing and hoping police would do better and start making it happen.”  

That conversation was the spark that grew into New Blue. Founded in 2020, New Blue strives to reform the U.S. Criminal Justice system by uniting reform-minded police officers and community allies. The organization focuses on incubating crowd-sourced solutions from officers themselves, encouraging those in the field to speak up about what they think could improve relations between officers and the communities they serve.    

“Over the years I’ve had so many ideas—often addressing problems brought to light by community members—that could have made us better. But my voice was lost. I didn’t have much support from the police force standing behind me. This is where New Blue makes the difference; it’s the network of fellows, alumni, partners, mentors, and instructors I’d needed in the past.” 

Nestor and Saunders had valuable pieces of the puzzle as experienced law enforcement professionals, yet they knew they needed additional tools. What are the ethical guidelines around experimenting with new policing tactics? What does success look like, and how could they measure it? 

The Research Lens 

Over 400 miles away, another spark found kindling; like Nestor, Assistant Professor of Organization & Management Andrea Dittmann’s passion for making the world a better place is palpable. Also, like Nestor, it was an avid conversation with a colleague—Kyle Dobson—that helped bring a profound interest in police reform into focus.  

Dittmann, whose academic career began in psychology and statistics, came to this field by way of a burgeoning interest in the need for research-informed policy. Much of her research explores the ways in which socioeconomic disparities play out in the work environment, and—more broadly—how discrepancies of power shape dynamics in organizations of all kinds.  

Andrea Dittmann

When people imagine research in the business sector, law enforcement is unlikely to crop up in their mind. Indeed, Dittmann cites the fields of criminal justice and social work as being the traditional patrons of police research, both of which are more likely to examine the police force from the top down. 

Dittmann, however, is a micro-oriented researcher, which means she assesses organizations from the bottom up; she examines the small, lesser-studied everyday habits that come to represent an organization’s values.  

“We have a social psychology bent; we tend to focus on individual processes, or interpersonal interactions,” says Dittmann. She regards her work and that of her colleagues as a complementary perspective to help build upon the literature already available. Where Dittmann has eyes on the infantry level experience of the battleground, other researchers are observing from a bird’s eye view. Together, these angles can help complete the picture. 

And while the “office” of a police officer may look very different from what most of us see every day, the police force is—at the end of the day—an organization: “Like all organizations, they have a unique culture and specific goals or tasks that their employees need to engage in on a day-to-day basis to be effective at their jobs,” says Dittmann. 

Theory Meets Practice  

Kyle Dobson, Postdoctoral Researcher at The University of Texas at Austin

What Dittmann and Dobson needed next was a police department willing to work with them, a feat easier said than done.  

Enter Britt Nestor and New Blue.  

Kyle and I could instantly tell we had met people with the same goals and approach to reforming policing from within.

Andrea Dittmann

Dittmann was not surprised by the time it took to get permission to work with active officers.  

“Initially, many officers were distrustful of researchers. Often what they’re seeing in the news are researchers coming in, telling them all the problems that they have, and leaving. We had to reassure them that we weren’t going to leave them high and dry. If we find a problem, we’re going to tell you about it, and we’ll work on building a solution with you. And of course, we don’t assume that we have all the answers, which is why we emphasize developing research ideas through embedding ourselves in police organizations through ride-alongs and interviews.” 

After observing the same officers over years, they’re able to build rapport in ways that permit open conversations. Dittmann and Dobson now have research running in many pockets across the country, including Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and parts of Texas. 

The Rise of Community-Oriented Policing  

For many police departments across the nation, there is a strong push to build closer and better relationships with the communities they serve. This often translates to police officers being encouraged to engage with citizens informally and outside the context of enforcing the law. If police spent more time chatting with people at a public park or at a café, they’d have a better chance to build rapport and foster a collective sense of community caretaking—or so the thinking goes. Such work is often assigned to a particular unit within the police force. This is the fundamental principle behind community-oriented policing: a cop is part of the community, not outside or above it. 

This approach is not without controversy, as many would argue that the public is better served by police officers interacting with citizens less, not more. In light of the many high-profile instances of police brutality leaving names like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd echoing in the public’s ears, their reticence to support increased police-to-citizen interaction is understandable. 

“Sometimes when I discuss this research, people say, ‘I just don’t think that officers should approach community members at all, because that’s how things escalate.’ Kyle and I acknowledge that’s a very important debate and has its merits.” As micro-oriented researchers, however, Dittmann and Dobson forgo advocating for or dismissing broad policy. They begin with the environment handed to them and work backward.  

“The present and immediate reality is that there are officers on the street, and they’re having these interactions every day. So what can we do now to make those interactions go more smoothly? What constitutes a positive interaction with a police officer, and what does it look like in the field?” 

Good Intentions Gone Awry 

To find out, they pulled data through a variety of experiments, including live interactions, video studies and online experiments, relying heavily on observation of such police-to-citizen interactions. 

 What we wanted to do is observe the heterogeneity of police interactions and see if there’s anything that officers are already doing that seems to be working out in the field, and if we can ‘bottle that up’ and turn that into a scalable finding.

Andrea Dittmann

Dittmann and her colleagues quickly discovered a significant discrepancy between some police officers’ perceived outcome of their interactions with citizens and what those citizens reported to researchers post-interaction. 

“An officer would come back to us and they’d say it went great. Like, ‘I did what I was supposed to do, I made that really positive connection.’ And then we’d go to the community members, and we’d hear a very different story: ‘Why the heck did that officer just come up to me, I’m just trying to have a picnic in the park with my family, did I do something wrong?’” Community members reported feeling confused, harassed, or—at the worst end of the spectrum—threatened.  

The vast majority—around 75% of citizens—reported being anxious from the very beginning of the interaction. It’s not hard to imagine how an officer approaching you apropos of nothing may stir anxious thoughts: have I done something wrong? Is there trouble in the area? The situation put the cognitive burden on the citizen to figure out why they were being approached. 

The Transformational Potential of the “Transparency Statement” 

And yet, they also observed officers (“super star” police officers, as Dittmann refers to them) who seemed to be especially gifted at cultivating better responses from community members. 

What made the difference? 

“They would explain themselves right from the start and say something like, ‘Hey, I’m officer so-and-so. The reason I’m out here today is because I’m part of this new community policing unit. We’re trying to get to know the community and to better understand the issues that you’re facing.’ And that was the lightbulb moment for me and Kyle: the difference here is that some of these officers are explaining themselves very clearly, making their benevolent intention for the interaction known right from the start of the conversation.” 

Dittmann and her colleagues have coined this phenomenon the “transparency statement.” Using a tool called the Linguistic Inquiry & Word Count software and natural language processing tools, the research team was able to analyze transcripts of the conversations and tease out subconscious cues about the civilians’ emotional state, in addition to collecting surveys from them after the encounter. Some results jumped out quickly, like the fact that those people whose conversation with an officer began with a transparency statement had significantly longer conversations with them. 

The team also employed ambulatory physiological sensors, or sensors worn on the wrist that measure skin conductivity and, by proxy, sympathetic nervous system arousal. From this data, a pattern quickly emerged: citizens’ skin conductance levels piqued early after a transparency statement (while this can be a sign of stress, in this context researchers determined it to reflect “active engagement” in the conversation) and then recovered to baseline levels faster than in the control group, a pattern indicative of positive social interaction. 

Timing, too, is of the essence: according to the study, “many patrol officers typically made transparency statements only after trust had been compromised.” Stated simply, the interest police officers showed in them was “perceived as harassment” if context wasn’t provided first. 

Overall, the effect was profound: citizens who were greeted with the transparency statement were “less than half as likely to report threatened emotions.” In fact, according to the study, “twice as many community members reported feeling inspired by the end of the interaction.”  

What’s more, they found that civilians of color and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds —who may reasonably be expected to have a lower baseline level of trust of law enforcement—“may profit more from greater transparency.” 

Talk, it turns out, is not so cheap after all.  

Corporate Offices, Clinics, and Classrooms 

The implications of this research may also extend beyond the particulars of the police force. The sticky dynamics that form between power discrepancies are replicated in many environments: the classroom, between teachers and students; the office, between managers and employees; even the clinic, between medical doctors and patients. In any of these cases, a person with authority—perceived or enforceable—may try to build relationships and ask well-meaning questions that make people anxious if misunderstood. Is my boss checking in on me because she’s disappointed in my performance? Is the doctor being nice because they’re preparing me for bad news? 

“We believe that, with calibration to the specific dynamics of different work environments, transparency statements could have the potential to ease tense conversations across power disparities in contexts beyond policing,” says Dittmann.

More Research, Action, and Optimism 

What could this mean for policing down the road? 

Imagine a future where most of the community has a positive relationship with law enforcement and there is mutual trust.  

I often heard from family and friends that they’d trust the police more ‘if they were all like you.’  I can hear myself saying, ‘There are lots of police just like me!’ and I truly believe that. I believe that so many officers love people and want to serve their communities—and I believe a lot of them struggle with the same things I do. They want to see our profession do better!

Britt Nestor

“When I get a new case and I meet the survivor, and they’re old enough to talk with me, I always explain to them, ‘I work for you. How cool is that?’ And I truly believe this: I work for these kids and their families.” 

The implications run deep; a citizen may be more likely to reach out to police officers about issues in their community before they become larger problems. An officer who is not on edge may be less likely to react with force. 

Dittmann is quick to acknowledge that while the results of the transparency statement are very promising, they are just one piece of a very large story with a long and loaded history. Too many communities are under supported and overpoliced; it would be denying the gravity and complexity of the issue to suggest that there is any silver bullet solution, especially one so simple. More must be done to prevent the dynamics that lead to police violence to begin with. 

“There’s a common narrative in the media these days that it’s too late, there’s nothing that officers can do,” says Dittmann. Yet Dittmann places value on continued research, action and optimism. When a simple act on the intervention side of affairs has such profound implications, and is not expensive or difficult to implement, one can’t help but see potential.   

“Our next step now is to develop training on transparency statements, potentially for entire agencies,” says Dittmann. “If all the officers in the agency are interacting with transparency statements, then we see this bottom-up approach, with strong potential to scale. If every interaction you have with an officer in your community starts out with that transparency statement, and then goes smoothly, now we’re kind of getting to a place where we can hopefully talk about better relations, more trust in the community, at a higher, more holistic, level.” 

While the road ahead is long and uncertain, Dittmann’s optimism is boosted by one aspect of her findings: those community members who reported feeling inspired after speaking with police officers who made their benevolent intentions clear. 

That was really powerful for me and Kyle. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. It’s worth trying to move the needle, even just a little bit.

Andrea Dittmann

Goizueta faculty apply their expertise and knowledge to solving problems that society—and the world—face. Learn more about faculty research at Goizueta.

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