Police officers in the U.S. think their job has gotten harder of late, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center.
The public outcry over high-profile police shootings of black Americans, coupled with a recent uptick in fatal shootings of police, has left the majority of officers feeling more concerned for their personal safety and more reluctant to carry out some of their duties, according to the report, titled “Behind the Badge.”
“The fact that these incidents have brought so much attention to their job has actually made it harder to execute in certain circumstances,” said Kim Parker, director of social trends research at Pew and a lead author on the report, which drew its conclusions from a survey of a nationally representative sample of 8,000 policemen and women.
Over the last few years, police killings of black men have given rise to protests across the country — the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Eric Garner in New York, to name a few.
There was also a surge in fatal shootings of police in 2016 compared with the previous year. In July, five police officers were shot and killed in an ambush in Dallas and three officers were killed in Baton Rouge, La.
About a year and a half earlier, two New York Police Department officers were shot and killed while parked in a patrol car in Brooklyn.
On Monday, an officer in Orlando, Fla., was shot dead after she attempted to chase down a murder suspect at a Wal-Mart; a second officer died in a motorcycle crash in the manhunt that ensued.
Though research has been conducted on the public’s attitude toward police in the wake of these events, showing decreased confidence and racial divides, less attention has been devoted to the attitudes of police officers themselves, said Parker — a deficiency she and her team set out to correct.
What they found was that three-quarters of officers said that relations with the black community had become more tense and they were now less willing to stop and question suspects and to use force when necessary. More than 90% of officers said their colleagues worried more about their personal safety, with that trend having begun even before the July incidents in Dallas and Baton Rouge.
“Those are really high percentages that you don’t always see in opinion surveys,” Parker said.
But experts who study policing and race say they aren’t surprised.
“Police officers are under greater scrutiny — the public is paying more attention,” said Jack Glaser, a social psychologist and professor of public policy at UC Berkeley. He said ubiquitous recording devices and social media had increased the public’s awareness of such shootings in recent years.
Similarly, while officer fatalities were slightly up in 2016, they remained far below record highs set in the 1970s. “For the average officer their job has not gotten categorically more dangerous in the last year or two, but it has gotten incrementally more dangerous,” Glaser said, and “it’s very likely that it is a real result of this tension that has occurred.”
In addition to real and perceived threats and public perception, there’s also rising awareness among officers themselves of their own biases and a desire to combat those. “That’s an extra load on them that makes the job all the more difficult,” Glaser said. “It’s appropriate, but it is an additional challenge.”
If the outcome is fewer police stops, Glaser said that could be a good thing.
“These suspicion-based stops and searches … are very high discretion events. In most of the data on policing they are overwhelmingly not fruitful,” he said.
Delores Jones-Brown, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said “suspicious” had too often become code language for “black” or “minority.”
“There is a subtext that says [police officers are] less willing to stop a suspicious black person,” Jones-Brown said of the report’s findings.
“If I’m a person who lives in a high-crime community, then I’m going to be annoyed and elated,” she said. “I’m going to be annoyed that the failure of the police to stop a suspicious person who might in fact be a serious violent offender … leaves me at risk for harm from that person.”
Jones-Brown said police needed to be more discerning in communities of color, rather than blanketing them with stops and searches or categorically avoiding stops and searches out of fear of public criticism.
Pew also found that there are significant disparities between white and black officers in their attitudes and experience on the job. About half as many black officers as white and Latino officers characterize police relations with the black community as excellent or good, and black officers are much less likely to say the country has made sufficient progress on racial equality. They also tend to worry that officers won’t deliberate long enough before taking action in a tense moment and are less likely to have discharged a firearm during their service.
“Black officers recognize that while they are police officers some hours of the day, they are black people 24 hours a day, and they and their families are at greater risk,” Jones-Brown said.
Glaser agreed, noting that he knows many black officers who give their teenage sons the same talk black civilians give theirs. “It’s ‘be careful with the police,’” Glaser said.
He added that social psychology predicts that members of a particular group are more likely to relate to that group, see other members as individuals and be less threatened by them.
Pew researchers also found a significant divergence between police officers’ attitudes and those of the public with regard to fatal police-citizen encounters.
For example, most U.S. adults (60%) believe that the deaths of black Americans at the hands of police in recent years are symptomatic of a broader societal problem, while two-thirds of police officers view those deaths as isolated incidents. Similarly, about two-thirds of the public believes that the protests that have followed these incidents arose out of a genuine desire to hold the police accountable, but 9 in 10 officers believed they arose out of anti-police bias.
“They’re both right and they’re both wrong,” Glaser said. “There is discrimination in American policing and there are going to be biases in how people perceive things.”
He added, “What’s a more critical concern is whether there’s an absence of trust.”
If a 2016 Pew survey of public attitudes toward police is any guide, the outlook isn’t very good. Only about half of all black adults say local police do an excellent or good job combating crime, compared with 80% of all white adults. And even fewer black adults — 1 in 3 — say police in their communities do an excellent or good job of using appropriate force on suspects, treating all racial and ethnic minorities equally and holding officers accountable when misconduct occurs.
“Where we are today is a place where we can’t reach consensus on what is and is not acceptable police behavior,” Jones-Brown said.