Amid protests and calls for reform, how police view their jobs, key issues and recent fatal encounters between blacks and police
Police work has always been hard. Today police say it is even harder. In a new Pew Research Center national survey conducted by the National Police Research Platform, majorities of police officers say that recent high-profile fatal encounters between black citizens and police officers have made their jobs riskier, aggravated tensions between police and blacks, and left many officers reluctant to fully carry out some of their duties.
The wide-ranging survey, one of the largest ever conducted with a nationally representative sample of police, draws on the attitudes and experiences of nearly 8,000 policemen and women from departments with at least 100 officers.1 It comes at a crisis point in America’s relationship with the men and women who enforce its laws, precipitated by a series of deaths of black Americans during encounters with the police that have energized a vigorous national debate over police conduct and methods.
Within America’s police and sheriff’s departments, the survey finds that the ramifications of these deadly encounters have been less visible than the public protests, but no less profound. Three-quarters say the incidents have increased tensions between police and blacks in their communities. About as many (72%) say officers in their department are now less willing to stop and question suspicious persons. Overall, more than eight-in-ten (86%) say police work is harder today as a result of these high-profile incidents.
At the same time that black Americans are dying in encounters with police, the number of fatal attacks on officers has grown in recent years. About nine-in-ten officers (93%) say their colleagues worry more about their personal safety – a level of concern recorded even before a total of eight officers died in separate ambush-style attacks in Dallas and Baton Rouge last July.
The survey also finds that officers remain deeply skeptical of the protests that have followed deadly encounters between police and black citizens. Two-thirds of officers (68%) say the demonstrations are motivated to a great extent by anti-police bias; only 10% in a separate question say protesters are similarly motivated by a genuine desire to hold police accountable for their actions. Some two-thirds characterize the fatal encounters that prompted the demonstrations as isolated incidents and not signs of broader problems between police and the black community – a view that stands in sharp contrast with the assessment of the general public. In a separate Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults, 60% say these incidents are symptoms of a deeper problem.
A look inside the nation’s police departments reveals that most officers are satisfied with their department as a place to work and remain strongly committed to making their agency successful. Still, about half (53%) question whether their department’s disciplinary procedures are fair, and seven-in-ten (72%) say that poorly performing officers are not held accountable.
The remainder of this report explores in greater detail the working lives, experiences and attitudes of America’s police officers. Chapter 1 examines police culture, how officers view their job as well as the risks and rewards of police work. Chapter 2 reports how officers view their departments and their superiors as well as officers’ attitudes toward the internal rules and policies that govern how they do their job, including the use of force. Chapter 3 looks at how officers view the citizens they serve and how they think the citizens view them, including officers’ perceptions of the relations between police and whites, blacks and other minority groups in their communities. Chapter 4 explores police reaction to recent fatal encounters between blacks and police, the protests that followed many of these incidents and the impact those events have had on how officers do their job. Chapter 5 looks at how officers view various police reforms, including the use of body cameras, and reports on the kinds of police training officers receive to help reduce bias, de-escalate threatening situations as well as how to know when – and when not to – use their service weapons or use deadly force. The final chapter compares and contrasts the views of police with those of the public on a wide range of issues relevant to police work, including attitudes toward gun law reforms and changes to the country’s marijuana laws. It also explores how each group views recent fatal encounters between blacks and police as well as the protests that have frequently followed those incidents.