Behind the Badge: How Police Officers View Their Jobs

  • by Tom Infield
  • October 02, 2017
  • Features

In one of the nation’s largest surveys of law enforcement, the Pew Research Center asked police officers how they view their jobs in modern-day America.

The surveys reveal a wide gap between the way officers and the public view the practice of policing in contemporary America.

A large majority of U.S. police officers believe that many of their colleagues have cut back on stopping and questioning suspicious people, according to a Pew Research Center survey that also found officers more worried about their safety and more concerned about using force as a result of high-profile incidents involving African-Americans and the police.

The survey of nearly 8,000 law enforcement officers from police and sheriff’s departments with 100 or more members was conducted by the center in mid-2016 in partnership with the National Police Research Platform. The results, published earlier this year, followed a series of officer-involved shootings of African-American suspects that prompted national demonstrations—as well as several attacks on police.

Overall, more than 4 in 5 officers (86 percent) said their work has become harder as the result of incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere in which African-Americans died during encounters with police. The tension between police and the public after these episodes may have played a role in subsequent fatal attacks on officers in Dallas; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and New York City.

“We found that police were really feeling the impact of all this,” says Kim Parker, director of social trends research at the Pew Research Center and one of the authors of the report, Behind the Badge.

“I think one of the major contributions we made was to collect these data at a time when there was so much discussion and focus on the relationship between the police and the public,” Parker says. “Nobody had been able to collectively interview police in this way and find out how they were feeling.”

The report takes into account a similar survey by the center of more than 4,500 American adults. Taken together, the surveys reveal a wide gap between the way officers and the public view the practice of policing in contemporary America.

Trust Magazine Fall 2017

Christy E. Lopez, a former official in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, says the report is required reading for her Georgetown University law students. Lopez, who advised the center’s research team, said it provides broad and wide-ranging perspectives on law enforcement that were previously unavailable.

The report identified disparities in the way that white officers and black officers view contact and confrontation with the public, with a higher proportion of white officers, especially white men, saying that other officers were less willing to stop and question suspicious people. “A substantial number of [respondents] are reporting that they are essentially de-policing—that they are doing less to intrude on the public’s privacy,” says Stephen D. Mastrofski, director of the Center for Justice Leadership and Management at George Mason University, who worked with the Pew Research Center on the report. The implication could be that officers are respecting the rights of citizens more than in the past; alternately, it could mean that some officers aren’t fully doing their jobs to fight crime, he says.

“Some people say it is a good thing,” Mastrofski says, “and some do not.” He says more research is required to determine whether the reluctance to confront citizens perceived by the officers in the survey is borne out by statistics.

Jeff Hadley, chief of public safety in Kalamazoo, Mich., says “there’s certainly an argument to be made that officers are much more selective in their enforcement activities.”

“The events across the country can sway the mood and temperament and climate of officers and agencies instantaneously,” says Hadley, who is also an executive fellow at the Police Foundation, an independent Washington-based professional organization that seeks to improve policing through innovation and science (and the new home of the National Police Research Platform, which assisted in the survey). “When a Dallas or a Baton Rouge happens, everyone is questioning their own mortality and how they do their work and how they engage folks. And everyone is on edge.”

There’s no question that police have become more wary, said Frank Straub, director of strategic studies at the Police Foundation and a former law enforcement official in Indiana, New York, and Washington state.

“Officers probably aren’t going to come out and say this, but I think the reality in some cases is that officers are fearful of citizens they come into contact with,” Straub says. “I think they’re fearful if they have to go ‘hands on’ that it’s going to lead to disciplinary issues or charges being proffered against them. I think they are fearful of getting hurt, in all honesty.”

On the other side are the often-fearful citizens who get pulled over, he says.

“There is a level of fear among community members, particularly community members of color, that they are going to get hurt during a police encounter if they say or do something wrong that causes a response from the officer,” Straub says. “I think it makes these encounters even more difficult—that you have fearful persons engaging with each other. There is heightened risk that the interaction is going to become problematic.”

The center’s survey data put firm findings behind these experts’ impressions—and the disparity between police attitudes and the public’s. More than 8 in 10 officers say the public doesn’t understand the job they do and the hazards they face. However, a large majority of the public believes it does grasp what police are up against.

Trust Magazine Fall 2017

The divergences of opinion were apparent on other questions as well. Two-thirds of officers (67 percent) said deaths of African-Americans during encounters with police are isolated incidents. By contrast, 60 percent of the public said incidents such as the one in Ferguson, in which an unarmed 18-year-old black man was killed by police in 2014, are signs of a broader problem.

“Most Americans think these incidents are signs of a broader problem between police and blacks,” says Parker.

The survey also found differences of opinion along racial lines among officers themselves. When the findings are analyzed by race, the report notes, “an equally striking result snaps into focus: About 7 in 10 white officers (72 percent), but fewer than half of all black officers, see these encounters as isolated incidents.”

Officers were also more likely than the public (68 percent to 41 percent) to say that those protesting at demonstrations after officer-involved shootings were greatly motivated by a long-standing bias against police. At the same time, the public was much more likely than police (33 percent to 10 percent) to say the protesters’ motivation largely came from a genuine desire to hold officers accountable.

“It might be useful for officers to understand the public perspective, which is that ‘we’re really out there trying to hold police officers accountable; it’s not all about anti-police bias,’” Parker says. “That was a disconnect between the public and the police.”

When police and the public were asked about racial progress in America, the race of respondents again made a difference. The majority of the white public (57 percent)—and a much higher share of white police officers (92 percent)—said no more changes are needed to give blacks equal rights. The black public and black officers strongly said the opposite.

Most officers who participated in the survey said they feel that the public respects them and that they had been thanked for their service within the previous month. On the other hand, two-thirds said they had been “verbally abused” in that same period.

Lopez, the former Justice Department official, calls it “the inherent contradiction of police work. Every day they feel frustrated by their job. But also every day they feel proud of their work. That conflict and tension in the officers’ view of their work really comes through in the survey.”

A majority of police officers said they had become more callous toward people since joining the force. It was young officers, not veterans, who said this most often. And it was young officers who most often took a confrontational approach, who were most likely to report having been verbally abused, and who most often engaged in physical struggles.

These findings could be seen to contradict the notion that young officers come into the profession brimming with idealism, only to have it worn away over time. But the Police Foundation’s Straub says it makes sense to him that, with time, officers could increase job satisfaction by learning—from hard experience, perhaps—how to defuse stressful situations.

“The longer you’re in the job, the more you learn the value of communication skills,” he says. “You realize that you probably don’t have to use as much force as you do at the beginning of your career.”

In addition to asking officers about their jobs, the researchers probed their opinions on a number of hot-button issues in American society, including marijuana laws, gun control, and undocumented immigrants.

A majority of officers (68 percent) favor easing some legal restrictions on marijuana, though the public is more likely than officers to support legalization for both recreational and medical use (49 percent of all Americans versus 32 percent of officers).

A large majority of both police and the public approve of background checks for gun purchases, not just in stores but at gun shows and in private transactions, the survey found. By lesser—but still substantial—majorities, both groups favor creation of a federal database to track gun sales.

In answer to a question about whether they should take an active role in identifying undocumented immigrants as part of their work, 46 percent of officers said that this should be left mainly to federal authorities.

“It could be that some officers don’t want to do it because it could alienate people who are very important to them in doing their everyday work,” says George Mason’s Mastrofski.

By and large, the survey showed, police feel deeply committed to their jobs.

Hadley, the Kalamazoo chief, said he hoped the findings would help Americans gain a better sense of the challenges that officers face and make it clear that the vast number of them are motivated by public service and a sense of professionalism.

“They do an incredibly difficult job in extraordinary circumstances and in unprecedented times,” Hadley says “How many professionals do you know who walk around with a body camera on them to let the whole world judge them? Does a doctor when he’s diagnosing a patient? Does a teacher in the classroom?

“I think what the public needs to know, number one,” he says, “is that these officers are human beings with all sorts of emotions and fears going on, particularly around their job. There will be some failings along the way because we are all human beings. And that’s just the way it is in life.”