Behind the Badge

Study done by the Pew Research Center compares how law enforcement and the public view policing in the midst of numerous calls for reform.


Problem

Community Need(s):

After “high-profile fatal encounters” between police and the black community, tensions have risen, police work has become harder, if not riskier, and the consequences of these changes in attitude appear to run deeper than ever before.

Response:

The Pew Research Center conducted surveys of officers and citizens to examine the less visible ramifications of recent deadly encounters and subsequent protests. Officers were surveyed about their attitudes towards their job, their departments, the public, recent protests, and their experience in areas related to use of force and interaction with the public. Answers were examined as a whole group, by gender, by race, by years on the job, by rank, and in some cases, by agency size. This summary focuses on the areas that directly tie with community policing and engagement.

Research Conducted

Primary Research Question(s):

How have recent events affected the way that officers do their job and view the communities they police?

Research Design:

Seven thousand nine hundred seventeen officers representing 54 agencies participated in a nationwide survey. Surveys were completed online and were anonymous, so that officers would answer more freely. Officers had a four-week period in which to complete the surveys. These participants were found by the following stratified sample:

Comprehensive list of agencies –> Agencies 100-3,000 officers strong that met policing criteria (757 agencies) –> Agencies stratified by type (police vs. sheriff) and random sample selected from strata (410 agencies) –> Agencies volunteered (87) for first survey and supplemented by four agencies that have over 3,000 officers –> Fifty-four agencies agreed to do full survey (57,062 officers) –> 7,917 officers completed survey.

Limitations:

A significant limitation of this study is its ability to be generalized to all law enforcement agencies, especially here in Oregon. The researchers limited the agencies eligible for the survey to those agencies with 100 or more officers. Many were over twice the size of the largest Oregon agency (PPB). This means that roughly 86% of Oregon agencies are not represented in this sample.

Outcomes

The topics that are discussed in this report are arguably all important to community policing, but this summary focuses on the questions that directly relate to community policing. It also illustrates the barriers to effectively implementing policies and practices that improve police-community relations.

The topics that are discussed in this report are arguably all important to community policing, but this summary focuses on the questions that directly relate to community policing. It also illustrates the barriers to effectively implementing policies and practices that improve police-community relations

To set the stage, despite recent events, approximately seven in every ten officers believe each of the following: most people can be trusted, most people respect the police, and that at least some or most of the residents in their patrol areas share officers’ values. However, officers from larger agencies were less likely to agree with the last point.

Supporting the movement toward the current trend of community policing, there is the fact that seven in ten officers feel that it is very important to have a detailed knowledge of the area – including people, places, and cultures – they work. However, there was a marked difference in responses to this question when officers were broken down by race; 84% of black officers felt it very important, compared to 69% of white officers. Regardless, taking action to build better relationships with the community is still limited. Only 31% of officers have spent at least 30 consecutive minutes patrolling on foot in the past month. A similar low percentage of officers report having spoken at a citizens’ group or school. Perhaps not surprisingly, smaller agencies were more likely to have spoken with community groups.

Perhaps working against the mindset needed for community policing is the fact that 56% of officers believe that aggressive tactics are more effective than courteous tactics in some areas. Forty-four percent of officers believe that some people can only be brought the reason the physical way. Interestingly, it is age that appears to play a large role in these two responses. The younger the officer, regardless of rank, the more likely they are to view interactions in this manner.

Considering that recent events have seemingly increased tensions between police and minority groups, the report examines the important question of how police officers view their departments’ relationships with minority community members. While nine out of ten officers believe that police have good relations with the white community, only 56% believe that police have a good relationship with the black community. This disparity is even more apparent when officer responses are broken down, once again, by race. While 60% of white officers believe that the relationship with the black community is good, only 32% of black officers share these sentiments. In fact, 68% of black officers would characterize police relationships with black communities as fair or poor.

This disparity in the perception of the relationship between black communities and police is even more apparent when officers and the public were surveyed about whether violent interactions between police and blacks were isolated incidences or signs of a broader problem. When examined overall, 67% of all officers believe that these are isolated incidences. This is compared to only 39% of the public surveyed. The gap grows when officers are examined more closely by race. Seventy-two percent of white officers believe that incidences are isolated, but only 43% of black officers believe the same.

Turning the lens onto the motivation for protests, the results may not be surprising. Only 27% of white officers, compared to 63% of the white public, believe that the motivation for recent protests is “a genuine desire to hold officers accountable.” In stark contrast to this, 69% of black officers and 79% of the black public believe the same.