Two-thirds of the nation’s police officers say the deaths of black Americans during encounters with police are isolated incidents, not a sign of broader problems between law enforcement and black citizens, according to a Pew Research Center poll released Wednesday.
The findings underscore a stark disconnect between many rank-and-file officers and the public and reveal that scrutiny since the 2014 fatal police shooting of Michael Brown has prompted many officers to be less aggressive in day-to-day policing.
The survey of nearly 8,000 local officers is the first nationally representative measure of police reaction to the debate about officers’ treatment of black Americans that followed Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, Mo., and sparked a national protest movement.
The survey, which drew on departments with at least 100 officers, was administered from May to August 2016 by the National Police Research Platform in partnership with Pew.
It reveals in detail how officers view their jobs and the scrutiny they face: More than 8 in 10 officers say the public does not understand the risks and challenges of their jobs, and a similar number say their departments are understaffed. Half reported concerns about their safety.
“Our goal was to measure how police think about these issues,” said Rich Morin, senior editor at the Pew Research Center. “And to offer an insight into police lives, both the good and the challenges.”
When a separate Pew poll asked Americans overall about black individuals who died in police encounters, 60 percent said the deaths represent broader problems between police and black citizens. But only 31 percent of police officers say the same, Pew found.
Police expressed cynical views of protests across the country following controversial deaths. The poll finds that 92 percent say protests have been motivated at least in part by long-standing anti-police bias; only 35 percent say protesters were motivated by a genuine desire to hold officers accountable.
Officers say the high-profile deaths have changed the way they do their job — and have made it harder.
More than 7 in 10 say officers have become more timid about stopping to question suspicious people, roughly three-quarters say fellow officers report they are more reluctant to use force when necessary, and more than 9 in 10 say fellow officers have grown more worried about their safety.
“How officers see their job and how they perform on their job has changed as a result of these high-profile incidents and the resulting protests,” Morin said.
The degree to which the nation’s officers reject the notion of systemic racial issues and dismiss protests surprised some policing experts, including some chiefs and union officials. Several said that the gulf in perception between police and the public underscores a much deeper divide.
“I wish the community had a greater understanding of why the police do what we do, and sometimes we have to do a better job of putting ourselves in their shoes as well,” said Don De Lucca, the chief of police in Doral, Fla., and president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “We’re at a crossroads, and we both need to be willing to listen.”
In the survey, most officers say their departments have tried to improve relations with black citizens and that many officers have been trained to de-escalate potentially deadly situations. Two-thirds support the use of body-worn cameras by officers.
At the same time, only 1 percent of officers say their department’s rules on using force should be stricter, while more than 7 in 10 say they are “about right.”
“If we climb into the mind-set of police officers who are going to keep doing this job, if they are policing from a defensive stance, then it changes the nature of police and citizen encounters and not in a positive way,” said Cara Rabe-Hemp, a criminal justice professor at Illinois State University. “What we’re seeing is that this divisiveness is likely to lead to increased violence rather than the lessening of violence.”
Rabe-Hemp said that Pew’s findings underscore a theme she has heard often from officers: “What you’re hearing is the police saying that ‘we’re already accountable.’ ”
For decades, white and black Americans have expressed divergent views toward police and violent encounters between officers and black citizens. But Pew’s new survey of officers reveals even wider racial divisions among officers.
Seventy-two percent of both white and Hispanic officers say they see blacks killed in police altercations as isolated incidents, but only 43 percent of black officers agree. A majority of black officers say those deaths are a sign of broader problems between police and black citizens.
On racial equality, 92 percent of white officers say the country has made the changes needed to achieve equality between black and white citizens, compared with only 29 percent of black officers. Among the public, 57 percent of white people and 12 percent of black people say the necessary changes have been made.
In the survey, black officers also express more sympathy than their white colleagues toward protesters — nearly 7 in 10 black officers say protests are driven by a genuine desire for accountability, while fewer than 3 in 10 white officers say so.
More than half of the officers surveyed said they have become more callous since joining law enforcement.
“If officers feeling like ‘all of these guys are calling me racist’ then they shut down and go into defensive mode,” said Daniel Linskey, the former superintendent in chief of the Boston Police Department. “It becomes us versus them. I’m just going to come in every day, make my arrests and go home safe.”
While the vast majority of officers say high-profile shootings have made their jobs harder, 67 percent say they agree that “most people respect the police,” seven percentage points more than in a similar survey that ended in early 2014.
Yet, 75 percent of officers say that interactions between police and black citizens have become tenser, and there are signs relations may be worse than many officers think.
Six in 10 white and Hispanic officers alike say their department’s police have a positive relationship with the black community, but only 32 percent of black officers say the same.
“The police are the most visible component of a failed government system in those communities, and we’re taking the brunt of it, some of it well deserved,” said Garry McCarthy, the former superintendent of the Chicago police.
McCarthy said that the public needs to understand how relatively rare killings by police are, less than one half of 1 percent of the gun deaths last year in Chicago. And, he said, police need to be willing to acknowledge that many residents and protesters have legitimate complaints about encounters with law enforcement.
“In many cases the police have earned the distrust,” McCarthy said.
The Pew Research Center National Survey of Law Enforcement Officers was conducted online May 19-Aug. 14, 2016, among a national sample of 7,917 police officers in local police and sheriff‘s departments with at least 100 sworn officers (excluding state agencies). The margin of sampling error is between two and three percentage points for many questions but is as high as nine points for department-specific questions. General public results based on a survey of 4,538 U.S. adults conducted online and by mail Aug. 16-Sept. 12, 2016; the error margin is plus or minus 2.4 percentage points.
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.