By Jonah Engel Bromwich,
A new national survey of law enforcement officers found that the vast majority feel their jobs are harder than ever before, after the police-involved shootings of black Americans over the past several years.
The nationally representative survey of close to 8,000 police officers, released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center, provided some data to back up assertions made by leading law enforcement figures, including the F.B.I. director James Comey, that the publicity surrounding such episodes has discouraged the police from confronting suspects.
The survey found that 72 percent of respondents said their colleagues are “now less willing to stop and question suspicious persons”; that 86 percent thought police work had become harder because of high-profile incidents like the killings of Mike Brown in 2014 and Alton Sterling in the summer of 2016; and that 93 percent of police officers think their colleagues now worry more about personal safety.
(In a Feb. 12 speech at Georgetown University, FBI Director James B. Comey called on the nation’s law enforcement personnel and the citizens they serve to participate in a frank and open conversation about the disconnect that exists in places like New York City and Ferguson, Missouri—and communities across the country—between police agencies and many citizens, particularly in communities of color. Courtesy of the FBI and YouTube)
The survey, conducted between May 19 and Aug. 14 of last year, also highlighted a sharp distinction between the attitudes on race by white and black police officers, a chasm that experts said mirrored broader divides within American society.
That disparity was “probably the singularly most striking finding in this report,” said Rich Morin, a senior editor at Pew and the report’s lead author.
Mr. Morin said that while past research suggested that police officers would be more socially conservative than the general public, the consistent difference between the experiences of black and white officers were reflected in their responses.
“When black officers take off their uniforms and badges, they’re no longer police,” he said. “They’re black men and black women, and they’re subject to the same kind of indignities, injustices and outright discrimination that other black Americans report.”
The survey found that African-American police officers were more critical of police relationships with blacks than officers of other races. While 60 percent of white and Hispanic officers said that police relations with blacks were either excellent or good, only 32 percent of black officers agreed.
At the same time, a significant majority of black officers believe that protests following officer-involved killing of black citizens were at least in part motivated by a desire to hold the police accountable; only 27 percent of their white colleagues agreed.
Black officers were less likely to feel frustrated by their jobs and less likely to have physically fought with a suspect resisting arrest within the last month than their white or Hispanic colleagues. While 62 percent of white officers said that they had become more callous toward people since taking the job, about half that number of of black officers, 32 percent, said the same.
Finally, 92 percent of white police officers believe the United States has already assured equal rights for African-Americans. Only 29 percent of black officers agree.
Law enforcement veterans were less struck by the disparity than Mr. Morin.
Charles H. Ramsey, who began his career as an officer in Chicago and went on to lead the police departments of Philadelphia and Washington D.C., said that the differences were a “reflection of our society in general.”
“I’ve only got one perspective because I’m African-American,” he said. “I’ve never been white. But I’m not surprised that we see things differently in terms of how we view the community.”
He said the disparities could partly be remedied within departments through open conversations followed up by specific actions, with attention paid to diversity in promotions and diversity in assignments to specialized units.
“Race is an issue nationally, and it’s an issue within policing,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. “The fact that blacks and whites see these situations differently is not surprising.”
Mr. Wexler, a former police official whose group has helped counsel departments on overhauling their use-of-force policies, said the most striking statistic in the report, in his view, was the 27 percent of officers who said they had fired their guns while on duty.
“The conventional wisdom has been that most police officers will never fire their gun outside of training,” he said, referring to the finding. “That is startling because that’s way more than the conventional thinking.”
Mr. Wexler cautioned that he would want to see additional data, as he found the Pew survey response rate of about 14 percent to be low. Mr. Morin said the response rate was higher than was typically seen in telephone surveys, and that it was nationally representative by known demographic measures provided by the Department of Justice.
There was one standout question on which police officers, regardless of their race, tended to agree: They were close to unanimous in their belief that the public does not comprehend the risks and challenges of their work.
While the majority of American adults are convinced that they understand those risks, only 14 percent of police officers agree.