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Police Say High-Profile Fatalities, Protests Have Made Their Jobs Harder

Police investigate the scene of a quadruple homicide in Chicago on Dec. 17.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
Police investigate the scene of a quadruple homicide in Chicago on Dec. 17.

A Pew survey of police officers across the U.S. found that most officers believe their jobs have grown more difficult and more dangerous following a series of high-profile deaths of black citizens during encounters with police.

The survey also uncovered sharp disparities between the perceptions of black and white officers — and between officers and the general public — over the state of race relations in America.

Pew calls the survey "one of the largest ever conducted with a nationally representative sample of police." The survey addressed a range of topics, but a number of questions examined what Pew described as "high-profile fatal encounters between black citizens and police officers," and how police perceived the impact.

Concerns Over Safety, Effectiveness

Some of the most striking results: 86 percent of police officers say such incidents have made their job harder, and 93 percent said they have made them more concerned about safety.

NPR's Martin Kaste, who covers law enforcement, says that 93 percent stat jumps out "in this post-Ferguson era."

He also highlighted another statistic in the Pew survey: 72 percent of respondents say after recent high-profile incidents, they have become less willing to stop and question people who seem suspicious.

Some people — including attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions — have suggested that public criticism of police has led to a drop in police morale and to a spike in crime in certain cities. The Pew survey is indicative of one way morale and crime rate might be linked, Martin says.

Here's more of Martin's reporting on the issue:

"Eugene O'Donnell, former NYPD [officer and] former prosecutor, now on the faculty of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice ... says it's clear to him that the broad criticisms of the last couple of years has made cops less eager to do their jobs in places like Chicago.

"They have no clear mandate, they have no clear mission, they believe they're not going to be supported, and the major thing you hear from Chicago cops is stay fetal — go fetal, stay fetal," [O'Donnell said].

"With Donald Trump about to become president, that's become the ascendant narrative in American policing: that cops are going fetal because of unfair criticism, which leads to higher crime. Chicago has become this argument's case in point, but that's not entirely fair, says Lori Lightfoot. She's been at the forefront of the reform efforts there.

" 'I mean, in Chicago, yes arrests are down, yes investigatory stops are down, but at the same time, they're taking 8,000 illegal guns off the street every year,' [Lightfoot said]. 'You don't do that if you're sitting back and not doing your job.' "

Listen to the Story

A Disconnect With Civilians, And Along Race Lines

On some questions, the survey revealed a gulf between law enforcement officers and the public — and significant disparities between white officers and black officers.

A full two-thirds of officers said they see the death of black citizens at the hands of police as isolated incidents. In contrast, a majority of the general public saw them as signs of a broader problem.

Within the police officers surveyed, 92 percent of white officers said the country has made the changes needed to give blacks equal rights as whites; only 29 percent of black officers agreed.

Other results:

  • Half of black officers said their white colleagues are treated better than minorities when it comes to assignments and promotions; only 1 percent of white officers agreed.
  • While 83 percent of the public said the understand the risks and challenges police face, 86 percent of police said the public doesn't understand.
  • Police are skeptical of protests against police killings of black people, Pew found. "Two-thirds of officers (68%) say the demonstrations are motivated to a great extent by anti-police bias," Pew writes — while in another question, only 10 percent attributed protesters' actions to "a genuine desire to hold police accountable for their actions."
  • "A narrow majority of officers (56%) believe an aggressive rather than courteous approach is more effective in certain neighborhoods, and 44% agree that some people can only be brought to reason the hard, physical way," Pew found.
  • For the survey, Pew conducted online interviews with nearly 8,000 police officers across the country, specifically those working at departments with more than 100 officers. (Most police officers in the country would fall in that category, Pew says, but it does mean the survey results don't reflect small-town officers.)

    Because of the way the officers were selected, Pew can't identify a single margin of error for the entire survey.

    Pew says it compared the interviews conducted before and after the July 2016 ambush of police in Dallas and found "little to no difference" on key questions.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.

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