Police-Community Relations: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Cynthia Lum and Daniel Nagin’s “Reinventing American Policing” outlines seven proposals they believe would change American policing for the better. The last of these proposals and the focus of this blog post is “strengthening national-level research and evaluation: a robust infrastructure of research and its dissemination is essential if major advances are to be made.” While the majority of Lum and Nagin’s document emphasizes the importance of creating systems to monitor citizen reactions to the police, it also briefly mentions another crucial part of police-community relations, which is, the police officers’ views about citizens and the community. In order for citizen reactions to matter, police must be willing to take those reactions seriously and incorporate them into their strategic plans and actions. There is much more research conducted on public perceptions of the police than on the police perceptions of the public. There have been some studies tangentially related to this issue such as those examining officers’ perceptions of how much the public supports them, officers’ attitudes toward community-oriented policing, and officers’ perceptions of particular groups. However, very few studies have asked the police questions about the public that are similar to those asked of citizens about the police.

One groundbreaking Pew Research Center nationwide survey released in January of 2017 by the National Police Research Platform covers a wide range of important topics about policing in America, including how police officers view their jobs, officers’ experiences in the field and how the deadly encounters between the police and black citizens in recent years have impacted the way they do their jobs. This survey was of 7,917 police officers in departments with at least 100 officers and analyzed its results in terms of the race of the police officers.

The most obvious takeaway from the report is that most officers – 86% – claim high profile incidents between black citizens and the police have made their jobs more difficult. 93% say officers in their department have become more concerned about their safety, while roughly three-quarters say that their colleagues are more reluctant to use force when appropriate or to stop and question people who seem suspicious. This makes sense as high profile cases involving potentially racially motivated shootings puts police officers under a microscope.

A very interesting result of the study discovered that black and white officers differ substantially over perceptions of fatal encounters and ensuing protests. About seven-in-ten white police officers (72%) claim that the deaths of black citizens during forceful encounters with police are “isolated incidents” rather than signs of a broader problem. On the other hand, 57% of black officers say these deaths are signs of a broader systemic issue. Finally, less than half of the public (39%) shares the view of the majority of white police officers that the deaths of blacks in recent encounters are isolated events. White officers are also more skeptical of the protestors’ of the deadly encounters motives: only 27% say at least some aspect of the motivation for these protests is a genuine desire to hold officers accountable for their actions in contrast to the 69% of black officers who see this as a factor.

And lastly, a major, overarching, and troublesome finding from this survey is that the police and the public hold sharply different views about key aspects of policing and issues related to public safety. In a separate Pew Research Center survey of the general public, an overwhelming majoring of U.S. adults (83%) said they do in fact understand all of the risks and challenges that police officers face on a daily basis. In contrast, 86% of the officers claim the public does not understand them too well or at all. This survey is so important because it provides data proving the opposing perspectives between the police and the public and white and black officers on the defining problems of United States policing.

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