It has been more than three years since Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, MO, leading to protests which bordered on riots and calls for justice. Since that time there have been similar incidents across the United States. Many police officers now say their colleagues simply are not doing their jobs properly, and that when they do not do their jobs, they are not held accountable.
In fact, a survey found that more than half of the officers surveyed—53 percent—said their department’s disciplinary process was not fair, and nearly three-quarters of those surveyed claimed officers who “consistently do a poor job,” are not held accountable for the poor performance. This particular survey included 7,917 police officers in 54 different police departments. Some of the responses came after five police officers were shot by a sniper in Dallas.
To some extent, the attitudes of the officers toward Black Lives Matter and other protesters, as dependent on the race of the officer being surveyed, and included the following results:
- As a whole, about 35 percent of the officers believed protesters were motivated by a desire to see police officers held accountable for their actions.
- Nearly 70 percent of black police officers said protesters wanted accountability, while only 27 percent of white officers felt the same.
- The majority of the police officers surveyed said their jobs had become exponentially more difficult as a result of the police shootings of blacks, and the subsequent publicity surrounding the events.
- More than half of all black police officers surveyed believed they were not treated as well as white police officers, regarding promotions and assignments, although virtually no white police officers agreed with this, and only about one-fifth of all Hispanic police officers agreed.
- More than half of all the police officers surveyed admitted they were often frustrated with their job.
- More than three-quarters of the police officers surveyed, believed that police officers need to be better trained to deal with those who are having a mental health crisis, and only about 11 percent of the officers said this type of training was unimportant and was not a role police officers should be involved in.
According to the Pew Research Center:
- Tensions between blacks and police officers obviously underlie many of the results of the surveys—although most of the officers believe they have a good relationship with white, Hispanic and Asian community members, only about 56 percent believe they have a good relationship with black community members.
- Interestingly, Latino and white police officers were more likely to overestimate their good relationships with blacks in the community than black police officers.
- About 93 percent of the general population believe in the use of body cameras for police officers, while 66 percent of police officers supported the use of body cameras for police officers.
While police work has always been hard, many police officers believe it is harder now than ever. Many of the police officers surveyed believe the recent high-profile encounters between police officers and African Americans have aggravated racial tensions, making the job of the officers much riskier. Although most of the police officers believe these fatal encounters between police officers and blacks were isolated incidents, the majority of the public surveyed believe the incidents are not isolated and are endemic of a much bigger problem.
What many may not realize is that while the number of black Americans who have died in encounters with police officers has certainly increased, so have the number of fatal attacks on police officers. Yet more than two-thirds of the officers surveyed believe the recent demonstrations have nothing to do with a desire to hold police officers accountable for their actions, rather they believe the demonstrations were motivated by anti-police bias.
Police Culture is Marked by Conflicting Experiences and Emotions
To be sure, police work can take its toll on officers, although a significant number of officers say they have received a “thank you” for their service within the past month. On the flip side of that coin, a full two-thirds said they have suffered verbal abuse from a community member, and about 33 percent say they have been forced to struggle or fight with a suspect. Officers are split down the middle as far as those who feel proud to be a police officer and those who say the job frustrates them and has made them more callous toward life and people in general.
Despite this, most police officers feel the residents of the areas they patrol share their values. Unfortunately, less than half of the officers felt a courteous, rather than an aggressive approach was more effective. The recent police and community surveys clearly show contrasting experiences and conflicting emotions regarding how police officers and community members see the role of police officers. While police officers see themselves as both protectors and enforcers, community members are slightly more likely to see the role of police officers as predominantly enforcer.
White Officers are More Likely Than Black Officers to Engage in a Physical Altercation with a Suspect
Physical altercations are actually not the norm for police officers, but they do happen. Overall, a third of all police officers surveyed said they had engaged in a physical struggle with a suspect who was resisting arrests. Male officers were more likely than female officers to engage in such a struggle, and white officers were more likely than black officers to engage in a struggle (36 percent of white officers, 20 percent of black officers and 33 percent of Hispanic officers admit to struggling with a suspect within the past month).
By the same token, white police officers and Hispanic police officers are much more likely than black police officers to report being verbally abused, and younger officers are much more likely than older officers to report such verbal abuse. The question is how much of this verbal abuse is related to the officer’s overall attitude—the fact that younger officers report a higher level of verbal abuse suggests these younger police officers could be more cocky and arrogant than the older officers.
Many Police Officers Believe More Officers and Resources are Needed
Most of the police officers surveyed said their resources are extremely limited, and they believed an increase in the number of officers would make their jobs more enjoyable. A full 86 percent of police officers expressed serious concerns regarding lack of resources and said they cannot adequately police their community with the current number of police officers. Police officers in smaller departments were more likely to mention a lack of resources and the need for more police officers than those in larger departments. Only about four-in-ten police officers believe they have been adequately trained for their job, and only a bit above a third believe their department clearly communicated their job responsibilities to them.
Despite not believing they are adequately trained or have had their job responsibilities clearly communicated, most of the officers believed their use-of-force policies were right on track, although about 26 percent said their use-of-force policies were too restrictive. Despite the urban myths regarding the “blue wall of silence,” a full 84 percent of officers believe that a police officer should intervene when another police officer is about to use unnecessary force. Black police officers were more likely to worry that police officers often fail to spend sufficient time diagnosing a situation before they act, while white police officers were less likely to have this worry. There were mixed feelings among police officers regarding whether their department disciplinary process was fair or not, however, when the officers were specifically asked about whether underperforming officers were held accountable, only 27 percent said they were.
Officer Training Levels
Only about half of the police officers surveyed said they had at least four hours of firearm training involving shoot-don’t-shoot scenarios over the past year—this, despite the national attention given to police training on prevention of unnecessary force. Only about 44 percent said they had at least four hours of training regarding de-escalating a dangerous situation to avoid the use of deadly force. About 39 percent said they had received at least four hours of training in bias and fairness over the past year, and about the same number said they had received training on how to deal with people in a manner which makes them feel respected.
How the Recent Fatal Incidents Have Changed Police Officers
As many as eight-in-ten police officers believe the recent high-profile incidents have made their work much more dangerous, as well as more challenging, and more than half of the police officers in smaller police departments say these incidents have made them less willing to stop and question a suspicious person. Eighty-seven percent of the police officers in larger departments say their interactions with African Americans have become much tenser. Although police officers also say they are more reluctant to use force to control a suspect—even when it is appropriate—this reluctance can put police officers at a higher risk.
In truth, police officers are given significant latitude in their interactions with citizens under the law. They are allowed to use polite persuasion, more forceful verbal commands or even extreme physical measures to control any individual they feel is threatening or combative. There has been a national, ongoing debate regarding these more severe tactics. When asked about this, specifically, more than half of all the police officers felt that “some people can only be brought to reason the hard, physical way.”
Is There More Accountability for Police Officers Recently?
Many people do believe the recent incidents have resulted in police officers being held at least a bit more accountable than in the past. For instance, police officer Roy Oliver of the Balch Springs Police Department was charged with murder for the shooting of 15-year old Jordan Edwards in the city of Dallas. Even so, a single indictment hardly proves we are trying hard to fix our broken American criminal justice system.
Consider the case of Minnesota officer, Jeronimo Yanez, who was charged with an on-duty fatal shooting, yet acquitted of all charges, even though the shooting—seven shots at close range—was streamed live on Facebook. The two officers who killed Alton Sterling did not face charges, with the Department of Justice concluding the officers’ use of force could be considered “objectively reasonable.” More recently, a jury acquitted Betty Shelby, the Tulsa officers who fatally shot Terence Crutcher. Her use of fatal force was deemed “unfortunate and tragic, but justifiable due to the actions of the subject.”
Finally, a grand jury acquitted Columbus, Ohio police officer Bryan Mason in May for his participation in the fatal shooting of 13-year-old Tyre King. This would suggest that police officers are not held accountable in our courts—or really, on any other level. Police officers operate under legal standards which make grand jury indictments very difficult, and the media is generally sympathetic toward police officers over the victims.
Former police officer and now a professor of criminal justice, Philip M. Stinson, put together data regarding officer arrests since 2005. This data clearly shows that police officers are able to avoid punishment for their own illegal actions and that even when a police officer is arrested on suspicion of DUI, there is rarely a conviction. Stinson found that between 2005 and 2011, only 41 on-duty police officers were charged with murder or manslaughter, even though the FBI recorded thousands of justifiable homicides by police officers during that same period.
In 2015, FBI director James Comey claimed the bureau’s system for tracking fatal police shootings was a “travesty.” The lack of local law enforcement’ reporting to the FBI makes tracking such data difficult, and many officers who were “whistle-blowers” on their fellow officers claimed they experienced harassment or were fired. It is difficult to say whether there will be more accountability for police officers in the coming months and years, however, that should certainly be the goal.