Where do police-community relations stand in 2016?

Public respect for police surged and is at a near-record high; why wasn't this story more widely covered?


Stories about police use of force began rocking headlines in 2014 and continued through 2016. This year’s headlines also brought a disturbing trend of targeted attacks on police officers. In 2016, America suffered a great loss; there were a total of 138 officers who died in the line of duty at the time of this writing and of those, 62 were shot and killed. That’s a 72 percent increase over 2015. What’s scarier is the increase in ambush attacks – 170 percent. The months of July and November were particularly tragic for the law enforcement community. From the news and social media this year, you’d think police-citizen relations were at a low not seen since the civil unrest of the 1960s and 1970s, an era that had its own police-citizen turmoil.

2016 police-citizen relations are, in reality, very positive

The shocking police story of 2016 you probably didn’t hear is that public respect for police surged and is at a near-record high -- across every age, race and political persuasion. PoliceOne covered that news, of course.  But how many of you saw it in the mainstream news or social media? And, how many citizens heard this shocking news?  It’s true. A 2016 Gallup poll shows:

The percentage who say they respect the police is significantly higher now than in any measurement taken since the 1990s and is just one point below the high of 77 percent recorded in 1967.
The percentage who say they respect the police is significantly higher now than in any measurement taken since the 1990s and is just one point below the high of 77 percent recorded in 1967.
  • 76 percent of Americans have “a great deal” of respect for police -- up 12 percent from last year
  • Among conservatives – 85 percent respect police “a great deal” compared to 69 percent last year
  • Among liberals, “a great deal” was selected by 71 percent, compared to 50 percent last year 
  • Whites who respect police a great deal rose 11 points -- up to 80 percent from 69 percent last year
  • Among non-whites, the rise was more dramatic -- up 14 points from 53 percent to 67 percent
  • The 18-34 age group had the highest jump, going from 50 percent in 2015 to 69 percent in 2016
  • The 35-54 group went from 61 percent to 77 percent -- a 16 percent increase
  • The 55-and-older crowd rose four percent -- from 77 percent to 81 percent

Gallup has asked this question nine times since 1965. A solid majority of Americans have said they respect their local law enforcement in all polls conducted since 1965. The percentage who say they respect the police is significantly higher now than in any measurement taken since the 1990s and is just one point below the high of 77 percent recorded in 1967.

What does this mean? Well, for starters, it’s good news – for police and citizens. It means police-citizen relationships aren’t controlled by what the media – news or social – chooses to publicize.

While, according to Gallup, some minorities continue feel – in the 1960s and today – under siege by police carrying out political policies that discriminately impact them, there are also some police officers who feel under siege by news and social media that focuses on specific incidents of enforcement while largely ignoring the overwhelming number of daily incidents of protection and service – and largely ignoring an important story about the positive police-citizen relations that exists across the nation.

Lessons for recruits, officers and citizens

As an adjunct instructor at the Alaska Department of Public Safety Training Academy, I make sure police recruits in their 20s and 30s understand their profession’s role in enforcing segregationist Jim Crow laws well into the 1960s as well as the failed political policies of the 1970s War on Drugs that disparately impacted minorities – a history that occurred before they were born. Their reactions include:

  • Shock at the overt systemic, cultural, racial bias of those times
  • Dawning realization about how that history might have minorities viewing them with distrust
  • Worry and frustration they will be judged by something they had nothing to do with

But I also make sure the recruits hear about the most recent Gallup poll. The Gallup poll findings show that despite what the media decides to focus on, the citizens in their communities will judge police officers on their behavior. And, while it might not seem like it from the news, police are earning record high respect. Police leaders should be shouting the positive Gallup poll findings from the rooftops – on agency Facebook pages, in press releases and in newspaper opinion pieces.

Like I said, the most shocking – and positive – police news story of 2016 that you probably never heard is one that every officer and citizen should hear, and be proud of – it shows their independent thinking and working to build bridges of respect in their communities. 

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