P1 Research: De-policing and police morale are troubling trends post-Ferguson and Dallas

A total of 3,346 responses from verified sworn LE professionals revealed data that supports two narratives that had heretofore relied heavily on anecdotal evidence


Editor’s Note:

PoliceOne and LSU’s 2017 "Policing in a Post-Ferguson Society" survey asked 3,346 sworn law enforcement professionals across all ranks and department sizes about the impact of major events like Ferguson and Dallas on their happiness and overall performance as law enforcers.

Our special report, Major Event Impact: How Ferguson and Dallas Changed Police Psychology, features expert analysis of the survey findings, covering critical topics like use of force, community relations and career satisfaction. Click here to learn more about the coverage.

Researchers at Louisiana State University recently partnered with PoliceOne to conduct a survey entitled Policing in a Post-Ferguson Society. The survey garnered a total of 3,346 responses from verified sworn law enforcement professionals across all ranks and department sizes. Respondents consisted of line officers and supervisors working patrol and other assignments in the profession.

The survey — which was reflective of the prevailing opinions of a sample size of American LEOs represented by PoliceOne members — was aimed at discovering police officers’ opinions about their jobs following three seminal events. Officers were asked how their morale and job satisfaction, confidence in use of force, and sense of safety changed following the Michael Brown OIS in Ferguson, and the deadly ambush attacks on police in Dallas and Baton Rouge.

A Dallas police officer gets a hug after an honor guard ceremony for Dallas police officer Patrick Zamarripa at Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery in Dallas, Saturday, July 16, 2016. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
A Dallas police officer gets a hug after an honor guard ceremony for Dallas police officer Patrick Zamarripa at Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery in Dallas, Saturday, July 16, 2016. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Among the wide-ranging results — which you can read more about here and here — I observed two key takeaways that support two widely-held beliefs in law enforcement for which we had heretofore mostly anecdotal evidence.

The first is that following Ferguson, officers across the country began to disengage in proactive police work (a phenomena dubbed “de-policing”). This concept continues to be widely discussed, and up to now, the only real data to support the theory are spotty changes in police reports of citizen contacts and a decrease in the number of arrests in some select places.

The second is that many police officers feel that they are under attack. This notion also has been widely perceived to be true, but up to now there has been scant quantitative data to support this assertion.

With the completion of the LSU/PoliceOne survey of PoliceOne readers, we now have data that shows that our anecdotal observations seem to be accurate.

De-policing

Asked about their feelings during the post-Ferguson period (August 2014 to June 2016), a full 45 percent of officers said that their motivation at work decreased. Further, nearly half of all respondents (47.29 percent) said that following Ferguson, the amount of stops they made (traffic and pedestrian) decreased. More than half of respondents (51 percent) said that their enjoyment at work decreased during that same time period.

In addition, in the aftermath of the fatal OIS on West Florissant Street, 39.80 percent of officers said that their apprehensiveness about using force increased. This is a surprising result, given the fact that 95 percent reported confidence in determining appropriate use of force, and 89 percent said they had confidence in UOF training.

Further, when queried about whether or not they are confident in their “ability to determine the appropriate decision in a shoot/don't shoot situation” 30 percent said they agree, and 65 percent said they strongly agree. That’s a full 95 percent of officers polled who are confident that they will make the right decision when faced with a deadly threat scenario, and yet, a large number also say they have pulled back from proactive police work.

These are eye-opening responses. And frankly, it’s a little concerning.

Several years ago I began writing about the notion of de-policing and deadly hesitation and have followed up on the topic on several occasions (see here and here and here).

That reportage was admittedly based on anecdotal evidence readily available at the time. It was based on conversations held with a relatively small, but well-informed, universe of law enforcement professionals. It was based on conclusions derived from those discussions.

According to the data derived from the LSU study, it was also accurate.

Based on the raw data from the LSU study, the trend of de-policing is real, and officers and police leaders alike need to figure out how to deal with it.

Under attack

Following the August 2014 fatal OIS of Michael Brown in Ferguson, 59 percent of officers responding to the LSU/PoliceOne survey said that their feelings of safety on the job decreased. Following the ambush attacks in Dallas and Baton Rouge in July of 2016, 67 percent of officers said they felt less safe on the job.

Think about that for a moment: two thirds of police officers polled said that they felt less safe simply performing their job after the ambush attacks that left five officers in Dallas dead and three Baton Rouge police officers slain (with many others in those cities wounded).

Following those ambush attacks, 41 percent of officers responding to the survey said that their feeling that most people don’t respect the police increased. When asked if citizens would be more apt to obstruct the police than to cooperate with them, 36 percent of respondents said their agreement with that statement became even stronger.

The LSU study focuses on officers’ opinions following the ambush attacks in Dallas and Baton Rouge, but according to preliminary data supplied to PoliceOne by NLEOMF, police officers have also been shot and killed in ambush attacks in Salt Lake City (Utah), Danville (Ohio), Bel Air (Maryland), Prince William (Virginia), Landover (Maryland), and Richmond (Virginia) in 2016 alone.

Indeed, according to the NLEOMF, the number of officers shot and killed in ambush attacks in 2016 was 20 — the highest total since 1995. The NLEOMF also reported that 44 officers were killed in fatal ambush shootings since 2014.

Not all ambush attacks are fatal. About 15 hours after the attack in Baton Rouge, two Sheboygan (Wisconsin) Police Department officers thwarted an ambush attempt during a robbery in progress call. In September 2016, University of Pennsylvania Police Officer Eddie Miller and Philadelphia Police Sergeant Sylvia Young survived a shooting rampage. Last October, two Boston police officers who were responding to a report of a domestic disturbance were wounded in an ambush attack. There were numerous others — too many to list here.

It’s clear that these ambushes are having a major impact on officers — and a large number of officers responding to the LSU poll feel unsafe and under attack. Everyone in the profession needs to account and accommodate for this paradigm shift. Cops cannot conduct their daily duties effectively if they are feeling fear on the job.  

Conclusion

In the past two or three years, we have perceived precipitous decline in morale among many police officers. As a consequence, the dominant focus of the 2017 LSU/PoliceOne survey was about officer morale.

The bad news is that in collecting the opinions of more than 3,300 police officers, we confirmed some of our assumptions that the profession is suffering — that these incidents impact officers’ motivation to work and feeling of safety.

The good news is that there remains a strong core of officers who counter that opinion, saying that after the OIS in Ferguson and the numerous attacks on officers, they continued about their business, trying to not let those events affect their work.

I’m hopeful that this latter group of cops can positively influence the former, and that the proud profession of policing regains what confidence has been lost in recent years. They chose not to rely on self-destructive behaviors to deal with recent events, but found solace in family and fellow officers.

I’m hopeful also that the overwhelming majority of American citizens who respect and admire their police become more vocal in their support, somehow finding a way to drown out any anti-police sentiment which is pervading our public discourse and hurts officer morale.

With the data in hand from the LSU survey of PoliceOne members, perhaps we can affect these ends.

Regardless of what feelings officers express regarding the morale issues examined in the PoliceOne/LSU survey, we hope that the findings begin discussions that move us toward a more positive period for American police in the future.

In terms of possible solutions to these two problems, we need to at least open the conversation about what can be done. When faced with feelings that the public doesn’t respect or support the police, officers can find on PoliceOne and other websites a number of positive stories of citizens committing random acts of kindness. With a perception that attacks on officers are increasing, agencies may want to consider the officer safety benefits of patrolling in pairs, and officers on the street should do their best to back up their fellow officers on as many calls as possible.

Offer your own suggestions in the comments area below. Let’s get this conversation started.

About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor at Large for PoliceOne, providing police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column, and has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips. Doug hosts the PoliceOne Podcast, Policing Matters, and is the host for PoliceOne Video interviews. Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

Contact Doug Wyllie

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