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'Policing Post-Ferguson' survey: Opinions differ across race, rank, and gender

P1 and LSU's survey revealed differences in opinion among supervisors and street cops, female and male cops as well as LEOs of different races


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.

PoliceOne partnered with researchers at Louisiana State University to issue a survey of PoliceOne members entitled Policing in a Post-Ferguson Society. The survey was conducted between January 10 and January 22, 2017, garnering a total of 3,346 responses from verified sworn law enforcement professionals across all ranks and department sizes. Among the respondents, 54 percent were line officers and 46 percent were supervisors. Interestingly, two thirds of respondents work in patrol whereas 32 percent have other assignments. The average age of respondents was 45 years old.

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 a variety of questions about how they felt about their job satisfaction, confidence in use of force and a host of other topics following the Michael Brown OIS in Ferguson, and the ambush attacks on police in Dallas and Baton Rouge.

In this Nov. 25, 2014 file photo, police officers watch protesters as smoke fills the streets in Ferguson, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)
In this Nov. 25, 2014 file photo, police officers watch protesters as smoke fills the streets in Ferguson, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

The survey revealed that, following Ferguson, job satisfaction fell precipitously across all demographics, with 45 percent of respondents saying that their motivation to work decreased. Nearly half of respondents (47 percent) said that the number of stops they made (pedestrian and traffic) decreased during the period following Ferguson. A full 51 percent said that their enjoyment at work decreased, and during that time period, a full 59 percent of all respondents said that their feeling of safety decreased.

Following the ambush attacks that left five officers in Dallas dead and three Baton Rouge police officers slain (with many others in those cities wounded), that feeling of safety worsened significantly, with 67 percent saying that they felt less safe after those dreadful attacks. Following those incidents, 41 percent of all respondents said that their feeling that the police-public relationship is not very good increased.

Disparities between officers

The survey revealed distinct differences in responses from a variety of demographic groups, notably supervisors versus non-supervisors, female and male officers, as well as officers of different races. PoliceOne recently connected with Jose Torres, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Louisiana State University and lead researcher on the survey, to discuss his interpretation of the initial findings.

“The majority of the sample was very apprehensive about using force during this time period and also very fearful of losing their jobs,” Professor Torres told PoliceOne. “Specifically in regards to how the samples felt on certain items following Ferguson, there were some noteworthy increases in terms of apprehension of using force and stopping minorities. And there were also some noteworthy decreases in feelings of safety as well. And then overall, cynicism toward the public also increased following Ferguson.”

Torres said that non-supervisors — line-level officers — tended to be a bit more cynical toward the public in comparison to supervisors. Officers were more inclined than supervisors to feel that citizens are more apt to obstruct than cooperate and have feelings that police-public relations are not very good.

“Non-supervisors were also much more fearful of using force, which is not surprising considering they’re put in more of those situations where it’s needed,” Torres said. “They’re also much more fearful of losing their job in comparison to supervisors. And this is regardless of the time period — whether it was following Ferguson or following the events in Dallas.”

Apprehensiveness in using force and apprehensiveness in stopping minorities increased with non-supervisors following Ferguson and Dallas in comparison to supervisors.

“Supervisors were much more confident in the training that they’ve received and how that training allows them to determine the appropriate amount of force,” Torres said. “In comparison to non-supervisors, supervisors were much more confident with their ability to judge the appropriate amount of force. It might be something where you’re much more confident in your ability to use force if you’re not in those situations as much anymore. Whereas patrol officers on the street — who are making those contacts with citizens regularly — have a little less confidence in their ability to make that appropriate determination of force because they are more often put in those situations than supervisors.”

Torres went on to say that supervisors should try to reassure those guys on the street, because it looks as though one of the main problems revealed in the survey is officers’ fear about using force and fear of losing the job.

“That’s something where the brass — or the supervisors — can step in and try to put some more confidence in their guys to continue to do their job with the support of rank personnel,” Torres said.

Similarities between officers

Not all questions revealed differences between line-level officers and their supervisors. Interestingly, supervisors and non-supervisors had a very similar view on the types of duties police should be engaged in on the street. For example, a full 91 percent of all respondents said they are willing to work with minority communities to build trust. Furthermore, a full 92 percent of respondents agree that cops should make frequent informal contacts with people, and 91 percent feel that cops should perform duties that build trust with the community.

Another area where supervisors and non-supervisors had similar responses was in the area of how they responded to the events in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Only a tiny fraction of all respondents sought professional assistance, with most simply speaking with either a family member or a fellow officer about their feelings in the aftermath of those attacks.

This, however, was where one of the more interesting differences between male and female officers was evident.

Gender differences between officers

“Women were more likely to seek professional help and more likely to talk to others about how they were feeling,” Torres said. “Men were more likely to deal with these events by what we can call a detachment style coping, basically attempting to let go of the events on your own, not seeking as much formal or informal help.”

Female officers surveyed were more inclined to want to quit the profession following the events in Dallas and Baton Rouge than they were following Ferguson. What this implies is that — at least for female LEOs included in the survey sample — that high-profile line of duty deaths have more of an impact on whether they want to stay in the profession than high-profile incidents involving police use of force.

“Stepping back, what does that mean?” Torres rhetorically asked. “It could suggest that departments should devote additional resources to try and keep females following high-profile line of duty deaths since it appears as though this could be an issue where females would be pushed to leave departments. Given the dilemma plaguing departments about hiring and retaining females, this might be something they may need to address so that the issue of increasing the presence of women in law enforcement is not worsened.”

Torres said another thing that departments may want to consider is devoting additional resources to allow their personnel — specifically men — to deal with these kind of events in a more positive manner to prevent them from having to deal with these events entirely on their own.

Racial differences between officers

There were also some significant differences in responses from officers of different racial backgrounds.

“Black officers in the sample were much more likely to feel safe in comparison to other racial and ethnic groups in the sample and that’s regardless of what time period we looked at — whether it was immediately following Ferguson or immediately following the events in Dallas,” Torres said. “They also appear to have a bit more satisfaction with the job currently and again that’s even after specifically following Ferguson or specifically following Dallas. They have much less fear of losing their jobs in comparison to other groups. They’re less likely to support stop and frisk strategies than other groups and I’d say, overall, they’re more likely to support community policing strategies.”

Torres said that white officers are much more apprehensive about using force than any other group. Black officers were very confident of their ability to go hands on in the scenario question that was asked in comparison to the other groups.  That scenario suggested that on an officer’s next shift, they confront a hostile citizen that needs to be taken into custody. This person is a male who is six feet tall and weighs 200 pounds. The subject shows no signs of having a weapon. “How confident are you in your ability to use only your hands to physically get them into custody by yourself without the use of OC/pepper spray, baton, or TASER?"

“One thing to take from this is more support for the hiring of minority officers — specifically black officers since they were considerably less apprehensive about stopping minorities,” Torres said. “Given the current state of police-minority relations, being apprehensive about stopping minorities needs to be reduced since apprehensiveness could potentially increase negative police-citizen encounters.”

Conclusion

“Part of why I wanted to do this was because sometimes we can use science to do some good," Torres said. “With this study, one of my goals was to give a voice to law enforcement out there to speak their minds on what happened in Ferguson and how it impacted them. Studies like this can sometimes help tease out certain problems that we can’t see — identify certain problems that we didn’t know about before — and we can go from there to determine the next step in trying to address those issues. For example, the questions about how law enforcement was coping with the events in Dallas and Baton Rouge, that was one more specifically I was interested in because one of the things that doesn’t get addressed much within law enforcement is mental health. Asking law enforcement questions about how they’re dealing with the things that they encounter on the street is particularly important because it is a profession that is going to come with an increased exposure to critical incidents.”

Torres pointed out that some of the solutions to the issues found in the survey don’t need to be tailored to specific groups based on race, gender, or rank, and could simply be addressed to all personnel.

For instance, peer-support programs following major events are offered universally and not tailored to any one demographic.

Another issue that should be viewed and addressed as a universal problem affecting all officers is fear of job loss when having to use force. Such fear could result in the failure to act in a use-of-force situation and thus can put fearful officers at risk. Torres said that departments may need to review their use-of-force policies and the disciplinary process with their personnel so everyone is on the same page as to how their department would handle use-of-force complaints, which may reduce some of these fears.

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