Amid a string of fatal police shootings of unarmed black citizens, the Pew Research Center ran a massive study in 2017 of 8,000 U.S. police officers asking them about their experiences.
It revealed something startling: 86 percent of officers believe the public does not understand the risks and challenges of their jobs, even though 83 percent of U.S. adults rated officers’ jobs as very risky.
A police officer once told me in an interview: “I think police officers are misunderstood, what we do, why we do things. All the public sees are 30-second cell phone camera videos from a biased individual.”
Another said, “There’s this automatic generalization of an officer being there just because of the color of their skin or the uniform they’re wearing.”
These officers, who I won’t name to protect their confidentiality, are not alone.
Dealing with people who do not understand your work and have unrealistic expectations can be frustrating. For example, a previous study found that serving difficult people can cause stress, burnout and lower performance among lawyers, accountants, architects and registered nurses.
After all, there are many ways in which officers feel misunderstood. Some feel that the public doesn’t understand how difficult it is to make quick decisions when lives are on the line, deal with social ills like drug addiction and poverty, and witness tragedy and loss on a daily basis. With so much at stake, they only have to get it wrong once – something officers think the public does not fully appreciate.
To answer this question, I conducted two studies across six U.S. police agencies. First, I asked patrol officers to rate the public’s understanding of the difficulties of their jobs and the dilemmas they confront on a daily basis.
I also asked officers about their beliefs about how society should deal with crime. Some officers supported softer policies that emphasize rehabilitation and community outreach. Others supported harder policies that emphasize “get tough” punishment to set an example for others.
Then, I collected about 800 body camera footage videos of 164 officers. The videos captured everyday policing duties such as traffic stops, arrests and house calls. I recruited experts – retired division commanders and current supervisors – to rate officer behaviors in the videos. For example, they rated the degree to which officers “performed their on-scene functional duties in a competent manner.”
Surprisingly, not all officers who thought the public misunderstood their jobs received poor performance ratings. Some actually had high performance ratings.
In fact, I found that only the police officers who indicated a softer stance toward crime were rated poorly. Their bodycam videos revealed that they hesitated or acted too quickly, violating basic safety protocols.
By contrast, the performance ratings of officers who believe in harder approaches to fighting crime remained high.
I found this was the case regardless of the raters’ personal beliefs about crime.
Why did officers who support softer approaches to crime receive poorer ratings?
It is likely that they are more frustrated than their peers by perceptions that the public does not appreciate their jobs. They are trying to build closer relations with the public, and their efforts are being met with criticism and a lack of appreciation.
This frustration and uncertainty about how the public will react may be leading to lower performance. For example, when asked how public misunderstanding affects him during an interview, an officer stated: “It makes not only me, but I see it in a lot of these guys, they don’t want to be proactive. Officers pause, and there’s going to be times where it’s going to be a safety issue.”
On the other hand, officers who believe in hard-line approaches do not expect the public to understand their jobs. From their perspective, officers are given authority over the public because they have knowledge and expertise that are only understandable to them. They are the ones who wear the uniform.
Because of this lower frustration, these officers may be performing better. For example, another cop told me: “Public misunderstanding don’t really change anything. I know what I was trained to do. Whether you’re happy to have me there or not, I’m still going in there. I have a job to do.”
Coping with misunderstanding
These studies suggest two things.
First, community safety suffers when some officers believe that the public does not understand the physical and emotional difficulties they face on the job. While it is generally known that there is tension between officers and the public, my studies demonstrate the dangers of this tension.
Second, because public misunderstanding can reduce the effectiveness of some officers, it is important to explore ways to help all cops – regardless of their different approaches to crime – be effective despite today’s environment. For example, some of my current research suggests that officers who feel misunderstood, but also feel that they have little autonomy and discretion in making decisions, actually perform better than those who feel they have a lot of freedom.
Given the impact that officers can have on human life, helping police officers cope with public tension should be a priority.