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High-profile incidents of deadly use of force by police officers against black citizens in recent years have exacerbated tensions between police departments and communities of color and are contributing to an unwillingness by officers to conduct stops, according to research.
A Pew Research Center poll of nearly 8,000 police officers finds that 86 percent of officers say their job is more difficult as a result of fatal encounters that have garnered national attention. About 72 percent of officers say their departments are now less willing to stop and question suspicious people. The effects appear to be felt most strongly in departments with more than 2,600 officers.
In large departments, 86 percent of officers reported a chill in their colleagues’ willingness to stop suspicious people, while 54 percent in departments with 300 or fewer sworn officers reported such hesitance.
“Police in larger departments also are more likely than those in small agencies to say officers in their department are more reluctant to use force to control a suspect even when it is appropriate, a move that police critics may view as a positive sign but others may see as putting officers at increased risk,” wrote the Pew Research Center authors of the “Behind the Badge” report, which was released Wednesday.
The findings add weight to the assessment supported by FBI Director James B. Comey that national crime upticks might be a result of less-aggressive policing because officers fear becoming the subject of the next “viral video.”
The number of violent crimes across the U.S. rose by 4 percent in 2015, with homicides increasing by 11 percent, according to the most recent comprehensive FBI crime data.
Despite the uptick, crime rates remain at near-record lows, with violent crime down 16.5 percent compared with a decade ago.
The effects of recent protests on the way officers do their jobs also was mentioned by Sen. Jeff Sessions during his Tuesday hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is considering his nomination for attorney general.
“In the last several years, law enforcement as a whole has been unfairly maligned and blamed for the unacceptable actions of a few bad actors,” Mr. Sessions said in his opening statement before the committee. “They believe the political leadership of this country abandoned them. They felt they had become targets. Morale has suffered. If we are to be more effective in dealing with rising crime, we will have to rely heavily on local law enforcement to lead the way. To do that, they must know that they are supported.”
The Pew survey also found a deep skepticism among officers with regard to the motivation of protesters who have come out in cities across the country in the wake of fatal encounters with law enforcement.
A little more than two-thirds of officers say the demonstrations “are motivated to a great extent by anti-police bias,” and just 10 percent say they believe protesters are motivated primarily by “a genuine desire to hold police accountable for their actions.”
A split along racial lines shows that black police officers are more than twice as likely as white officers to believe the efforts of protesters are sincerely directed at forcing departments to be accountable for their actions. Only 27 percent of white officers share that view.
Racial divides were also apparent when officers were asked about police relationships with black residents in their communities and about officer interactions with suspects who resist arrest.
White officers were more likely to have struggled or had a physical confrontation with a suspect, with 36 percent reporting such an encounter in the previous month compared with 20 percent of black officers.
Ninety-one percent of officers say relationships with white residents in their communities are good or excellent, but just 56 percent say the relationship between police and black residents is good or excellent. Black officers were less likely to believe police have positive relationships with black residents, with 32 percent saying such relationships are good or excellent.
Meanwhile, six out of 10 white officers believed relationships with blacks were positive.
Police do report a significant number of positive interactions with the public as well.
About 79 percent of officers reported they had been thanked by someone for their service in the previous month. And 67 percent agree or strongly agree that most people respect the police.
The Pew Research Center poll surveyed nearly 7,917 police officers and deputies from a total of 54 agencies across the country that have at least 100 sworn law enforcement personnel. Of the respondents, 6,795 officers were from 43 municipal police departments and 1,122 deputies came from 11 county sheriff’s departments.
The online surveys were conducted from May 19 to Aug. 14. Authors of the study said estimation of a single margin of error was not possible because of the complex nature of the surveys.
How law enforcement officers feel about their job appears to have some correlation to how they interact with the public.
A little more than half of officers, 56 percent, say they have become more callous toward people since they started their job.
“This perceived change in outlook is closely linked to increased support for aggressive or physically punishing tactics,” the Pew report states.
The officers who report becoming more callous during their time on the job “are more likely to have fought or struggled with a suspect who was resisting arrest in the past month or to have fired their service weapon sometime in their career.”
About a quarter of officers report that they have fired a service weapon while on the job. Time on the job increases the likelihood that an officer will have discharged a firearm while on duty — 14 percent of officers with five years or less on a department report using a firearm, while 29 percent of those with more than five years on report doing so.
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