UPDATE (August 27, 2020, 2:59 p.m.): We originally published this article earlier this year, after a police officer killed George Floyd in Minneapolis. In light of the shooting of Jacob Blake, who was shot seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, this week, we’ve decided to recirculate the article.
One important difference between the protests that have spread across the country for the past nine days and nights and other protest movements is their subject. The demonstrators who have taken to the streets in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers are protesting against police violence and the inequities of the criminal justice system, which as others have pointed out, call into question the role and neutrality of the law enforcement personnel who patrol those streets. The police officers firing tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets — and generally roughing up protesters — have seemed in many ways like counterprotesters more than peacekeepers.
In fact, a majority of America’s police officers strongly disagree with the core arguments of the protests. And that’s probably related to the fact that the police and the protesters are much different from each other in terms of politics and demographics. And these underlying differences over identity, politics and policy are creating a toxic and potentially dangerous dynamic as the protests continue.
Most police officers think they treat black people fairly
We don’t have much data on the views of police officers, but the Pew Research Center conducted an extensive survey of nearly 8,000 sworn police officers1 across the country in 2016.2
That was a few years ago, obviously, but well after the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and it offers some insight into how the views of law enforcement officers compare with the views of the general population.
In that survey, 67 percent of officers said they thought the deaths of black people in encounters with the police were isolated incidents, compared with 31 percent who said those deaths were part of a broader pattern. The public,3 by comparison, had almost exactly the opposite reaction — only 39 percent of Americans said the police killings of black Americans were isolated incidents, while 60 percent said they were part of a broader pattern. (More recent surveys of the public also indicate that around 60 percent of Americans think that these incidents are part of a broader pattern.)
Just 35 percent of officers in the 2016 survey said they thought protests against the killings of black Americans were motivated at least in part by a “genuine desire to hold officers accountable” for their actions. In separate questions, almost all officers (92 percent) said that these protests reflected at least some long-standing bias against the police, and 86 percent said that the attention surrounding high-profile incidents of police killings of black men and the resulting protests has made their jobs harder.
More anecdotally, police officers regularly speak in disparaging terms about Black Lives Matter activists, in particular.
“Policing has always been a dangerous profession, but groups like Black Lives Matter, by inaccurately demonizing police as racists who kill innocent people, have made policing more dangerous than ever before,” a police union leader in Boston wrote in a February letter4 to the local teachers union, as The Boston Globe reported.
“Officers reject the notion that their behaviors are affected by racial bias,” said Natalie Todak, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who said she has interviewed hundreds of police officers for her work.
She added that “many police officers endorse the ‘differential involvement’ hypothesis.” Essentially, that’s the belief that the police are simply targeting criminal behavior and that black people are committing crimes at a higher rate than white people.
Todak also noted that beyond these racial issues, “throughout history, we can see a recurring pattern of officers and agencies resisting outside criticism and pressures to reform.”
Police officers don’t see much evidence of discrimination against black people
Most police officers also diverge from the protesters on the issues underlying these high-profile killings. Eighty percent of police officers said the country does not need to make more changes to ensure that black Americans have equal rights with white Americans, according to the 2016 Pew survey. That’s much higher than the share of Americans overall who held that view (48 percent).
Similarly, survey results from the 2014 Cooperate Congressional Election Study suggest that white police officers in particular are less likely than white Americans overall to think that the lingering effects of slavery and current racial discrimination make it harder for black Americans to succeed. They are more likely to agree with the idea that “blacks should work their way up without special favors,”5 according to political scientist Brian Schaffner of Tufts University.
“On a range of measures, white police officers are more racially conservative than white citizens,” wrote sociology professor Ryan Jerome LeCount of Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, in an academic paper published in 2017, based on responses to surveys conducted as part of the General Social Survey.6
White officers, according to LeCount’s research, are more likely than other white Americans to say that anti-black discrimination is not a major problem for black Americans. White officers are also significantly more likely than black officers and Americans overall to think that black people are more violent than white people.
Black and female officers often differ from officers overall
As mentioned above, black officers tend to have somewhat different views from white officers.7 For example, 69 percent of black officers said the protests against policing tactics reflected some genuine desire to hold the police accountable, compared with just 27 percent of white officers. And a majority of black officers (57 percent) said that the deadly encounters between black people and the police were part of a broader pattern — a view shared by only 27 percent of white officers. Black officers were also less likely than white or Hispanic officers to say that the public didn’t understand the risks and challenges they face on the job.
Most black officers — 69 percent — thought that America needed to make more changes for black Americans to have equal rights, putting the black officers fairly close to black Americans overall (84 percent per the Pew poll). White officers (6 percent) were much less likely to hold this view. According to LeCount’s research, the views of black officers on questions of both policing and broader racial issues in America were not much different from those of black Americans overall.
Female officers were also more likely to think that the protests over police violence were motivated by genuine concerns about holding the police accountable and that the police killings of black Americans reflected a broader pattern as opposed to being isolated incidents.
The police are more male and white than the country as a whole
The data above suggests that America’s police officers have views informed specifically by their jobs, so it makes sense that they have more pro-police views than the general population does. But the data also shows that law enforcement personnel are split along similar lines to Americans overall — women and black officers are more likely to have views associated with the Democratic Party than male and white officers are, similar to the splits among their counterparts in the general populace.
Which is why it’s relevant that the police are much more male than the overall population, and slightly more white.
About 88 percent of local sworn police officers are men, compared with around 12 percent who are women, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice. (The country overall is about 51 percent women.) And about 72 percent of officers are non-Hispanic white, about 11 percent are non-Hispanic black and about 13 percent are Hispanic.8 By comparison, about 60 percent of Americans overall are non-Hispanic white, about 13 percent are non-Hispanic black and about 18 percent are Hispanic, per 2019 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The police tend to like Trump
About 60 percent of white men have voted for the Republican Party in recent elections, so it’s likely that America’s police officers have long leaned toward the GOP. That includes supporting President Trump. The Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union, endorsed Trump in 2016.9 The FOP has not endorsed a Democratic presidential nominee since Bill Clinton in 1996, but Trump’s winning the union’s support was not a given — the FOP opted not to endorse either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney in 2012.
It’s not surprising that the police like Trump — he basically ran as the anti-Black Lives Matter candidate. And while in office, Trump has rolled back policing reforms adopted by the Obama administration.
Indeed, policing is increasingly part of America’s broader partisan war — rank-and-file Republicans have much more favorable views of the police than Democrats do. So, in some ways, the tension between the protesters and the police is so high because it reinforces America’s already deep partisan divide.
So the fact that Trump seems to disagree with the motives behind the protests may be reinforcing the officers’ preexisting concerns about them — people tend to follow the views of their party’s political leaders. The police, for example, seem to be treating the journalists covering the protests harshly — perhaps echoing Trump’s disdain for the Fourth Estate.
The protesters disagree with the police on the two major concepts — whether American society in general and the police in particular treat black people unfairly. And underlying those differing viewpoints are gaps in identity and partisanship: The police officers are more likely to be white, male and Trump-supporting than the protesters.
So the divides over Floyd’s death run along the larger political fault lines in U.S. society. Those fault lines seem at times intractable — and, right now, maybe even deadly.