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Police Officers Say Scrutiny Of Police Killings Has Made Their Job Tougher

The vast majority of U.S. police officers say their job has gotten harder because of the high-profile deaths of black people in encounters with police and the protests that surrounded them, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center.

According to the survey, which was conducted before the election last year and released Wednesday, about three-quarters of officers in agencies nationwide say that the deaths — and the attention paid to them — have increased tension between the police and black Americans and made officers more reluctant to stop and question suspicious people. That’s consistent with data showing that officers in several cities where police were involved in high-profile deaths reduced their proactive policing, although experts disagree about what caused the policing slowdown.

Police officers are starkly divided by race, about race. Among white officers, 92 percent say the country has made the changes needed to give black people equal rights to white people. Just 6 percent of white officers say the country needs to continue making changes to give black people equal rights. Among black officers, those percentages are 29 percent and 69 percent, respectively. The racial gap on the issue among police officers is much wider than it is among all Americans. Among both white and black Americans, civilians are far more likely than officers to say the country needs to keep changing to address racism.


There is a similar racial divide among officers over the protests that have sprung up in response to high-profile killings of black civilians. Sixty-nine percent of black police officers say the protests are motivated at least in part by a genuine desire to hold police accountable. Just 27 percent of white police officers agree. The vast majority of officers — 95 percent of those who are white, 91 percent of those who are black and 90 percent of Hispanics — say another factor at least partially motivates the protests: longstanding anti-police bias.

The survey, which also covers officers’ views on body cameras and other potential policing overhauls, was conducted for Pew by the National Police Research Platform, a consortium of policing researchers. The online survey reached nearly 8,000 officers in city and county departments across the country. It was conducted between May 19 and August 14 last year, months before a Gallup poll showing that public respect for local police officers was at a two-decade high.

Issues of policing and police violence featured prominently in last year’s presidential campaign, when Hillary Clinton called for greater scrutiny of police violence, while Donald Trump focused less on deaths caused by police officers than on the much rarer killings of police officers. Police officers overwhelmingly supported Trump, according to an email survey of subscribers to Police Magazine.1 Just what Trump and his nominee for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, will do to address officers’ concerns — and what effect it will have on the death rate of Americans in police encounters, which has held steady despite great scrutiny in recent years — remains to be seen.


  1. The survey was conducted among magazine subscribers who said they were active police officers.

Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.