Recent survey shows public lack of awareness regarding law enforcement
A Pew Research Center report spells out the huge educational task facing police leaders and advocates
The very title of the recently released Pew Research Center report, “Majority of Public Favors Giving Civilians the Power to Sue Police Officers for Misconduct,” is an indicator of how poorly civil leaders have communicated to the public about the central function of their governments. (Report available in full below). It may also explain the rush to outlaw qualified immunity if the voting public thinks that this longstanding legal precedent bars civil actions against police misconduct.
The survey also measured public support for defunding police and confidence that police are doing a good job, and support for proposals such as a national database of misconduct and civilian oversight.
As significant as the numbers may be, the most compelling insight from the study is the significant differences in opinions between races, ages and political affiliation.
Surveys of perception and opinion are just that – they are not designed to measure the facts of an issue. Political leaders and police leadership must decide to operate on facts about an issue rather than public misconceptions, no matter how widespread or popular they are. The much more difficult task is educating the public on the facts, rather than basing legislation on a trending emotional state.
Popular political and mass media narrative over the past several years may be the cause for a drop in overall positive ratings for law enforcement when comparing this report’s findings to a Pew report published in 2017, which also showed a partisan gap in favorability toward police.
“Republicans and Democrats alike believe that the average police officer discharges his or her service firearm while on duty at least once during the course of their career (84% and 86%, respectively). But Democrats (39%) are more likely than Republicans and independents (27% each) to say that an average officer uses his or her service weapon at least a few times a year. Here, however, differences do appear to be driven by race: Only 22% of white Democrats say that an average officer discharges his or her weapon at least a few times a year, which is statistically not different from the 26% of white Republicans who say this. (For their part, 72% of police officers say they have never fired their weapon on duty outside of training, a separate survey of officers found.)”
This finding is a good example of the disconnect between the facts of real life in policing and the perceptions of the public doubtlessly derived from fictional portrayals of fact-deprived activists and commentators.
An aggregate 90%+ of respondents want police trained in non-violent alternatives to deadly force. If this reflects a belief by the majority of Americans that current police officers are not being trained in force alternatives, it is one measure of the vast disconnect between reality and perception. While this disconnect is frustrating in itself, the manifestation of these false beliefs into law and policy is fraught with tragedy.
One place that police advocates can lend an educated voice to the debate on police reform is the topic of qualified immunity. If the Pew survey results are any indication, there may be a widespread belief that qualified immunity is the ultimate hall pass for police officers to engage in unreasonable and illegal behavior by virtue of just doing their job.
The public must know that this type of immunity has a narrow application to situations in which the officer is duty-bound to act and makes a decision that is subsequently found by the courts to have been unlawful but was not clearly established at the time of the officers’ decision. In other words, there is a thin layer of protection for an officer making high-stakes decisions that will be ruled on many years after the consequences by layers of judges and court proceedings. Judges who, by the way, enjoy nearly absolute immunity far removed from the reality of the moment.
Despite the very real fear of lawsuits, the courts have repeatedly ruled that decisions during dangerous, stressful and time-compressed events must be reviewed in a way that gives reasonable allowance for discretion and error: “The Fourth Amendment requires government officials to act reasonably, not perfectly, and gives those officials “fair leeway for enforcing the law,” see Heien v. North Carolina.
Every police officer knows that, while they may be indemnified by their employer, they are not immune from personal financial liability in a lawsuit. That lawsuit can happen on the federal level if deprivation of constitutional rights is alleged and it can happen on the state level if negligence or an intentional tort is alleged. Criminal charges on both the state and federal levels may be filed as clearly evidenced in recent high-profile prosecutions of police officers.
Department discipline including loss of job and inability to remain in law enforcement in any capacity is also a penalty facing officers every day with every decision. The notion that police officers are immune from accountability could not be farther from the truth despite public perception.
A call to action
The Pew research holds great value for informed police leaders and advocates to get a grasp of the huge educational task ahead of them. The good news is that there are very few persons seriously advocating for defunding police agencies, which means there is leverage to continue appealing to public support using persuasive facts.
The partisan and racial divide is not explained by the data on actual police conduct that has been accumulated over the years. National databases will be making the picture of police conduct clearer in the coming years, but laws and policies based on false perceptions will happen before these new sources of information are mined. This calls for a massive effort to regain the public’s confidence through repeated discussion of facts, calling out those who have loud voices that seek to drown out the facts.