Officer opinions on the changing landscape of the policing profession

Survey results provide insight into what LEOs think about reform, police training initiatives and reallocating calls for service


This feature is part of Police1's Digital Edition, What cops want in 2021, which provides a summary and analysis of the results of Police1's State of the Industry survey of 4,000 officers about police reform, recruitment and more. Download the complete report here.

Over 4,000 officers addressed police reform, recruitment and more in Police1's State of the Industry survey.
Over 4,000 officers addressed police reform, recruitment and more in Police1's State of the Industry survey.

While it remains to be seen whether recent election results will either slow or accelerate the calls for police reform that have echoed across the country during the second half of 2020, it is likely certain that at least some reform efforts will result in changing the landscape of the policing profession.

Over the past few months, legislative inquiries and public focus groups have attempted to identify critical areas of police reform that should be pursued and enacted, with little consensus thus far. Many of the discussions among national and state legislators have centered on specific challenges that have been recognized across policing, and a majority of those have focused on use of force issues.

The report on the survey, “What do law enforcement officers want for the future of policing?” provides insight into the mindset of our nation’s law enforcement officers and their thoughts on police reform, and even provides a unique glimpse into the differences in thought among members of our police population.

Most-supported reform efforts

Let’s first examine the results from the question, “What policy and legislative changes do police officers want? We want to know your level of support about a variety of policy changes and legislative mandates that have been implemented in some jurisdictions and are proposed in others.”

In analyzing each of the proposed policy or legislative reform ideas presented in the survey and calculating the results according to the overall level of support indicated by the respondents, the following were identified as having the most support:

  • Increase training funding: 93% level of support
  • Mandatory prosecution of assaults on police officers: 92% level of support
  • Patrol officers equipped with a body-worn camera: 84% level of support
  • Assaulting a police officer prosecuted as a hate crime: 83% level of support

It should not be too surprising that reform efforts that aim to increase police funding are among the most popular with officers. Unfortunately, many of the external conversations occurring in today's environment are aimed at doing the exact opposite. The value and importance of effective police training cannot be overestimated, but, unfortunately, the attempts to reduce funding and training are almost being wielded as political weapons.

We know that effective training for officers often results in incident outcomes that are less problematic, indicating that training works to help resolve confrontational incidents without physical violence. So, it is ironic that the very thing that the reformers who are looking to reduce police funding would like to accomplish could eventually be impacted in the opposite direction by their efforts.

Both the police and the police reform advocates clearly want less confrontation, fewer incidents that result in violence, and higher levels of communication and respect between the police and their communities. They only seem to differ on how to get there.

Among the other responses, mandatory prosecutions for those who have assaulted officers and funding for patrol officers to be equipped with body-worn cameras were also extremely favorable. One of the more interesting results pertains to the issue of classifying the assault of an officer as a hate crime. The concept of this reform effort is easily understandable, the reality of implementing this type of change however is much more difficult.

While the exact definition and applicability of hate crime statutes vary from state to state, the FBI defines a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” A broader view of the legal definition of a hate crime however merely addresses the particular “status” of the victim, which in this case would be their employment as a police officer.

The burden of proof in nearly all hate crime cases eventually comes down to the identification of the motives behind legal intent. The US Supreme Court has cited precedent that permitted the "evidentiary use of speech to establish the elements of a crime or to prove motive or intent." This means that persons are free to express their thoughts or biases against police, but when they cross that line and engage in unlawful conduct based upon these beliefs, their legal intent may then be conferred as motivated by hate.

Such an application of the current hate crime statutes would likely require a broader revision of those statutes, and most certainly would be followed by a judicial review as to the constitutionality of this particular use of the hate crime statutes.

Least-supported reform efforts

Among survey respondents, the following policy or legislative reform ideas were identified as having the least amount of support:

  • Ending qualified immunity protection: 8% level of support
  • Reducing the presence of law enforcement officers in schools: 16% level of support
  • Suspending use of facial recognition technology: 20% level of support
  • Elimination of pretrial detention for most arrestees: 21% level of support

It is not surprising that the reform item that received the lowest level of support was the proposal to end qualified immunity protection. It remains unclear, however, whether the qualified immunity doctrine may be altered or eliminated solely through a legislative edict. The qualified immunity doctrine was confirmed via a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court and is intended to protect police officers from private liability stemming from frivolous lawsuits, and from the adverse results of well-intentioned split-second decisions made during stressful and tense situations.

Advocates attempting to convince the Supreme Court to revisit this doctrine have petitioned for the court to hear at least 12 cases this year. Until now, the Supreme Court has declined to take up any of those cases and consider reviewing the qualified immunity doctrine. However, the court did hear arguments in a qualified immunity case in November 2020. Any decision on this case, and perhaps applicability to other cases, is likely several months away.

It is also interesting to note that reforms aimed at reducing the presence of law enforcement officers in schools received very little support among all respondents to the survey, with one exception. Officers from agencies of 1,000 sworn personnel or more were more likely (29%) to support a reduction of police in schools than their counterparts from smaller agencies.

Factors impacting survey results, and what they tell us

Survey respondents were asked to select certain identifiers that helped to categorize their survey responses according to population segments. For example, respondents were asked to identify their years of service, primary response area, current role, agency size and level of education, among others.

These breakdowns provided insight into the differences in opinion among the officers who answered the survey. For example, bans on all types of chokeholds were consistently more likely to be supported by officers with higher levels of experience in comparison to those with less experience. And a ban on no-knock warrants received only half of the support from SWAT and undercover detectives than from those in other assignments.

In another example, the general survey results in response to the question regarding support for a ban on shooting at moving vehicles did not show any telling results. Approximately 50% of the respondents indicate no or not much support, and 50% were either unsure or showed support for a ban on shooting at moving vehicles. However, when considering the years of experience of the respondents, officers at the highest level of experience were more likely (58%) to support the ban than the most junior officers who responded to the survey.

Of these many different variables, however, the respondents’ level of education proved to have the most identifiable and consistent influence on answers to the survey.

In the question regarding the ban on shooting at moving vehicles, for instance, respondents with a bachelor’s degree or higher were 15% more likely to support a ban on shooting at moving vehicles than were respondents with an associate degree or less.

This question was not the only one in which the level of education appeared to play a significant role. Respondents with a bachelor’s degree or higher indicated a higher level of support for each of the following policy or legislative reform proposals, albeit by varying degrees:

One of the hallmarks of any profession is the extent and degree to which the profession’s members commit themselves toward educational advancement, and the policing profession has made remarkable strides in this area. While there is not enough information available to fully assess the impact that advanced education has on the overall support for reform proposals, it is clear that there is some correlation between the levels of higher education and the level of support for some police reform proposals.

What training do officers value?

Respondents were then asked, “Which of these training topics is of value to your work as a police officer?”

Over 87% of all answers to this question indicated support for communications skills training, especially for conflict situations. The overwhelming support for this topic is a strong indicator of the importance officers place on effective communication skills in avoiding conflict situations. This trend continued across the remaining training topics with 78% support for weaponless defense/arrest & control skills and 75% support for de-escalation training.

It is interesting to note that the one training topic that received considerably less support than all others was implicit bias training. Several of the free-text comments submitted by survey respondents seriously question the validity and value of implicit bias training, although it is unclear if the authors of those comments have attended such training. Two population segments also showed significantly less support for implicit bias training; officers with more than 30 years of experience and officers with post-graduate degrees.

What SHOULD law enforcement be doing?

The survey then asked, “Which of these services, often performed by law enforcement, SHOULD be performed by other governmental or non-governmental agencies?”

The respondents’ answers to this question showed a significant range of support across the answer alternatives. Over 93% of the respondents indicated that other governmental or non-governmental agencies should be involved with finding housing for homeless persons, while less than 10% indicated supported having some other agency, other than the police, respond to incidents of public intoxication.

While there were not many significant trends in response to this question when categorized by agency type or size, or level of education, there was one interesting result that might be a bit surprising. Overall, just 53% of the respondents were in favor of having someone other than the police handle dispute mediation. However, when responses are evaluated in comparison to years of service, younger officers were 10% more likely to think that police should not handle dispute mediation than were the most senior officers.

This means that the most experienced officers, who have likely handled the highest number of citizen disputes throughout their career, still are more likely to believe that the police are the best option to handle dispute mediation.

While there are stark differences between many of the proposals being pursued by reform advocates and the level of support for reform that exists among those within the policing profession, there is at least some common ground on which both can agree. Equipping more officers with body-worn cameras and requiring officers to use de-escalation techniques are just two topics that could be used to build a shared consensus on more issues.

If it is to be successful, the next era of the policing profession will require that both the police and the public agree on their shared responsibilities for producing positive public safety outcomes. Hopefully, over the next few weeks and months, reforms that are crafted in the best interests of both the police and the public will rise to the top.

Methodology

For the purposes of this article, the survey results from all respondents were converted to a statistical percentage between 0% (no support) and 100% (full support). This methodology provides for a more intuitive analysis of the relative differences between each category of survey results and provides further insight into the levels of support from the sub-populations within the overall survey results.

Statistical analysis for this article was provided by Bryce Reynolds, a senior data analyst for a Fortune 100 company with experience as a data scientist. Bryce graduated magna cum laude with degrees in economics, mathematics and statistics, and has a wide array of experience across several data science disciplines including machine learning, forecasting and text analytics.

This feature is part of Police1's Digital Edition, What cops want in 2021, which provides a summary and analysis of the results of Police1's State of the Industry survey of 4,000 officers about police reform, recruitment and more. Download the complete report here.

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