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What do law enforcement officers want for the future of policing?

Police1’s State of the Industry survey offers key findings upon which we can engage the community, and each other, for action

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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.

By Bob Harrison and John S. Hollywood, Center for Quality Policing, RAND Corporation

In a year where so much has transpired, voices are being heard on what may be the most critical issue facing America – how should citizens be protected, and who should lead work to ensure public safety?

With the United States already facing the uncertainty of COVID-19 affecting communities across the nation, the death of George Floyd transformed a long-simmering concern about police abuse into a crisis that has seen cities endure protests and riots, property burned and destroyed, and what some see as an existential crisis of confidence in the police.


More than 4,000 officers participated in Police1’s State of the Industry survey.

Has the public been too tolerant of police misconduct? Are the police acting in ways that have eroded confidence in how they do their work to unacceptable levels? Should police be defunded? How, and in what ways, should they be transformed? Are the police too cynical, too burned out, or too racist, to be agents of change? Or, perhaps, are they still committed to their communities and confident about the future?

These questions have been bantered about in the media, on talk shows and in opinion pieces appearing almost daily. There is one segment of the population from whom very little has been heard – the police themselves. National and state police organizations have published statements calling for a dialog about the scope of police services, often acknowledging the need for change. What do the cops themselves think about it? What changes would they support, and what perspectives do they hold?

To answer those questions, Police1 conducted a national survey in September 2020, which saw more than 4,300 responses from active duty and retired officers to a 40-question online survey covering a broad array of topics. Chief among the questions asked were those related to:

  • Why respondents became police officers, their satisfaction with the job, and the most and least satisfying aspects of their professional lives.
  • The types of police reform the respondent thought was appropriate, and which they would support.
  • How the respondents view levels of community support and critique.

As our discussion will show, there are some key findings upon which we can engage the community, and each other, for action. These key findings are:

  • Respondents showed a strong desire to serve their communities and increase the amount of time they spend doing community policing and crime prevention. This is resonant with the growing public and political consensus for change.
  • Respondents largely want to transfer some response categories to others better trained to resolve the issues; this is also resonant with public sentiment regarding changes for the police.
  • Respondents report being more satisfied with the job than some might expect, but there are significant warning signs; only a quarter of respondents would encourage young people to choose policing as a career.
  • Major problems of “police always being wrong,” political pressures and inadequate leadership need to be addressed.
  • The survey responses echo some public sentiment, but not to the extent that a transformative change might occur. This indicates the police may be less willing to enact novel changes, especially if it diminishes the police role or diverts funding from what officers see as “their” job.
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Survey results and implications

The overwhelming majority of those responding chose law enforcement as a career because they wanted to serve their communities (75%). From a list of several other reasons – they could mark all that applied to them – about half (52%) were attracted to the variety of daily duties, and 48% noted that the challenges of the job attracted them to policing. Job security and compensation were less important, with 28% and 27% respectively. Only 4% said they chose police work due to a lack of other job opportunities.

Once on the job, serving the community was the most satisfying aspect of the job (55%), followed closely by crime-fighting (46%). Third on a list of 16 options from which to choose was community interaction, with 26% citing that as the most satisfying aspect of the job. On the other side of the coin, a public presumption that the police are wrong leads the list of least satisfying aspects of a law enforcement career, with a 66% response rate. Being in the media spotlight (45%), attention from politicians (43%) and poor agency leadership (45%) are also high on that list.

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Despite the negatives, more than half (56%) are either somewhat or very satisfied. Nine percent, though, are “very unsatisfied” and about 17% are somewhat unsatisfied. The current social climate indicates a troubling reality: 28% said it has strengthened their commitment to serve the community, but 44% said it had lessened that commitment. Further, although 39% said the current climate had strengthened their pride in being a law enforcement officer, 34% said it has lessened it. Not unsurprisingly, only a quarter said they’d recommend a career in law enforcement to young people. These sentiments are not new.

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A 2017 National Survey of police officers conducted by the Pew Research Institute reflected some of the same (conflicting) perspectives. As a result of fatal encounters between the police and Blacks, the Pew survey found 93% had become more concerned about their safety, and 76% were more reluctant to use force. Even then, 86% said policing was harder as a result of those incidents. Conversely, 79% had been thanked in the past month for their service (67% also reported they had been verbally abused). The majority (58%) said policing makes them feel proud, but 51% also noted it makes them frustrated. Fewer say the job fulfills them (42%), and 22% say the job makes them angry. With regard to the need for more change to achieve equality, there was a significant difference between Black and white officers; 92% of white officers said the country had already made the changes needed to give Blacks equal rights, while only 29% of Black officers felt that way. Public sentiment was markedly lower on both accounts.

Even with the prevalence of adverse sentiments toward the rigors of the job and perceived lack of public support, Police1 survey respondents are still largely committed to serving their constituents. Choosing from a list of most important duties, 64% said community policing and responding to emergencies were their top duties, followed by general patrol (41%) and violent crime investigation (40%). More than 57% said they would want to spend more time on crime prevention, with about 44% wanting more time for public interaction and crime investigation.

Defunding, redirecting and revitalizing the police

As the public, legislators and the police themselves consider changing the nature of law enforcement, respondents weighed in with their perspectives:

If they could transition to service delivery by others for functions now usually performed by the police, the top choices to do so were in these areas:

  • Finding housing for persons experiencing homelessness (93%);
  • Animal control (88%);
  • Nuisance abatement (64%);
  • Parking enforcement (61%);
  • Interestingly, support for moving response to persons experiencing a mental health crisis was much lower (45%), even though this is one of the issues most prominently mentioned in the dialog of changing police duties.

The survey responses contrast from some of the more draconian changes demanded by some but are similar to public sentiments to redirect mental health issues to non-police resources, and also to create community-based organizations to deal with incidents for which the police are summoned today. In a RAND Corporation Perspective published in August 2020, police officers and their chiefs readily acknowledged the need to change in significant ways. This included support to empower community members to resolve their problems without the police, using the police as responders of last resort, and using professionals trained in mental health, substance abuse and other needs instead of relying on the police.

Among the most effective tools noted by RAND were collaboratives such as Crisis Intervention Teams, Angel programs for persons experiencing substance use disorders and Homeless Outreach Teams. Although there are differences in the specific approaches supported, the consensus is that defunding is more appropriately seen as redirecting funds to resources (existing or to be developed) to remove police officers from being the “one-stop-shop” for all of the social ills to which they currently respond.

Survey demographics

Survey respondents were mostly white, male sworn officers with more than 10 years on the job. Some could say they may represent more of the past of policing than its future.

At the same time, those in policing who are similar to them are largely the same ones who are in charge right now – they are supervisors, managers and executives. In those roles, it could be more important for them to consider ways to modernize police work to make it more responsive and accountable to the public. Understanding the perspectives of this segment of officers could be a critical starting point to create change.

In general, respondents were:

  • Overwhelmingly active duty peace officers (88%).
  • Overwhelmingly white or Caucasian (78%) and identify as a male (86%).
  • Mostly veteran officers with years of experience (65% had more than 10 years on the job; 18% had more than 30 years of experience as a police officer).
  • Thirty-nine percent hold bachelor’s degrees and 16% have master’s degrees or higher. Some (20%) have only a high school education.

The types of communities were split amongst rural (22%), suburban (40%) and urban (38%) areas.

Respondents held a variety of ranks and positions in policing. Patrol and investigative personnel comprised 45% of the total; line supervisors added 15% to that total, meaning that about 60% of respondents were engaged in line police functions daily.

Smaller agencies were underrepresented, with only 5% of the total. Agencies of all other sizes were more evenly represented, with departments of 10-24 officers (13%), 25-49 officers (14%) and 50-99 officers (16%) represented. Agencies with 500-1000 people had only nine percent of the total responses, but those with 100-499 (27%) and more than 1,000 (16%) had ample representation in the survey.

This contrasts with the general demographic of law enforcement, but not by as much as one might think. In the latest tally of local police staffing from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about one in eight officers, and one in 10 supervisors, were female. About 1 in 4 and 1 in 5 first-line supervisors were Black or Hispanic. More than two-thirds of officers serve cities with populations of less than 10,000 residents. Less than 3% of officers served communities larger than 100,000, but they comprise about half of all officers.

The educational level of respondents is higher than national averages, but not by as much as some might think. More than half of American police officers hold at least a two-year degree; 30% have four-year degrees and 5% have graduate degrees. Twenty-eight percent of chiefs and sheriffs (the CEOs) hold four-year degrees, and 31% have master’s degrees (3% more have a doctorate or terminal degrees).

Survey respondents are older, better educated, white and male – they are part of the long-term culture, so the public may think they’d be more resistant to change than younger officers. Rather than focusing on the differences between the police and the public they serve (which can be significant), one suggestion might be to start with what most interested parties already agree on; that the police must change substantially if they are to remain relevant and supported by those they serve.

There are other areas of agreement that could be used as starting points: There are social service functions that should be primarily delivered by non-policing organizations and chief among those could be homeless services, chronic mental health needs, sub-critical dispute resolution, and even parking enforcement and animal control.

The trade-off for offloading some services and response obligations should be the creation of better, more educated and more responsive police agencies. Individual officers should be more transparently accountable for their actions, and processes to end the employment of deficient officers should be strengthened.

As a partnership emerges between the police and the people, confidence in law enforcement may rise, and a general level of support that translates to better public safety could be a result.

Inevitably, there may be issues on which police officers and the public may disagree. Defunding the police is perhaps the most significant, as could be strategies to police urban communities and ways to treat all persons equitably and respectfully. Survey results show a willingness to begin or continue the dialog of shifting responsibilities for some services away from the police (along with funding necessary to create that change), but substantial room remains to close the gap between what the police may be willing to do, and the changes their public will demand.

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.

About the authors

John S. Hollywood leads work in the Center for Quality Policing at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation; Bob Harrison is a member of that Center researching homeland security and justice policy issues.

This article and any commentary by the authors do not represent the outcomes of RAND-sponsored research; it is an analysis of the survey conducted by Police1 with insights into its meanings and ways it can contribute to the dialog regarding the future of law enforcement.