Mark B. Baer, Esq.

Empathy and Relationships

Police Officer Diversity Status Impacts Their Perceptions

Whether a police officer falls within the dominant culture impacts perspective

Posted Jan 15, 2017

On Jan. 11, 2017, "Pew Research Center released a groundbreaking survey of nearly 8,000 sworn police officers who work in departments around the U.S. with at least 100 officers. The survey provides a detailed look at how officers feel about their jobs and how they view relations with the communities they serve at a time of increased tensions following high-profile encounters between law enforcement and blacks."

According to Senior Editor Rich Morin, the reason behind the survey and its importance was as follows:

"Over the past few years, police involvement in the deaths of blacks in the U.S. has prompted a national debate over police tactics, training and methods. These fatal encounters have also energized the public debate about the relationship between police and blacks and other minority communities.

We and others have explored public views about the police, race and the use of force. This project helps to fill an important knowledge gap: What do police think about these recent events, and what do they see as the key issues and concerns facing them and their profession? And how do the views of police officers compare with those of the public? To the best of my knowledge, this is among the largest and certainly the most wide-ranging survey of police officers ever attempted."

The study itself provides overall statistics on a great many subjects and also breaks those statistics down based upon the race or ethnicity of the officer, their gender, size of the police department, length of time on the force, and rank. With regard to certain topics, they also included the statistics with regard to the general public.

The officers' perceptions varied based upon such variables, sometimes dramatically.

The subjects covered include the following:

  • The motivations behind protests/demonstrations
  • Officer satisfaction with their Department
  • How strongly committed they are to making their agency successful
  • The fairness of the disciplinary procedures
  • Whether they feel respected by the general public
  • Whether they trust the general public
  • Pride in their work
  • Job frustration
  • Whether their job makes them angry
  • Whether the job made them more callous
  • Whether the residents of the areas they patrol share their values and beliefs
  • Whether an aggressive rather than courteous approach is more effective in certain neighborhoods
  • Whether some people can only be brought to reason the hard, physical way
  • The police department's relationship with whites
  • The police department's relationship with Hispanics
  • The police department's relationship with Asians
  • Whether the country has made the changes needed to assure equal rights for blacks
  • Whether the deaths of blacks at the hands of police are isolated incidents
  • Whether they favor a ban on assault-style weapons
  • Whether they favor the use of body cameras
  • Whether they believe the country’s marijuana laws should be relaxed
  • Whether they support legalizing marijuana for both private and medical use
  • Whether they see themselves as just protectors or as enforcers
  • Serious concerns about their physical safety at least sometimes when they are on the job
  • Frequency of physical struggles or fights with suspects who were resisting arrest
  • How well the general public understands the risks and challenges they face
  • How they would handle a situation in which doing what is morally right requires breaking department rules
  • Praise of their departmental leadership
  • Concerns regarding resource limitations
  • Ratings for training and equipping officers to do their jobs
  • Ratings of use-of-force policies and training
  • Striking the right balance between acting decisively versus taking time to assess a situation
  • Departmental treatment of white versus officers who are members of minority groups
  • Whether officers should be required to intervene when they believe another officer is about to use unnecessary force
  • Whether their department has taken action to improve relations with black residents

A few key findings from the study were as follows:

Most police officers feel respected by the public and, in turn, believe officers have little reason to distrust most people. 

Large majorities of white, black and Hispanic officers agree that police and whites in their communities get along. But striking differences emerge when the focus shifts to police relations with racial and ethnic minorities. A consistently smaller share of black officers than their white or Hispanic colleagues say the police have a positive relationship with minorities in the community they serve. Roughly a third of all black officers (32%) characterize relations with blacks in their community as either excellent or good, while majorities of white and Hispanic officers (60% for both) offer a positive assessment.

At the same time, only about half of all black officers (46%) but large majorities of Hispanic (71%) and white (76%) officers say relations between police and Hispanics are excellent or good. Similarly, three-quarters of all black officers but 91% of white officers and 88% of Hispanic officers rate relations with Asians in their communities positively.

Most officers agree that in order to be effective, police need to understand the people in the neighborhoods they patrol.

Yet the degree to which officers value local knowledge varies significantly by the officer’s race and gender. Fully 84% of black officers and 78% of Hispanics say knowledge of the people, places and culture of the neighborhoods they patrol is very important to be effective at their job, a view shared by 69% of whites. Female officers also are more likely than males to place a premium on local knowledge (80% vs. 71%).

Seven-in-ten (72%) say that poorly performing officers are not held accountable.

And when the topic turns more broadly to the state of race relations, virtually all white officers (92%) but only 29% of their black colleagues say that the country has made the changes needed to assure equal rights for blacks. Not only do the views of white officers differ from those of their black colleagues, but they stand far apart from those of whites overall: 57% of all white adults say no more changes are needed, as measured in the Center’s survey of the general public.

Relatively few officers (22%) say their job often makes them feel angry, but a significant share (49%) say it sometimes makes them feel this way. Officers who say their job often makes them feel angry seem to be less connected to the citizens they serve. Fully 45% say very few or none of the people in the neighborhoods they serve share their values. Only 20% of officers who say they hardly ever or never feel angry say the same.

Officers in larger departments are less likely than those in smaller departments to say they share values with the people in the areas where they patrol.

White officers are significantly more likely than black officers to associate negative emotions with their job.

White male officers were more likely to have physically struggled or fought with a suspect who was resisting arrest in the past month.

Blacks and department administrators (59%) are the only two major groups in which a majority is more concerned that officers will act too quickly than worry that they will wait too long before responding to a situation.

Among black officers, 69% say the protests were sincere efforts to force police accountability – more than double the proportion of whites (27%) who share this view. Female officers, older police and department administrators also are more likely than male officers, younger police and rank-and-file officers to believe protesters genuinely seek police accountability.

A narrow majority of officers (56%) feel that in some neighborhoods being aggressive is more effective than being courteous, while 44% agree or strongly agree that hard, physical tactics are necessary to deal with some people.

On both measures, a larger share of younger, less senior officers and those with less than five years of experience favor these techniques, while proportionally fewer older, more experienced officers or department administrators endorse them.

Younger officers and white officers are more likely than older or black officers to say they have become more callous.

Officers who report they have grown more callous are also more likely than their colleagues to endorse aggressive or physically harsh tactics with some people or in some parts of the community. They also are more likely than other officers to say they are frequently angered or frustrated by their jobs or to have been involved in a physical or verbal confrontation with a citizen in the past month or to have fired their service weapon while on duty at some point in their careers.

It is difficult to discern with these data whether increased callousness is a primary cause or a consequence of feelings of anger or frustration, or attitudes toward aggressive tactics. However, the data suggest that these feelings and behaviors are related. For example, officers who sense they have become more callous on the job are about twice as likely as those who say they have not to say their job nearly always or often makes them feel angry (30% vs. 12%). They also are more likely to feel frustrated by their job (63% vs. 37%).

Among those officers who say they have become more callous, about four-in-ten (38%) physically struggled or fought with a suspect in the previous month compared with 26% of those who say they have not become more insensitive.

About half of black officers (53%) say that whites are treated better than minorities in their department or agency when it comes to assignments and promotions. Few Hispanic (19%) or white officers (1%) agree. About six-in-ten white and Hispanic officers say minorities and whites are treated the same (compared with 39% of black officers).

Among white officers, 31% say they have discharged their service firearm while on duty. A smaller share of black (21%) and Hispanic (20%) officers report doing the same.

Suffice it to say that this study confirms what social science researcher Brene' Brown has been saying with regard to empathy, some of which is as follows:

Empathy is a skill set, the core of which is perspective taking.

Perspective taking is normally taught or modeled by parents. The more your perspective is in line with the dominant culture, the less you were probably taught about perspective taking. In the United States, the majority culture is white, Judeo-Christian, middle class, educated, and straight.

We all see the world in a different way, based upon our information, insight and experiences. Among other things, this takes into account our age, sexual orientation, physical ability, gender, race, ethnicity, and spirituality.

We can't take off the lens from which we see the world. Perspective taking is listening to the truth as other people experience it and acknowledging it as the truth. What you see is as true, real and honest as what I see, so let me be quite for a minute, listen and learn about what you see. Let me get curious about what you see. Let me ask questions about what you see.

Empathy is incompatible with shame and judgment. Staying out of judgment requires understanding.

"Empathy can be a transformative tool for deconstructing unconscious biases and building understanding between people of different backgrounds."

What does diversity within the police force have to do in that regard? "Integration and assimilation are very positive things because they enable people to see other perspectives, which is the core of empathy." Furthermore, "empathy is an amazing form of bias reduction and in keeping your biases in check."

However, from all appearances, the diversity within the police force is not promoting the empathy it could because otherwise, the differences in perceptions based upon race, ethnicity, gender and other such things wouldn't be quite so glaring. Police departments might want to do more to benefit from such diversity.

Furthermore, the results of this study confirm the need for police departments to develop a collaborative relationship with their community, among other things. I published an article on this subject on Oct. 29, 2015 which was republished by American Police Beat Magazine, which claims to be "The Voice of the Nation's Law Enforcement Community. Largest, most widely-read and respected publication for Law Enforcement in the U.S."

As mentioned in The Connection Between Empathy Toward Others and Ethics, "Empathy toward 'others' is strongly associated with ethics." As referenced in that article, the less "empathy" one has for "others," the easier it is for them to commit bad acts toward such "others" and to rationalize the morality of their behavior.  

Along those lines, it bears mentioning that the study stated as follows with regard to moral dilemmas:

"The situations police face on the job can often present moral dilemmas. When asked how they would advise a fellow officer in an instance where doing what is morally the right thing would require breaking a department rule, a majority of police (57%) say they would advise their colleague to do the morally right thing. Four-in-ten say they would advise the colleague to follow the department rule. There’s a significant racial divide on this question: 63% of white officers say they would advise doing the morally right thing, even if it meant breaking a department rule; only 43% of black officers say they would give the same advice."

However, "moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others.... [Therefore], we should refrain from passing moral judgments on beliefs and practices characteristic of cultures other than our own."

As Gary Saul Morson said, "empathy is not all of morality, but it is where it begins."

This is further explained by author Robert Wright in his TED Talk Progress is not a zero-sum game, wherein he said the following:

"We need a major round of moral progress in the world–see less hatred among groups, less bigotry–racial groups, religious groups, whatever. There is no alternative.

Moral progress–morality is based upon self-interest–when your welfare is correlated with mine. That set the moral progress so far. It is in everyone’s self-interest to further the moral evolution.

Why do so many people around the world hate us? To really understand why someone in a very different culture does something is a morally redeeming accomplishment. True understanding is an expansion of your moral compass."

As Tim Leberecht so eloquently said, "Empathy, the experience of understanding another person's condition from their perspective, is the link between ourselves and 'the other' and as such is a critical concept for any functioning peaceful human society. It serves as the prerequisite of moral imagination and judgment; only if we are capable of accepting the other as a being with feelings do we feel compelled to act morally."

So, before jumping to conclusions, I'd question what any given police officer views as "the morally right thing to do."  

Moreover, the study indicated that white male officers felt that the disciplinary process and opportunities for promotion were more fair than did other groups. As such, those officers who fall outside of the dominant culture might be more inclined to follow the departmental rules. 

We may all perceive things as we wish. However, the facts are the facts.

In 2010 alone, the costs associated with civil judgments and settlements related to police misconduct were $346,512,800, according to the CATO Institute.  

As Richard Emery and Ilann Margalit Maazel said in their article titled Why Civil Rights Lawsuits Do Not Deter Police Misconduct: The Conundrum of Indemnification And a Proposed Solution,  

"In thousands of cases around the country, civil rights plaintiffs successfully sue police officers for violating the Constitution. Yet, day in and day out, police officers make arrests without probable cause, use excessive force, deny arrestees medical treatment, and otherwise violate the Constitution with near impunity. Why don't civil lawsuits deter this reprehensible conduct? The answer, this essay posits, lies in the conundrum of indemnification....

[Cities regularly indemnify] police officers regardless of whether they acted intentionally, recklessly, or brutally; whether or not they violated federal or state law; or whether or not they violated the rules and regulations of the Police Department."

As it stands now, the tax payers are paying the salaries of those whose actions lead to such tragic results and then they flip the bill for the financial consequences that ensue. Furthermore, there's not only no liability on the part of the offending parties, but they also seem to keep their jobs, perks, and all.

Remember, according to the study, "seven-in-ten (72%) say that poorly performing officers are not held accountable."

If this doesn't provide some proof to support Robert Wright's position that "It is in everyone’s self-interest to further the moral evolution," I don't know what will.  

All things being equal, many police officers who are members of the dominant culture could use a good dose of empathy toward "others," and the same could be said of many members of the dominant culture who don't happen to be police officers.   

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