POLITICS

Police Officers Overwhelmingly Agree That Bad Cops Aren’t Held Accountable

There's at least one belief officers and protesters have in common.

01/11/2017 12:01 am ET
Jim Young / Reuters

WASHINGTON ― U.S. police officers largely believe high-profile deaths of black people at the hands of law enforcement officers have made their jobs more difficult, according to a new national survey. They’re also skeptical of the protests that have followed those tragic incidents.

But there’s one key issue where it turns out protesters and law enforcement officers overwhelmingly agree: Bad cops aren’t held accountable.

Seventy-two percent of U.S. police officers do not believe that officers who consistently do a poor job are held accountable, according to a new Pew Research Center survey conducted by the National Police Research Platform.

Asked whether they agreed with the idea that officers who consistently do a poor job are held accountable, 47 percent of officers disagreed and 25 percent strongly disagreed. Barely one-quarter of officers surveyed either agreed or strongly agreed that officers who do a poor job are held accountable (24 percent agreed, while just 3 percent strongly agreed).

The majority of officers, 53 percent, either disagreed or strongly disagreed that the disciplinary process at their agency is fair, while a combined 46 percent agreed or strongly agreed that it is fair.

The Pew Research Center’s survey was conducted last year and involved nearly 8,000 law enforcement officers. Many of the other results of the survey will not be terribly surprising to those paying close attention to the tensions between law enforcement and many of the communities they patrol. It found that most officers don’t believe the public understands the risks and challenges of being a police officer, for example. But the survey does reveal deep divisions within the law enforcement community.

While the majority of black officers, 69 percent, believe protesters are motivated at least in part by a legitimate interest in bringing about police accountability, just 27 percent of white officers believe the same thing.

The survey also found that the overwhelming majority of white officers, 92 percent, believe the country has already made the needed changes to achieve racial equality, an view shared by just 8 percent of African-American citizens and by a comparatively low percent of the public at large.

“Overall, the surveys find that police are significantly more likely than the public to say the country has made the changes necessary to give blacks equal rights with whites (80% vs. 48%),” the Pew Research Center said in a report. “By contrast, half of the public believes the country still needs to make changes to achieve racial equality, a view shared by only 16% of police.”

The Justice Department’s forthcoming report on the Chicago Police Department is likely to focus on how many of the nation’s law enforcement agencies fail to hold officers accountable when they engage in misconduct. 

Under Obama, DOJ’s Civil Rights Division has taken a more aggressive approach to addressing systemic problems of police misconduct, and many of its reports on police departments have focused on problems in their internal affairs systems.

But Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who is all but certain to be confirmed as President-elect Donald Trump’s attorney general, indicated Tuesday that he’d be hesitant to pursue consent decrees with police departments where federal investigators have found patterns of unconstitutional conduct, in part because having DOJ say an agency is systematically failing would be bad for officer morale. 

Read the Pew Research Center’s full report here.

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