Officer morale, public perception among struggles of police officers, study says

By Carrie Brown McWhorter

The Alabama Baptist

The challenges of modern-day policing are significant, but Alabama law enforcement officials say their commitment to the safety of their communities remains top priority.

“I can honestly say these are the most challenging times I’ve seen in my 32-year career,” said Birmingham Police Chief A.C. Roper. “The tenuous nature of law enforcement can affect an officer’s morale but we have to remember we are committed to a cause that’s greater than us. Unfortunately too many of our officers across the nation are dying in service to that call.”

Roper said it is easy to forget that more than a million officers serve throughout the United States. National issues combined with local concerns affect morale, he said.

“Our officers are concerned about the attacks on the nobility of our profession and the national criticism when an officer does something wrong,” Roper said. “They are concerned about their safety and concerned about support for their efforts.”

Officer morale is a concern across the nation, as reported in “Behind the Badge,” a Pew Research Center study conducted May 19–Aug. 14, 2016, and released in January 2017. The nationwide survey of police officers examined several issues related to attitudes about law enforcement and found significant differences between officer and public perceptions of the job.

In overwhelming numbers (86 percent), officers said high-profile incidents between blacks and police have made their jobs harder.

Black officers were more likely than white officers to see the deaths of blacks during encounters with police as signs of a broader problem. White officers were more likely to see these deadly encounters as isolated incidents.

Conflicting attitudes are just part of the job, however, according to the survey.

Fifty-eight percent of officers surveyed said they nearly always or often feel proud about their work yet 51 percent said it nearly always or often makes them feel frustrated. A majority of officers (55 percent) report experiencing both verbal abuse and expressions of thanks in the course of their daily duties.

Lt. Stacy Bates, public information officer for the Huntsville Police Department, said morale in his department is positive overall, which he credits to community support of the department. Community policing efforts have made a difference.

“We have been engaged in community policing efforts for years and we think that helps avoid some of the issues that cities across the nation are facing,” Bates said.

Community involvement and citizen police academies let local residents know why the police do what they do and allow officers to get to know the citizens and their problems, as well as open discussions about how both groups can work to resolve the issues.

“All of this type of stuff together really helps to keep a positive relationship between the police and the community,” Bates said.

Of particular note in the Pew study are the sharply different views held by police officers and the public when it comes to issues of policing and public safety.

Real-life experience

Most Americans say they understand the risks and challenges officers face but the police disagree. Only 14 percent of officers say the public understands these risks very or somewhat well, while 86 percent say the public doesn’t understand them too well or at all.

For example, many citizens do not realize the police are often the first ones called on to deal with the mentally ill.

“There are no 24-hour-a-day mental illness response agencies so citizens have no option but to call the police,” Roper said. “Funding has been cut significantly for social service agencies so they are unable to provide the level of service that’s needed, which puts our officers on the front lines.”

Roper calls this an “over-reliance on police officers” and said socio-economic issues like poverty, the breakdown of the family unit, high unemployment rates in many communities and lack of education often “fall in the laps of our police officers.”

While community education efforts are helpful, no simulation experience can fully show what an officer may be faced with on any given day.

“Until you are actually put in the situation where you have to make the quick and very serious decisions that an officer has to make, you don’t completely know what it’s like,” Bates said.

More than 90 percent of officers surveyed said it is at least somewhat important to have a detailed understanding of the people, places and culture in the area where they work in order to be effective at their jobs.

Communities need to partner with their local police department and take ownership of their neighborhoods as well, Roper said.

“We can’t be successful without good community support,” he said, including support from the faith community.

“We truly need the faith community to step out of the walls and engage as individuals or through resourcing other support agencies,” Roper said. “We need the Church to be the light that God has called it to be. Our officers need their prayers because prayer makes a difference.”

To read the full “Behind the Badge” report, visit www.pewsocialtrends.org.

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