(AP Photo: Gene J. Puskar)

(AP Photo: Gene J. Puskar)

How police think

Americans’ relationship with the police is complicated – and has become more complicated in the wake of a highly-publicized series of shootings of people of color over the past several years.

This research from Shefali Patil at the University of Texas at Austin explores this topic from the officers’ perspective – specifically, their perceptions of power, their relationship with the communities they serve, and how those two factors affect performance.

Although nearly 90% of Americans rate police officers’ jobs as very risky, the vast majority of officers believe the public really doesn’t understand just how risky and challenging their job is.  Officers react to that lack of understanding in two different ways.

  • The hard-liners who believe in “get tough” law enforcement and strong punishment for crimes.  These officers tend to not give a damn whether people understand them or not.
  • The soft-liners who believe in rehabilitation and community outreach as a way to reduce crime.  When these officers feel misunderstood, they feel frustrated, unappreciated, and almost hurt because they feel they are genuinely trying to build a bridge to those they serve.

Dr. Patil then collected body camera footage from 164 officers conducting traffic stops, arrests, and house calls.  She showed that footage to a group of current and retired supervisors and asked them to rate the officers’ performance.  The “soft-line” officers tended to receive lower ratings, either because they hesitated or acted too quickly and thus violated safety protocols.

Perhaps this says something about the subjectivity of the raters. Or perhaps the frustration that “soft-line” officers feel really does make them less effective.  As one of them said, “It makes not only me, but I see it in a lot of these guys, they don’t want to be proactive. Officers pause, and there’s going to be times where it’s going to be a safety issue.”

One option: give officers less latitude to make decisions.  Paradoxically, Dr. Patil’s research suggests that those officers who feel misunderstood but have limited autonomy actually perform better than those who have a lot of freedom.

Another option – perhaps a better one over the long-term – is to design outreach that helps these “soft-line” officers, in particular, better cope with the lack of understanding they feel from the public.