As Twin Citians try to make sense of yet another heartbreaking police shooting, maybe it’s necessary to revisit unnerving evidence that cops all across America are in a troubled state of mind.
Last winter, the Pew Research Center released results of an unusual survey that interviewed a representative sample of nearly 8,000 sworn officers throughout the country. Many thousands of cops serve ably and heroically to little acclaim every day, but the Pew poll revealed an American police community that is nervous, demoralized, estranged from the public it serves and divided within its ranks, especially on questions of race.
Pew wanted to measure the effect on police attitudes of “a series of deaths of black Americans during encounters with police” that set off a heated “national debate over police conduct … .”
But of course the Minneapolis victim a week ago was white — a middle-aged bride-to-be in a stylish neighborhood. Together with the identity of officer Mohamed Noor, who fired the fatal shot, as a young Somali-American, this was not the archetypal narrative inspiring familiar reflex accusations about race and class and “forces of occupation” in distressed and treacherous neighborhoods. Instead, some reflexes have responded to tensions over immigration, and to exhaustion with police-involved tragedies.
Fact is, death at police hands for someone like Justine Damond, 40, is almost unheard of. As of Friday afternoon, according to the Washington Post’s interactive database tracking police killings in America, Damond was only the third unarmed white woman among all 554 people shot and killed by cops so far this year. Only two of 963 police shooting victims in all of 2016 fit that description. Two of these five were under 18; Damond was the only one older than 29.
As for the involved officer being a younger (31) minority member of the force, it reminds one that Jeronimo Yanez, recently acquitted in the fatal shooting of Philando Castile, was a young Mexican-American cop.
These disasters suggest that the worthy goals of increasing the hiring of youthful minority officers must not be mistaken for an automatic solution to easing tensions between police and communities.
In fact, one of the unsettling findings in the Pew results is that younger officers often harbor more negative and uneasy attitudes than older officers do.
For example, some 53 percent of cops with five or fewer years on the force reported having struggled physically with an arrestee in the previous month, compared with 30 percent of more experienced cops.
Asked whether the citizens they serve “share their values,” 24 percent of officers over 50 doubted it — while 38 percent of cops 18 to 34 did.
Aggressive tactics were seen as “more useful” than courtesy in “certain areas” by 68 percent of young cops; just 44 percent of officers over 50 agreed.
And more young officers (72 percent) than older cops (63 percent) said shootings of blacks are “isolated incidents,” not “signs of a broader problem.”
Starker differences, meanwhile, separate cops as a whole from the general public.
Fully 38 percent of Americans in the general public think they understand “very well” the risks and challenges cops face. Exactly 1 percent of officers agree with that — and only 13 percent of cops think the public they serve even “somewhat” understands what they’re up against.
This conviction that the public doesn’t comprehend the world of trouble cops inhabit could be a problem both to the degree that it’s true we non-cops don’t get it — and to the degree that cops rightly or wrongly believe they are on their own, misjudged and unsupported in their hazardous work.
On deadly police encounters with African-Americans, two-thirds of cops (67 percent) believe they are isolated incidents, not part of a broader race problem — while just 39 percent of the general public is confident of that.
Much was made in news reports on the survey last winter about the gap on this score between white cops (72 percent say killings are “isolated incidents”) and black officers (just 43 percent) — and it is a worrisome sign, without a doubt.
But it’s also notable that black cops were well more than twice as likely as blacks in the general public (just 18 percent) to see these shootings as isolated events not reflecting a broader problem between police and African-Americans.
African-American officers may see things white officers don’t — and they may also see things blacks who aren’t in law enforcement don’t.
There could, of course, be more than one kind of “broader problem” affecting the dangers of encounters between cops and civilians. Pew’s survey found officers almost unanimously (95 percent in large departments) agreeing that both they and their colleagues have grown “more concerned about their safety” in recent years. Huge majorities (86 percent in large departments) also say cops “have become more reluctant to use force when it is appropriate.”
This seems to add credence to complaints in some quarters that under intensified scrutiny police have grown more skittish about keeping order on the streets, emboldening the disorderly. But it also describes an uncomfortable state of mind, at once more fearful and more hesitant, that may not make anyone safer. (And, once again, the survey suggests young cops are more worried than veterans.)
Finally, and maybe surprisingly, Pew researchers found that most rank-and-file cops think effective discipline is lacking for officers who screw up. I have complained often in this column about union contract rules and an arbitration process that make it too difficult to discipline wayward officers. Asked in the survey whether “officers who consistently do a poor job are held accountable,” 72 percent of officers said they are not.
To repeat: Many thousands of police officers across America are skilled and self-sacrificing public servants. But they may be right that we in the public don’t begin to understand their situation or the effects it has on them. We had better work on that.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.