In recent years, thanks in no small part to smartphone videos, police departments in Texas and across the nation have faced demands for accountability in the wake of outrageous abuses of authority and force. How does public criticism affect policing?
Shefali Patil, an organizational psychologist at the University of Texas, studies how employees react in their work environment. After a 2017 Pew Research study found that a majority of police officers believe the public doesn’t understand the risks and safety concerns they face, Patil became interested on how police officer job performance is being affected by public criticism.
Patil divides the ways police officers approach crime into liberal and conservative. She says that the liberal approach focuses on rehabilitation and empathy, while the conservative approach focuses on detention. Police officers’ reaction to public criticism depends on their approach to crime, Patil says.
“[Police officers] who are more empathetic expect the public to understand the job. What is happening is they have those expectations and the public is responding with criticism and a lack of public appreciation,” Patil says. “The more conservative, more authoritarian officers don’t expect it. The reason why they have the uniform is because they have duties and responsibilities that other people are not expected to understand.”
Patil surveyed 164 officers about how they view the criminal justice system and how well the public understands the challenges of their job. She had independent experts analyze 794 bodycam videos of the officers carrying out their everyday duties, including jail transports, traffic and DUI stops, transient arrests, car crashes, building searches and house alarm calls.
She found that those who favored a more compassionate approach to justice struggled to be effective when they felt underappreciated. These officers were more likely to score lower on overall performance, competence and use of tactical best practices for officer safety.
Officers who lean conservative — favoring punitive rather than rehabilitative approaches to justice — did not suffer performance issues in the face of the same negative public perceptions. The expert raters found that these officers generally performed as trained.
“Conservative cops believe there should be a divide between themselves and the community,” Patil said, whereas the more empathetic officers may strive for mutual understanding and become frustrated in the effort.
Patil says that police officers experience anxiety and frustration when they feel the public’s narrative of their job is different from their own.
“I think at least from the officer’s perspective, they feel that when an incident happens, the police officer never has a chance. It’s automatically assumed that they did something wrong. Sometimes police officers do do something wrong. They feel that it’s not due process,” Patil says. “I think [officers’] narratives get lost in the debates we are having nationwide.”
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments welcome.