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Police Officers Fear More For Their Safety, Pew Survey Finds


Eighty-six percent of American police officers say their job is getting harder since the high-profile incidents involving police and African-Americans and the protests that have followed. That statistic comes from a national survey of police officers that was just released by the Pew Research Center.

The report offers a wide-ranging look at what cops are thinking these days, and our law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste is with us now to talk about it. Hi, Martin.


MCEVERS: So Pew calls this report "Behind The Badge." What's the focus here?

KASTE: Well, as you and I have both experienced in our reporting, it's really hard sometimes to get police to talk on the record...


KASTE: ...About how they perceive the political environment. Department policies prohibit them usually from saying things. So this is really useful. What Pew has done here is they commissioned online interviews, and almost 8,000 officers - sheriff's deputies and police officers - responded. And this is really the best look we've had at what they're thinking in a long time.

MCEVERS: They asked the officers a lot of questions. I mean what jumps out at you?

KASTE: Well, I think the headline number here is that 93 percent of them now say that they're more concerned about their safety. And that's understandable in part because the survey was done over the summer. Right in the middle of the survey period, the - we had the horrible incidents in Dallas and Baton Rouge...


KASTE: ...Where officers were ambushed and killed. So that's understandable.


KASTE: But there's also kind of this broader sense of alienation by the officers. Most of them say the public doesn't get the risks that they face. And this number - 67 percent of them - say that the deaths of blacks in police encounters of the last couple of years have been isolated incidents, and that's something the public sees differently. Most of the public thinks those incidents are a sign of broader problems. So really what we have here is a disconnect between the cops, who think this is cases of bad apples, where the public...


KASTE: ...Thinks there is a deeper problem.

MCEVERS: So two-thirds of cops see these incidents as isolated incidents. Is that across the board?

KASTE: No, and that's where things get interesting. If you kind of drill down here, you find that police are not monolithic on this. If you look at them by race, the black cops are more likely to see these incidents as part of - or signs of a broader problem. Fifty-seven percent of the black officers said that.

By comparison, very few of the white officers - only about 27 percent - saw it that way. So there's a real difference there when it comes to race.

MCEVERS: In the cops who responded to this survey, what were their impressions of groups like Black Lives Matter?

KASTE: Well, you see a lot of suspicion. The officers told Pew that they see these protests as motivated by long-standing bias against the police and not a genuine desire to hold officers accountable. And I will say that I've seen that or I've heard that from officers, especially off the record. There's a sense that they're very resentful of the protest movement.

MCEVERS: Do any other numbers in the report stick out for you?

KASTE: Well, there's a lot here to unpack, a lot that's very interesting. Anybody who's interested in what police are thinking should definitely go online and read this at the...


KASTE: ...Pew website. What I found interesting was that younger officers seem more likely to use force...


KASTE: ...Compared to older officers, also that the rank-and-file cops is something we've heard, but now we've seen the numbers that they are more pro-gun than the general public. But that also kind of breaks down a little bit into different sections because while most officers would oppose a ban on assault weapons, say, the vast majority of them - 88 percent - do favor background checks, even on private gun sales. So they match up with the public there.

And one thing really caught my attention on illegal immigration. It's been kind of the conventional wisdom that police don't want to get involved in enforcing immigration laws, but the survey here says that 52 percent of cops do think they should play a role in identifying people who are in the country illegally. And that's kind of an important piece of information to know if the Trump administration follows through with their desire to have local police help with immigration enforcement.

MCEVERS: Martin Kaste, our law enforcement correspondent, thank you.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.