Although Americans overall have positive feelings about police officers, people’s opinions are starkly divided based on race, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center.
The Pew study, released in September, surveyed nearly 5,000 people online about their feelings on various jobs — including police officer and college professor — as well as different political philosophies. When taking respondents’ race into account, Pew found 74 percent of whites viewed police positively and rated their feelings for them as “warm” or “very warm.”
But for blacks and Hispanics surveyed, feelings were less positive.
Most black respondents surveyed had a more negative view of police, with only 30 percent reporting positive feelings for them. Twenty-eight percent of black people surveyed had neutral feelings for police. Among Hispanics surveyed, 55 percent reported positive feelings for police, while 25 percent reported neutral feelings.
The data isn’t surprising to Louisville Metro Police Major Joshua Judah. Last week, he and a dozen other officers gathered at a coffee shop in the Schnitzelburg neighborhood for “Coffee with a Cop,” an event created to bring police and citizens together to talk, and allow citizens to ask questions.
Judah believes a history of systemic racism in America is why many people of color have a negative opinion of police. He said LMPD doesn’t usually encounter hostility because of race, but he said officers are trained to respond properly to any racial tensions in their work.
“We’re certainly aware that there is a perception among communities of color that policing has historically been unjust,” Judah said. “And so, that’s all in the background of what’s going on in every interaction that we have.
“The living history of institutionalized, state-sanctioned racism is still in the living memory of many of the people in our communities. It takes a lot of time and effort to move past that, and certainly, as a society, we aren’t there yet.”
Judah said strained relations between police and black communities hit a fever pitch three years ago after a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed black man. Brown’s death sparked weeks of protests — both peaceful and violent. And since then, more fatal shootings of black people by police officers has further taxed relations between cops and citizens.
‘That still happens to me’
LMPD Major Judah said Louisville is different and has good relations with people of color. I spoke to a few people walking downtown last week who agreed, but their views still varied according to race, a lot like those of the people surveyed by Pew.
Jabbar Irby, a black man from New Jersey, said not all cops are bad but he still feels fear when he sees them. And whether the officer is white or black doesn’t change that for him. Irby said there’s a philosophy connected with the police code which sees black skin as a threat.
“You never know when you’re getting pulled over and whether or not you’re going to die that day. That’s the reality of it,” Irby said. I have a undergraduate degree in economics. I have an MBA. I’m a vice president for a major financial institution. But if I don’t have my work clothes on, in terms of being pulled over in my car, in terms of being handcuffed on the side of the road in front of my child, in terms of the general harassment, the stares, the calling me out of my name when they speak to me, that still happens to me.
“So if I’m the guy that’s following all of the laws and that’s happening to me, if I’m the guy with everything going for him and that’s happening to me, what happening to the regular guy who happens to be down on his luck?”
Julio Driggs said he doesn’t get the stares or treatment that Irby experiences, but he said his dad does. Driggs is half-Cuban and said he’s noticed police officers treating his darker-skinned father differently than him.
Regardless, Driggs said he sees police as an important fixture in the community; albeit a fixture with some problems on a national scale.
“You don’t have to look hard to recognize that there is disparate treatment,” said Driggs. “Just because you’ve never had a negative experience with the police, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Doesn’t mean you can’t put yourself in the shoes of someone, in some of those groups of people, who have had those experiences.”
Nina Davis knows more than many about the police. Her dad is a retired officer and her brother is an enlisted officer. Davis is white, but she said that shouldn’t make a difference in how police see her. She views officers positively, and said people’s opinions would change if they saw the situation through the eyes of a cop.
“There’s a lot of good police out there and I view them as heroes,” Davis said. She also said there are bad officers who hurt the reputations of others.
“[Officers] put on a uniform every day for a low salary to protect our community, and they get a lot of hate because of some bad apples who gave their reputation a bad name,” she said. “But they go out and they protect us regardless.”
Though nationally, race colors people’s opinion of cops, LMPD Major Judah said conversations could lead to change. As he and other officers talked to Louisvillians at “Coffee with a Cop,” some there to meet LMPD and others there for morning coffee, Judah said other police departments need to work to regain people’s trust. That begins, Judah said, with cops ensuring their decisions are not swayed by race, culture and socioeconomic status.
“The key is demonstrating that you are an unbiased, fair, transparent agency,” Judah said. He points to LMPD’s use of body cameras as an example. “I know that we’re working very hard to — interaction by interaction — change that [negative] perception and to show that we are a professional agency that does not care what color you are. We care about making this a safer community.”
Judah said it will take time for police and society to gain trust in communities of color. He hopes in Louisville, at least, citizen opinions of police will improve.
The featured image is from a “Coffee With A Cop” event in July 2016.