In 2012, a 17-year-old unarmed black boy named Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Florida by a neighborhood watch volunteer named George Zimmerman. Nearly a year and a half later, Zimmerman was found not guilty of second-degree murder and acquitted of manslaughter by a six-person jury (of which five members were white), sparking rallies, marches, and public outrage.
In response, three black women – Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi – began using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media, sparking a movement that has grown into an international network of over 30 local chapters.
Since the movement began, North Americans have been shocked by the deaths and injuries of numerous unarmed, innocent black Americans. Police killed at least 102 unarmed black people in 2015 – five times the number of unarmed white people shot and killed in the same time frame (despite the black population being significantly smaller than the white population).
We wanted to hear from the men and women on the ground, so we surveyed over 200 police officers from across the U.S. about their knowledge of and attitudes toward the Black Lives Matter (referred to as BLM in the assets) movement, police brutality, and the safety of both themselves and the public.
Police Officers’ Beliefs About Black Lives Matter
Our survey concluded that the vast majority of police officers feel negatively toward the BLM movement. When asked what they hoped the outcome of the movement would be, nearly 60 percent said that police brutality and racism aren’t real problems or the whole thing is overblown.
Another 11 percent said they’d like to see officers trained more on racial issues and how to de-escalate situations peacefully, and only 8 percent hoped that the department would connect with the black community and BLM.
Frighteningly, 1 percent of those surveyed expressed hope that BLM members would die.
The feelings of those few officers surveyed may provide some insight into why some BLM protestors have been arrested during peaceful protests . However, their responses – which were write-ins and not part of our multiple-choice survey – were actually much more explicit compared with detaining BLM supporters.
Officer Safety and Race
We asked officers how safe they felt on the job, and then asked whether they felt safer with a black or a white individual. The majority (50 percent) said that they felt unsafe occasionally. A smaller but significant group (35 percent) said they felt unsafe at least once a week. And more than 10 percent said that they fear for their lives on a daily basis.
Of those groups, the significant majority claimed that race doesn’t factor into their feelings of safety, while a smaller group said they felt safer with a white individual. Almost no officers said they felt safer with a black individual.
As for the source of this fear and feeling of vulnerability among officers, the majority said that the media and general public’s feeling of negativity toward police officers make them feel unsafe. 30 percent also said that violence they’d experienced toward themselves or others while on the job contributes to their feeling of vulnerability.
Interestingly, the feeling of danger doesn’t actually match up with public data. While officers have been shot at BLM protests , police officers are typically safer today than they have been in decades .
Accountability, Public Rights, and Other Officer Beliefs
The majority of officers surveyed were strongly for accountability, both with the public and within the police force. 68 percent said they believe onlookers should be allowed to film or photograph police interactions and altercations with civilians. 62 percent said they have personally spoken out against unnecessary violence they’ve witnessed. And 49 percent believe body cameras should be part of the required uniform.
In stark contrast with their earlier statements that race doesn’t matter, however, 26 percent of officers said that they believe black people are more likely to be up to no good, and 11 percent said that officers are more likely to stop, search, or react violently toward black individuals.
Officer Opinions, by Generation
When filtered by generation, officer responses form distinct patterns. Baby boomers are three times more likely (33 percent) to say they feel safer with a white individual than Gen X officers (at 11 percent), and more than twice as likely than any other generation to believe that black individuals do things worth stopping, searching, or reacting violently toward.
The majority of Gen Xers said they believe police officers receive adequate training on racial issues (60 percent), and 33 percent denied that police brutality and racism are problems.
Officer Opinions, by Rank
When filtered by rank, officer opinions again showed certain biases. Higher-ranking officers reported feeling significantly more informed about BLM than lower-ranking individuals. And only 18 percent of high-ranking officers believe police brutality and racism are not problems (compared with 32 percent of those in the lower ranks).
Officer Opinions, by Race & Ethnicity
Filtering by race also showed a distinct difference in opinion among officers. While the vast majority of officers of color (71 percent) feel negatively about the BLM movement, the number of white officers who feel negatively is still much greater (90 percent). Officers of color were also less likely to believe that police receive adequate training on racial issues (50 percent, compared with 58 percent of white officers).
Officers of color are also more likely to report feeling safer with a white individual (21 percent) and believing that black individuals are more likely to be doing something worth keeping an eye on (42 percent, compared with 24 percent of white officers).
Officer Opinions, by Location
The American South – a region that social science suggests is still more racist than its Northern counterparts – is the region most likely to feel negatively about the BLM movement. The region least likely to feel negatively is the Northeast.
Black Lives Matter
With stories of police shootings of unarmed black men – like the man recently killed while having car trouble or the health professional shot while on the ground with his hands in the air – the movement and outrage continue to grow. The majority of officers who expressed hope that the movement will go away are unlikely to get their wish soon.
The public, the movement, and those charged with protecting our streets will have to find a way to end the violence against black people, general protesters, and officers alike.
We surveyed over 200 police officers from around the United States. Higher ranks included sergeant, captain, lieutenant, and chief. Lower ranks included officer, deputy, detective, investigator, and inspector. Officers of color included officers who identified as Black or African-American, Native American, Asian-American, or Hispanic. Generational Grouping was done according to the year ranges set by Pew Research .