March 9, 2017

Roughly one-in-five police frequently feel angry and frustrated on the job

About one-in-five police officers nationally (21%) say their job nearly always or often makes them feel angry and frustrated – feelings that are linked to more negative views toward the public. These frequently angry, frustrated officers also are more likely than their colleagues to support more physical or aggressive policing methods, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted May 19-Aug. 14, 2016, by the National Police Research Platform of 7,917 sworn police and sheriff’s officers in 54 departments with at least 100 officers.

Frustration is more prevalent than anger among today’s police officers. About half of the officers surveyed (51%) say their work nearly always (10%) or often (41%) makes them feel frustrated, while 22% say they nearly always (3%) or often (19%) feel angry. When these two measures are combined, a total of 21% of officers say they nearly always or often feel angry and frustrated.

The survey finds that officers who frequently feel angry and frustrated by their job are twice as likely as all other police to say officers have reason to distrust most people (46% vs. 23%). They are more likely than their colleagues to agree that some people can only be brought to reason the hard, physical way (56% vs. 41%) and to say they have become more callous toward people since taking this job (77% vs. 50%). 

Angry and frustrated officers also are more likely to have physically struggled or fought with a suspect in the past month (44% vs. 30%) or to have been verbally abused by a citizen (79% vs. 64%)

It is important to bear in mind that the factors that are associated with being angry and frustrated cannot be said to have caused officers to feel this way. For example, while the study shows that officers who say their job nearly always or often makes them feel angry and frustrated are more likely than their colleagues to agree that “hard, physical” tactics are needed for some people, that does not mean that often being angry and frustrated necessarily causes an officer to support the use of more aggressive methods. By the same token, it cannot be claimed that favoring more aggressive tactics causes an officer to be more frequently angry and frustrated. There may be other factors common to both an officer’s level of anger and frustration and his or her attitude toward the use of more physical tactics that are the real causes.

Angry, frustrated officers view the public more negatively

Officers who say their job nearly always or often makes them feel angry and frustrated have a markedly more negative view of the public in general than do other officers. These differences are most striking when officers who are frequently angry and frustrated are compared with the plurality of officers at the other end of the emotional spectrum – those who are not frequently angry or frustrated.

For example, half of all frequently angry and frustrated officers say that most people respect the police, a view shared by roughly eight-in-ten officers (78%) who are not frequently angry or frustrated. Officers who say they frequently feel frustrated by their job, but not angry, fall squarely in the middle.

In addition, frequently angry and frustrated officers are roughly twice as likely as those who are not frequently angry or frustrated to agree that police have reason to be distrustful of most citizens (46% vs. 21%). About eight-in-ten angry and frustrated officers (77%) agree that they have become more callous toward people since taking the job. This compares with 42% of officers who say they are not frequently angry or frustrated.

And while a large majority (75%) of officers who don’t frequently feel frustrated or angry believe the media treat police unfairly, an even larger share of angry and frustrated officers say this (91%).

Frequently angry and frustrated officers are also less likely than those who are not often angry or frustrated to say they have a lot in common with the people in the areas where they work. Only about half (54%) of these officers say that at least some people in these areas share their values and beliefs. By contrast, eight-in-ten officers who are not often angry or frustrated say the same.

Angry, frustrated officers approve of more aggressive tactics

Officers who say their job nearly always or often makes them feel angry and frustrated are significantly more likely than their colleagues to favor the use of aggressive tactics in dealing with some citizens. They also are more likely to have struggled or fought with a suspect who was resisting arrest in the past month or to have been verbally abused by a citizen during the same period.

About seven-in-ten officers (71%) who are frequently angry and frustrated agree that aggressive tactics are more useful than a courteous approach in some parts of their community. By contrast, about half of officers who are not frequently angry or frustrated say the same (48%).

Frequently angry and frustrated officers also are more likely than other police to agree that some people can only be brought to reason the hard, physical way (56%), a view shared by 37% of officers who are not frequently angry or frustrated.

The experiences officers have had in the field also differ by the degree to which they feel angry or frustrated on the job. About four-in-ten angry and frustrated officers (44%) say they have physically struggled or fought with a suspect who was resisting arrest in the past month. By contrast, about three-in-ten (28%) officers who are not frequently angry or frustrated have had a physical confrontation during that time. These frequently angry, frustrated officers also are more likely than those who are not frequently angry or frustrated to say they have been verbally abused by a citizen in the past month (79% vs. 59%).

Are police more angry and frustrated than other workers?

Many workers have moments of anger and frustration on the job. But are police any different from the typical worker in this regard?

These data provide an incomplete answer. In addition to being asked how often their job makes them feel angry or frustrated, police officers were asked how often they feel fulfilled by their job. In a separate Pew Research Center survey of the general public conducted Aug. 16-Sept. 12, 2016, the 2,767 employed adults included in the survey were asked how often their jobs make them feel frustrated or fulfilled. The question measuring job-related anger was not asked in the general public survey, however.

Employed Americans, on average, express considerably less frustration on the job than do police. Only 29% of the public but 51% of officers say their job nearly always or often makes them feel frustrated. At the same time, the typical worker more often feels fulfilled by their work than do police officers (52% vs. 42%).

Topics: Business and Labor, Criminal Justice, Violence and Society, Work and Employment

  1. Photo of Rich Morin

    is a senior editor focusing on social and demographic trends at Pew Research Center.

12 Comments

  1. Anonymous2 months ago

    This article is misleading and makes broad categorizations based on a very small survey size. Only 7,900 officers participated in this survey out of the approximately 800,000 law enforcement officers in the US. The article also fails to disclose how the respondents were chosen, what geographic etc. I point these concerns out to say I don’t put much faith in the “study” or the inferences the article attempts to make with the general population which the sample size was under 3000 participants

    1. Anonymous2 months ago

      Social science research theory indicates otherwise. Most survey research is conducted with similar size samples.

  2. Anonymous2 months ago

    I note however that 51 or 52% are either or both frequently frustrated and/or angry, a percentage much easier to believe given the tendency toward violence displayed by the nation’s LEOs. Given a military training regime, a PR department and police union trying (quite successfully) to project to the public the notion the officers are in a constant state of peril (despite worker comp stats that reveal law-enforcement to have lower workplace injury rates than dentistry), the truth of the matter is that law,-enforcement is highly attractive to the very kind of person that sees force as a solution to most social problems and is willing to use it if they believe their actions will be met with approval by their superior and fellow officers no matter how illegal those acts may be. The strong taboo against reporting crimes by fellow officers is equal to that of 1% (outlaw) bike gangs like HA, Bandidos, etc. or even La Cosa Nostra itself. This circumstance would never, nor could ever.. evolved in the national PDs if there wasn’t an equally strong need for it eg. organized crime outfits. The police PR claims there is nothing unusual about the US situation vis a vis that doesn’t exist anywhere near as strongly in European PDs, yet does find reflection in corrupt S. American civil police depts, thus accounting for the disproportionate use by dictators to recruit death squad members, torturers, citizen spies willing to murder relatives, old aquaintances….even old friends from police depts rather than simply order their more highly trained (but apparently more ethical) soldiers to do these things. It is no coincidence that the US soldiers selected for guard duty at Abu Ghraib tended to come from police depts or security guard positions prior to enlisting for duty in Iraq. Until a concerted effort to root out high-RWA /SDO personalities from among LE is made, the violence will escalate

    1. Anonymous2 months ago

      Eloquently stated

  3. Anonymous2 months ago

    Wonder how many of these same officers have issues with mental health. There are WAY too many officers with mental illnesses who should NOT be given the authority to use a weapon.

    1. Anonymous1 month ago

      Yes!

  4. Packard Day2 months ago

    “Only” 1 in 5 cops frequently angry and frustrated? Really? Given some of the dregs of society we pay cops to deal with on our behalf, I am surprised that the number is not significantly higher. Moreover, I also wonder how many readers of this Pew Research site would ever consider serving as cop in cities like Baltimore, south Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Washington, Cleveland, or Newark…for any wage?

    1. Anonymous2 months ago

      Great insight and great questions.

    2. Anonymous2 months ago

      wrong question

    3. Anonymous1 month ago

      I know you’re gonna respond with “I’m talking about crime” when a decent person points out the racism implied in that statement, but the root causes of crime are trauma, other forms of mental illness, and poverty. If we had an equitable society and an economy that didn’t tear social relationships to shreds, we could recognize when our friends, family, and peers were neurologically unwell and get them some help. As it is, cops just make things worse. #BlackLivesMatter #DismantlePrisons #AbolishPolice #StrongCommunitiesMakeThemObsolete #WeAreUnstoppable #AnotherWorldIsPossible #AbolitionNOW!

      1. Packard Day1 month ago

        Fortunately, the good people living in south Chicago and Baltimore are all getting to test first hand whether it is indeed the cops who “just make things worse.”___Police in these two locals are systematically pulling back, refraining from getting too involved in dangerous domestic disputes, and more or less, letting folks do what folks are going to do. Some law enforcement professionals call it “the self-cleaning oven strategy” where the heat is allowed to be turned up in the targeted neighborhoods and then the debris is simply cleaned up afterward. For others, it is just called the police version of the ROAD program (i.e. Retired On Active Duty).

      2. Anonymous1 month ago

        You forgot ignorance, lack of motivation, poor family values, apathy and playing the victim role contributing to crime, and poverty. The cops are left to deal with the social failures of politics, laws and economics.