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In study of police officers’ job expectations, perceived conflict over role is a significant stressor

The deaths of unarmed citizens and the ensuing Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police movements have raised questions about the scope of U.S. policing. A new study examined police officers’ expectations for policing, considering how they perceive their role based on divergent ideas and demands from the public, agencies, and themselves. The study found that officers routinely experience conflict over their roles, with many characterizing such conflict as the most stressful part of their work.

The study, by a researcher at Duke University, appears in Justice Quarterly, a publication of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences.

“Democratic police reforms have reduced the isolation of officers from the public, putting recent public demands for changes to U.S. policing into stark relief with existing practices and priorities of police agencies,” explains Meret S. Hofer, a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University School of Medicine and organizational psychologist in policing research at RTI International, a nonprofit research institute. “It is important to understand whether external role expectations acting on police officers converge or whether officers experience role conflict related to negotiating incompatible priorities.”

In her study, Hofer assessed the strain 48 officers perceived in reconciling potentially conflicting expectations for their work. She used role conflict as the framework to analyze data collected from in-depth, semi-structured interviews in 2019 with officers, who represented a diverse group demographically and geographically, and came from a variety of agencies and jurisdictions. Her study is the first to comprehensively explore role conflict related to officers’ perceptions of the mismatch between role expectations perceived to be communicated by the public and by officers’ agencies in today’s context.

The study identified a high prevalence of role conflict in officers’ professional experiences. Many officers framed the overall strain of their work demands by distinguishing the range of expectations placed upon them by different aspects of their occupational environment, mentioning tasks during a given shift from superiors, citizens, local officials, and others. Every officer described role conflict and more than half characterized it as a routine stressor, with many saying role conflict was the single most stressful aspect of their work.

In addition to boosting stress levels, conflict over roles can harm officers’ health and cognitive processing, and may increase use of force, prior studies have found.

Officers’ responses suggest that expectations for policing often do not align, eliciting conflict in officers’ roles as they reconcile divergent priorities and directives in their work. The study identified two primary reasons for this incoherence: operational processes that are poorly aligned with agencies’ or officers’ priorities, and public expectations that are incompatible with the realities of officers’ work.

Many officers described a disconnect between their agencies’ mission and operational communications, structures, and processes—exemplified by contradictory supervisory directives, resource allocations, operational processes that are not strategically informed, and performance evaluations that do not consider engagement and social welfare activities.

 “Given the legitimacy crisis facing U.S. policing, policymakers and practitioners should develop strategies that directly address the incoherence in officers’ occupational environment,” suggests Hofer. Specifically, they should assess and reflect public priorities in the generation of public safety and develop agency resources and processes that support valued activities.

“Doing this may help officers who are routinely negotiating double binds in their duties, and strengthen the foundation for improving police-community relations as the public’s needs and priorities are incorporated into police practice,” Hofer adds.

Among the study’s limitations, Hofer notes that findings are based solely on officers’ perceptions and that the study is not intended to be representative.

The study was funded by the University of Virginia and the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law School.

Summarized from Justice Quarterly, “It’s a Constant Juggling Act”: Toward Coherent Priorities for U.S. Policing by Hofer, MS (Duke University). Copyright 2021. The Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. All rights reserved.

Contact Information
Caitlin Kizielewicz
Crime and Justice Research Alliance
(412) 554-0074