Do the political views of police mirror those of the people they serve?
That's a question a data-mining startup is attempting to answer. Using 35 years of information from the Federal Election Commission and state-level data from various regulatory agencies, the non-partisan political data site Crowdpac compared the money donated to political candidates and causes by individual police officers to the money donated by the public at large in the cities and counties where the officers work.
Police officers in 38 states are identified as "more conservative" than the population; those in 12 states are identified as "more liberal." By county, the most conservative cops in the nation are all in Texas: Fanning, Collin, Hunt, Tom Green, and Grayson counties. The country's most liberal cops are in Prince George's County, Maryland; San Francisco; New York County (Manhattan); Franklin, Massachusetts; and Kings County, New York (Brooklyn).
Among America's 10 biggest cities, Philadelphia's cops and citizens are the most ideologically in sync, with a 96.8 percent "match rate" — the average ideological slant of police officer political donations vs. all political donations. San Jose is second, with a 94.5 percent match rate, and New York City is third, with 93.6 percent.
The biggest gaps between the political ideologies of police and populations can be found in Collin County, Texas, with a match rate of 59.6 percent; Cumberland County, New Jersey, with a match rate of 66.8 percent; and Fannin County, Texas, with a match rate of 67.4 percent. The smallest gaps between police and population ideology were identified as Boone County, Missouri, with a 99.98 percent match rate; Clayton, Georgia, with a 99.67 percent match rate; and Hampden, Massachusetts, with a 99.72 percent match rate.
VICE News asked Crowdpac to run the numbers for three counties in particular. Hamilton County, Ohio, where Samuel DuBose was fatally shot by a police officer during a traffic stop on July 19, had a match rate of 80.1 percent. Waller County, Texas, where Sandra Bland was found dead in her jail cell on July 13, had one of 83.6 percent. And the city of Baltimore, where Freddie Gray died in the back of a police van in April, had a match rate of 88.5 percent. All are far lower than the average.
"Those are places where some of the biggest police-related controversies in recent memory have happened," Crowdpac political director Mason Harrison said. "It's certainly interesting that this data comparing the political ideology of communities and law enforcement officers are way outside the norm."
Overall, police officers are more conservative than bankers, according to Crowdpac's analysis. Cops are slightly more conservative than real estate brokers, but less conservative, on average, than those who work in the agriculture and mining sectors.
"Most cops, myself included, gravitate toward the crime-control model," retired NYPD Det. Sgt. Joe Giacalone told VICE News. "That's why you do this job, because you feel that incarceration, or incapacitation, is the way to do it. You lock up the bad guys, they can't hurt anybody."
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However, Giacalone, the former commanding officer of the Bronx Cold Case Squad, doesn't believe an officer's political views have much of an effect on the way he or she does the job.
"The buck stops in City Hall," he said. "People forget that the mayor is the one that sets the tone for the police department. So it doesn't matter what your political affiliation is, because your actions are dictated by the mayor above you."
Matthew Barge, a New York-based police-training executive who currently serves as deputy director of the federally appointed Seattle Police Monitoring Team, argues that cops have the tools at their disposal to further a personal political agenda, no matter what the mayor says. While there is generally common ground officers share whether they themselves are conservative, liberal, or somewhere in between, Barge told VICE News that he has seen first-hand political leanings influence officers' on-the-job behavior.
In Seattle, where recreational marijuana use was legalized in 2012, the courts make ample use of diversion programs for low-level drug offenders instead of locking them up. Some cops don't agree with the kinder, gentler approach, and at least one used the fact that public pot smoking remained a ticketable offense to make his point.
"One officer was writing a disproportionate number of marijuana citations, using it as a political outlet decrying the fact that the City Attorney wasn't prosecuting people for low-level marijuana charges," Barge said. (The officer, who was responsible for writing 80 percent of Seattle's marijuana summonses during the first half of 2014, also scribbled taunting notes to City Attorney Peter Holmes on some of the tickets, whom the officer addressed as "Petey.")
"Clearly, this officer was coming from a much different point of view than what the community has embraced in this area," Barge said. "If officers aren't really buying into what the community is wanting from their police services, that's where some real rifts can come up."
(Photo by Claire Ward/VICE News)
The press has paid a lot of attention of late to how police departments don't reflect the areas in which they operate — something that is often equated to a disparity in racial makeup. If officers looked more like the community, would that bring the two sides closer politically? Not necessarily, says Ronal Serpas, former chief of police in both New Orleans and Nashville.
"In Nashville, where the department was far less diverse than in New Orleans, we had 80, 85, 90 percent approval ratings," Serpas told VICE News. "In New Orleans, where the department was much more closely aligned along black and white lines with the community, the community's approval rating was hovering around 64 percent by the time I retired [in August 2014]."
Unconscious bias plays a role in everyone's decision making, Serpas said. However, on a grand scale, he believes the criminal justice system has "enough balancing actors within it" that ultimately put the whole thing into overall sync.
In the end, what's most important is for cops to see themselves as part of the larger social fabric, according to Brian Buchner, president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement and a policy director in the Los Angeles Mayor's Office of Public Safety. Cities and jurisdictions, he said, are again recognizing that "true community policing means a meaningful partnership between police and the community."
The conversation that is now taking place, Buchner told VICE News, has been prompted by outcry in communities where residents feel that their police departments are "not reflective of their needs and values." This objection exists regardless of who officers wrote a check to during the last election cycle — which is something former NYPD cop Joe Giacalone admits he has never actually done himself.
"I work too hard for my money to give it away to politicians," Giacalone said.
Follow Justin Rohrlich on Twitter: @JustinRohrlich