Topic: Cato Publications

Americans Want Police to Prioritize Fighting Violent, Property Crime, but Few Prioritize Drug War

Although Americans are divided in their perceptions of how police do their jobs, majorities across demographic and partisan groups agree on what law enforcement’s top priorities ought to be.

A newly released Cato Institute/YouGov survey of 2,000 Americans finds that when people are asked to select their top three priorities for the police they choose the following:

  1. Investigating violent crime like murder, assaults, and domestic violence (78%)
  2. Protecting individuals from violent crime (64%)
  3. Investigating property crime and robbery (58%)

Notably, only 30% think police should make enforcing drug laws a top three priority. Some may find these results surprising, given that police made more arrests for drug abuse violations (1.6 million) than they did for violent crimes (498,666) in 2014. The estimated number of violent crimes committed that year was 1.2 million.

Find the full public opinion report here.

Nineteen percent (19%) say police should make enforcing traffic laws a top priority. In other words, Americans de-prioritize the task leading to the most common interaction individuals have with the police—receiving a traffic ticket.[1]

Another 18% think police should prioritize going beyond traditional law enforcement responsibilities by “providing guidance and social services to troubled young adults.” And another 12% say police enforcing public nuisance laws is most important. 

Black, white, and Hispanic Americans, Democrats and Republicans prioritize the same top three tasks for law enforcement. However, groups differ in their intensity of support. African Americans and Hispanics (45%) and Democrats (51%) are less likely than white Americans (63%) and Republicans (63%) to prioritize the police investigating property crime and robbery. (Although this difference largely dissipates among individuals above the median income.) African Americans, Latinos, and Democrats (27%) are about twice as likely as whites (15%) and three times as likely as Republicans (9%) to say the police should prioritize “providing guidance and social services to troubled young adults.”

No racial group is more likely to prioritize the police enforcing drug laws—30% of whites, Hispanics, and blacks each say it should be a top priority. Even partisans generally de-prioritize fighting the drug war. Thirty-five percent (35%) of Republicans and 27% of Democrats say it should be a top three priority.

Despite these modest differences, Americans across partisanship and demographics agree that the police should prioritize fighting violent and property crime and protecting people from being victims of violence. 

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The Cato Institute/YouGov national survey of 2,000 adults was conducted June 6–22, 2016 using a sample drawn from YouGov’s online panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. YouGov uses a method called sample matching, and restrictions are put in place to ensure that only the people selected and contacted by YouGov are allowed to participate. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is +/-3.19 percentage points. The full report can be found here, topline results can be found here, and full methodological details can be found here.


[1] Christine Eith and Matthew R. Durose, Contacts between Police and the Public, 2008, edited by Bureau of Justice Statistics (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 2011), https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cpp08.pdf.

Americans Worry About Police Safety, But Republicans Most Concerned About Police Being Disrespected

Although public opinion data shows stark partisan divides in evaluations of police performance, a Cato Institute/YouGov survey shows that Americans—regardless of partisanship—are worried for police safety.

Two-thirds (65%) of respondents say that police officers have “very dangerous” jobs, 30% say police jobs are “somewhat dangerous,” and only 5% say their jobs are not very dangerous. Concerns about police safety extend across partisan groups. Six in 10 Democrats and independents as well as 7 in 10 Republicans think police jobs are “very dangerous.” 

 

Although concern for police safety is bi-partisan, Republicans are far more worried than Democrats and independents that the police are being disrespected. More than three fourths (77%) of Republicans think that people show “too little respect” for the police these days. In contrast, only 45% of Democrats agree—a 32 point margin. Independents fall in between with 56% who believe people don’t show enough respect for the police. This pattern is not simply due to differences in partisan racial composition: white Republicans are 28 points more likely than white Democrats to worry the police are being disrespected (78% vs. 50%).[1]

Given these data, it’s less surprising that 82% of Republicans believe there is a war on police today. In contrast, 49% of Democrats agree—a 33-point margin.

Find the full public opinion report here.

Deep Racial Divide in Perceptions of Police and Reported Experiences, No Group Is Anti-Cop

In the wake of the mistrial of police officer Michael Slager accused of shooting and killing unarmed Walter Scott as he ran away, a new Cato Institute/YouGov survey of public attitudes toward the police finds a 38-point gap between white and black Americans’ perception that police are too quick to resort to deadly force.

Nearly three-fourths (73%) of African Americans and 54% of Hispanics believe the police are “too quick to use deadly force,” compared to 35% of white Americans. Instead, 65% of white Americans believe police resort to lethal force “only when necessary.” 

When it comes to police tactics overall, black Americans (56%) are more likely to think they are “too harsh” compared to white (26%) and Hispanic (33%) Americans. Majorities of whites (67%) and Hispanics (58%) believe police generally use the right amount of force for each situation.

Find the full public opinion report here.

Is the Justice System Impartial? 

Only 17% of African Americans believe the criminal justice system treats all Americans equally and only 31% are highly confident their local police department treats all racial groups impartially. Whites are 32 points more likely to believe the justice system treats everyone equally (49%) and a solid majority (64%) are confident their local police are impartial. Hispanics fall in between with 27% who think the justice system and 42% who believe their local police treat everyone the same. Among all Americans, only 42% think all are treated equally by the justice system but 56% are highly confident their local police department treats everyone equally. 

Are Police Trustworthy and Held Accountable?

Strikingly high numbers of whites (46%), blacks (61%), and Hispanics (61%) think that “most” police officers “think they are above the law.” Overall, nearly half (49%) of all Americans worry that police think the law doesn’t entirely apply to them. 

Nearly two thirds (64%) of black Americans and a majority (51%) of Hispanic Americans believe police are “generally” not held accountable for misconduct when it occurs. This is 21 points higher than the 43% of white Americans who also share this view. Instead, a majority (57%) of whites think police are generally brought to account. 

Are Police Effective?

African Americans (41%) and Hispanics (41%) are twice as likely as white Americans (29%) to say they are “extremely” or “very” worried about crime. Furthermore black Americans (41%) are more than twice as likely as whites (17%) or Hispanics (15%) to say they know someone who was murdered.

Despite more salient fears over safety, only 44% of African Americans are highly confident their local police department responds quickly to a call for help. White Americans are 15 points more confident (59%) in their local police to come quickly if needed.  In a similar pattern, white Americans are about 20 points more likely than black Americans to give their local police high marks for protecting them from crime (60% vs. 38%) and enforcing the law (64% vs. 44%). Hispanics fall in between with about half who give their police high marks for enforcing the law, protecting them from crime, and responding promptly.

Do the Police Care About You?

Only 37% of African Americans are highly confident their local police department cares about the people they serve. White Americans (59%) are far more confident that their local police cares. A little less than half of Hispanic Americans (47%) agree.

Are the Police Courteous?

White Americans (62%) are 19 points more likely than African Americans (43%) and 13 points more likely than Hispanic Americans (49%) to rate their local police departments highly for being courteous.

White, Hispanic, and Black Americans Report Different Experiences with Police

Most Americans have personally had positive experiences with the police but those who have experienced verbal and physical misconduct are disproportionately black and Hispanic.

African Americans are nearly twice as likely as whites to say a police officer swore at them. About a quarter of African Americans (26%) and Hispanics (22%) report a police officer personally using abusive language or profanity with them compared to 15% of white Americans. The study also found some evidence that suggests whites who are highly deferential toward the police are less likely to report experiences with police profanity, whereas blacks and Latinos who are highly deferential do not report similarly improved treatment. [1] 

African Americans are about twice as likely as white Americans to know someone physically abused by police. Thirty-nine percent (39%) of African Americans know someone who has been physically mistreated by the police, as do 18% of whites and 27% of Hispanics.

Higher-income African Americans report being stopped at about 1.5 times the rate of higher-income white Americans. In contrast, lower income African Americans report being stopped only slightly more frequently than lower income white Americans.

African Americans (50%) are also about 30 points less likely than whites (70%) and Latinos (66%) to report being satisfied with their personal police encounters over the past 5 years.

Favorability Gap Toward Police Has Changed Little Over Past 50 Years

Taking these results together, it comes as little surprise that there is a wide racial gap in favorability toward the police.  Only 40% of black Americans have a favorable view compared to 68% of white Americans. Hispanic Americans fall in between with 59% who share a positive view of the police.

What is particularly surprising, however, is that these numbers haven’t changed much since 1970 when 67% of white Americans and 43% of African Americans had a favorable view of the police—nearly identical to today’s numbers.[2] 

54% of Americans Say Police Using Military Weapons “Goes Too Far”

A majority of Americans (54%) say that police departments using military weapons and armored vehicles “goes too far.” Another 46% believe that police using military equipment is “necessary for law enforcement purposes,” according to a new Cato Institute/YouGov survey of 2,000 Americans.

Find the full public opinion report here.

Although Americans of different races and ethnicities vary widely in their perceptions of the police, majorities of whites (53%), blacks (58%), and Latinos (51%) all believe police using military equipment is excessive.

Police militarization divides partisans. Sixty percent (60%) of both Democrats and independents think that police using military equipment “goes too far” and 40% think it is necessary. In stark contrast, 65% of Republicans think police need to use military equipment while 35% think it’s unnecessary. Support for police militarization comes disproportionately from the “strong Republican” wing of the GOP with 71% in support, compared to 57% who agree among “not very strong” Republicans.

84% of Americans Oppose Civil Asset Forfeiture

Eighty-four percent (84%) of Americans oppose civil asset forfeiture–police “taking a person’s money or property that is suspected to have been involved in a drug crime before the person is convicted of a crime,” according to a new Cato Institute/YouGov survey of 2,000 Americans. Only 16% think police ought to be allowed to seize property before a person is convicted.

Civil asset forfeiture is a process by which police officers seize a person’s property (e.g. their car, home, or cash) if they suspect the individual or property is involved with criminal activity. The individual does not need to be charged with, or convicted of, any crime for police to seize assets.[1] In most jurisdictions police departments may keep the property they seize or the proceeds from its sale. However, as these survey results demonstrate, most Americans oppose this practice.

Find the full public opinion report here

In instances when police departments seize people’s cars, houses, or cash, 76% of Americans say local departments should not be allowed to keep the assets. Instead, 48% say seized assets should go into the state general fund, while another 28% say assets should go into a dedicated state-level general law enforcement fund. 

Although Americans prefer policing be done by local (not state or federal) authorities, only 24% think local police departments should keep the assets they seize. [2] Americans may believe transferring seized assets to a state-level fund will reduce local departments’ material incentive to seize people’s property.

Opposition to civil asset forfeiture cuts across demographics and partisanship. Strong majorities of whites (84%), blacks (86%), Hispanics (80%), Democrats (86%), independents (87%), and Republicans (76%) all oppose. In fact, virtually every major group surveyed solidly rejects the practice and prefers property only be seized after a person is convicted of a crime. Even those highly favorable toward the police staunchly oppose (78%) civil asset forfeiture.

Few understand the concept of civil asset forfeiture. Yet, once the concept is explained to them in concrete terms the public overwhelmingly rejects the practice. Thus, reformers’ primary challenge is informing the public that this practice occurs. Policy reforms may follow broader public knowledge of civil forfeiture.

 

The Cato Institute/YouGov national survey of 2000 adults was conducted June 6-22, 2016 using a sample drawn from YouGov’s online panel, which is designed to be representative of the US population. YouGov uses a method called sample matching, and restrictions are put in place to ensure that only the people selected and contacted by YouGov are allowed to participate. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is +/-3.19 percentage points. The full report can be found here,  toplines results can be found here, full methodological details can be found here.

  


[1] The legal rationale is that the property itself may be involved in a crime, and thus must be seized. However in practice, since property can be seized without charging a person with a crime or convicting them, many innocent people have had their property taken from them without due process. See Marian R. Williams et al, “Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture,” Institute for Justice, March 2010, http://www.ij.org/images/pdf_folder/other_pubs/ assetforfeituretoemail.pdf; “Civil Asset Forfeiture: 7 Things You Should Know,” Heritage Foundation Factsheet no. 141, March 26, 2014, http://thf_media.s3.amazonaws.com/2014/pdf/FS_141.pdf.

[2] John Samples and Emily Ekins, “Public Attitudes toward Federalism: The Public’s Preference for Renewed Federalism,” Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 759, September 23, 2014, http://www.cato.org/publications/policy-analysis/public-attitudes-toward….

65% of Americans Think Police Officers “Commonly” Racially Profile, but 63% Oppose the Practice

Sixty-five percent (65%) of Americans believe police regularly “stop motorists and pedestrians of certain racial or ethnic backgrounds because the officer believes that these groups are more likely than others to commit certain types of crimes.” However, 63% of Americans oppose police using racial profiling for traffic and pedestrian stops, according to a new Cato Institute/YouGov national survey of 2,000 Americans.

Find the full public opinion report here.

An overwhelming majority of African Americans (81%) believe the police regularly racially profile, as do a majority of Hispanics (70%) and Caucasians (62%). Democrats (80%) are considerably more likely than Republicans (53%) and independents (61%) to believe the police engage in racial profiling. Only respondents identified as ideologically conservative, according to our ideological typology, reach a majority (54%) who believe racial profiling does not commonly occur. In contrast, majorities of Liberals (87%), Communitarians (67%), and Libertarians (63%) think police routinely racially profile.

Most Americans Solidly Oppose Racial Profiling, but Slim Majority of Republicans Favor

Two-thirds (63%) of Americans oppose police officers “stopping motorists or pedestrians of certain racial or ethnic groups because the officer believes that these groups are more likely than others to commit certain types of crimes.” This percentage includes 34% who “strongly oppose” and 29% who “somewhat oppose” this practice. The remaining third (37%) support racial profiling, including 10% who “strongly support” and 26% who “somewhat support” it. 

Partisans see profiling differently. A slim majority (51%) of Republicans support racial profiling while nearly as many (49%) oppose. However, Black Republicans differ from their fellow partisans: 65% oppose racial profiling and 35% support it.[1] Hispanic Republicans also oppose by a margin of 57% to 43%. A strong majority (73%) of Democrats and independents (64%) oppose it while roughly 3 in 10 support its use.

11 Key Facts About Americans’ Attitudes Toward the Police

The Cato Institute has released Policing in America—an extensive national public opinion report that explores Americans’ attitudes toward the police based on an original Cato Institute/YouGov national survey of 2,000 Americans. Here are eleven key facts about Americans’ attitudes toward the police. 

  1. There are stark racial and partisan divides in favorability toward policebut no group is anti-cop: 68% of white Americans have a favorable view of the police, only 40% of African Americans and 59% of Hispanic Americans also have a favorable view. Republicans (81%) are 22 points more favorable toward the police than independents (59%) and Democrats (59%). Although some groups have less positive views of the police, findings weaken the ascertain that these groups are “anti-cop.” For instance 9 in 10 white, black, and Hispanic Americans oppose cutting police forces and 6 in 10 worry the police have very dangerous jobs. [1]
  2. 54% say police using military equipment goes too far, while 46% say it’s necessary for law enforcement purposes. Majorities of whites (53%), Hispanics (51%), and blacks (58%) oppose police using military weapons and armored vehicles. Most Republicans (65%) believe police need to use military weapons, while 60% of both Democrats and independents believe police using such equipment goes too far.
  3. 84% of Americans oppose civil asset forfeiture. Americans oppose police seizing “a person’s money or property that is suspected to have been involved in a drug crime before the person is convicted.” When police departments seize people’s property, 76% say the local department should not keep the assets. Instead Americans think seized assets should go either to the state general fund (48%) or a state-level law enforcement fund (28%). A quarter (24%) say police departments should keep the property they seize.
  4. 79% support outside law enforcement agencies conducting investigations of police misconductwhile 21% prefer police departments handle such investigations internally. Strong majorities of Republicans (76%), independents (77%), and Democrats (83%) all agree that outside agencies should conduct such investigations.
  5. 89% of Americans support police body cameras and majorities are willing to raise taxes pay for them (51%) and let police look at the footage before making official statements (52%). Body cameras aren’t a zero-sum proposition: 74% think body cameras protect both officers and citizens equally.
  6. Only 30% say police should prioritize enforcing drug laws.  Instead, Americans want police to prioritize investigating violent crime (78%), protecting people from becoming crime victims (64%), and investigating property crime (58%). Americans across partisan and demographic groups share these top three priorities for law enforcement.
  7. Nearly half (49%) of Americans say “most” police officers think they are “above the law.” African Americans (61%), Hispanics (61%), and Democrats (61%) are considerably more likely than whites (46%) and Republicans (36%) to say that most police officers think they are above the law. Instead, a majority of whites (54%) and Republicans (64%) say police don’t think they’re above the law.
  8. 65% of Americans think police officers “commonly” racially profile Americans and 63% oppose itMajorities of whites (62%), Hispanics (62%), and blacks (77%) oppose police stopping “motorists and pedestrians of certain racial or ethnic backgrounds because the officer believes that these groups are more likely than others to commit certain types of crimes.” Republicans stand out with a slim majority (51%) in favor of racial profiling and 49% opposed. Black Republicans, however, disagree, with 65% who oppose racial profiling and 35% who support it.[2]
  9. 61% say there is a “war on police” in America. Sixty-five percent (65%) of Americans worry that police officers have “very dangerous jobs,” and 58% feel officers too often must deal with recalcitrant citizens who don’t show enough respect. Although Republicans and Democrats both believe police have dangerous jobs, Republicans are more than 30 points more likely than Democrats to believe there is a “war on police” today (82% vs. 49%) and that Americans show insufficient respect to officers (77% vs. 45%). 
  10. African Americans are nearly twice as likely as whites to report a police officer swearing at them. About a quarter of African Americans (26%) and Hispanics (22%) report police using abusive language or profanity with them compared to 15% of whites. Nearly 4 in 10 African Americans (39%) and 27% of Hispanics report knowing someone physically mistreated by police, compared to 18% of whites.
  11. 60% say it’s more important to protect the innocent than punish the guilty. When asked which would be worse, 60% say it would be worse to imprison 20,000 innocent people, while 40% say it would be worse to have 20,000 guilty people who are free. Majorities of Republicans (55%), independents (60%), and Democrats (64%) all agree it’s worse to imprison innocent people. However, Donald Trump’s early core supporters stand out with a majority (52%) who say it’s actually worse to not punish the guilty. Other Republican voters disagree. For instance 65% of Ted Cruz’s early primary supporters say it’s worse to imprison the innocent.[3]