Bridging the Racial Divide in Evaluations of the Police

Black, white, and Hispanic Americans see the police differently. They differ about police efficacy, impartiality, honesty, empathy, tactics, and accountability. Their views may vary in part because Hispanic, black, and white Americans report considerably different personal and vicarious experiences with police officers. For instance, some groups are more likely to report verbal or physical abuse from officers. Taken together, these disparate perceptions and reported experiences form a deep divide in favorability toward law enforcement.

However, many overlook agreement among these groups. Americans across race and ethnicity agree on what policing should be and on which reforms should be adopted.

Blacks, whites, and Hispanics all agree on the top priorities for law enforcement, maintaining current levels of policing presence in their communities, and the danger inherent in police work. Majorities of Hispanic, white, and black Americans also support a variety of police reforms: more training, body cameras, warnings to citizens about stops and searches, and independent investigations of alleged police misconduct. Similarly, majorities oppose a variety of possible police practices: racial profiling, routine use of military weapons and armored vehicles, pretextual vehicle stops to search for drugs without a warrant, seizing personal and private property before a person is convicted of a crime (civil asset forfeiture), and officers swearing at citizens. Majorities also support decriminalizing drug offenses from felony to civil charges, a change that might improve interactions between police and citizens.

Americans may consider police reforms without perceiving all possible problems and systemic biases in policing. Reformers need not insist that others agree with, and adopt their perceptions of policing today. Instead, by acknowledging concerns and emphasizing shared beliefs about what policing ought to be, reformers can forge a consensus to improve policies on behalf of officers, citizens, and the larger community.