Commentary

Poll Finds Americans Are Not as Divided on Policing as Headlines Suggest

Recent killings by police in Ferguson, New York City, Baltimore, Charlotte, Minneapolis, and other places have highlighted sharp disagreements among Americans about the current state of policing. Are police too quick to use deadly force? Is there a “war on police” preventing officers from keeping communities safe?

This debate has renewed focus on a deep racial divide in perceptions of how the police do their jobs. For instance, a Cato Institute/YouGov survey finds that 73 percent of African Americans and 54 percent of Hispanics believe police are “too quick” to use deadly force—compared to 35 percent of white Americans.

On the other hand, 64 percent of white Americans and 52 percent of Latinos worry there is a “war on police in America today,” but a majority (54 percent) of black Americans think there isn’t such a war.

There’s A Perception Gap—But Also Common Ground

This perception gap extends to nearly every evaluation of policing: responsiveness, accountability, professionalism, impartiality, and honesty. Overall, African Americans feel considerably less favorable (40 percent) toward the police than white Americans (68 percent), and Hispanics fall in between at 59 percent favorable.

Certainly, these perception gaps matter. But our political punditry has failed to notice the fact that Americans of all backgrounds largely agree about how policing should operate in America.

A Cato Institute/YouGov national survey that I conducted finds that while Americans have different perceptions of how police operate, no demographic group is “anti-cop.” Americans agree on what we want from our police, and reach consensus on a variety of police reforms.

Media have sensationalized the extreme fringes of activists, who call for “abolishing” or “defunding” the police. But these individuals are rare and do not represent the views of many people. For instance, nine in 10 black, white, and Hispanic Americans all oppose reducing the number of police officers in their community—and a third say their community needs more officers.

Despite racial disagreement on the way police interact with their communities, no demographic is ‘anti-cop’-and a majority agrees on needed reforms.

Furthermore, very few people even go so far as to say they have “very unfavorable” views of the police (one in 10 or less of any racial group). In addition, six in 10 black, Hispanic, and white Americans all believe that police have very dangerous jobs—suggesting empathy for police officers and the risks they face.

Police Should Fight Violent Crime, Not the Drug War

Americans also agree on how police should prioritize their tasks: prioritize fighting violent crime, not the drug war.

When asked to select their top three priorities for law enforcement, Americans want police to prioritize investigating violent crime (78 percent), protecting people from crime (64 percent), and investigating robberies and property crime (58 percent). Blacks, whites, and Hispanics share these top three priorities for the police.

Notably, only 30 percent of Americans say enforcing drug laws should be a top police priority. And perhaps ironically, only 19 percent think the police should prioritize traffic enforcement—the task leading to the most common interaction we have with the police, getting a traffic ticket.

No One Likes Civil Asset Forfeiture

Eighty-four percent (84 percent) of Americans solidly oppose civil asset forfeiture—a practice in which police may take the money or property of a person suspected to have been involved in a crime before the person is convicted. Virtually all demographic groups—including 84 percent of whites, 86 percent of blacks, and 80 percent of Hispanics—oppose civil asset forfeiture. Why does it persist? Probably because people don’t know what it is or can’t believe that it actually occurs.

Support For Independent Investigations and Body Cameras

Although whites (57 percent), blacks (36 percent), and Hispanics (49 percent) disagree about whether police are held accountable for misconduct in practice, strong majorities of all three groups support reforms intended to enhance accountability.

For instance, 79 percent of Americans support having outside law enforcement agencies investigate police misconduct, rather than leave it to the department to handle in-house (21 percent). Although most jurisdictions allow police departments to internally investigate and discipline their own officers, majorities of Americans regardless of race or ethnicity think independent investigations would better enhance police accountability.

Americans of all racial backgrounds also agree that on-duty police should wear body cameras to record their interactions with citizens, with 89 percent in support. People think body cameras can help keep both citizens and police accountable by protecting the police from false accusations and keeping police honest by recording their on-duty interactions.

A Majority Support De-escalation Training for Police

Americans disagree about whether police tactics are “too harsh.” Fifty-six percent of African Americans think tactics are too harsh, but 67 percent of whites and 58 percent of Hispanics think they’re “about right.”

However, Americans of all racial backgrounds agree police could do more to de-escalate confrontations with citizens and could benefit from additional training (68 percent). Such a reform is broadly popular with solid majorities of whites (62 percent), Latinos (78 percent), and blacks (82 percent) all in support of providing police officers with additional confrontation training.

Americans Want Police to Be Transparent

The survey found that Americans also want police to be transparent about stops and searches. Most jurisdictions in the U.S. don’t require police officers to inform citizens when a police stop and search is voluntary or mandatory. However, a strong majority of Americans (73 percent) think police should notify citizens when a stop is voluntary and they may decline to be searched. Even though most Americans have nothing to hide, many may resist added scrutiny from police or government when given the choice.

Americans Support Cooling the Drug War

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports police make about 1.6 million drug arrests every year. Thus, many criminal justice scholars believe that cooling the drug war could go a long way to improve police-community relations by reducing the opportunities people have to interact with police. Plus doing so could free up resources to help police fight violent crime.

Sure, few people want to outright legalize all drugs. But the survey found a majority of Americans also don’t think we should punish drug offenses like we would a criminal offense. Instead, 54 percent believe we should treat drug offenses like minor traffic violations with small fines rather than as felonies. Re-categorizing drug offenses from felonies to civil offenses is broadly popular regardless of racial or ethnic background (whites at 54 percent, blacks at 59 percent, and Hispanics at 52 percent).

We’re More United Than We Are Divided

When it comes to what we want from police and how to improve policing, Americans are far more united than we are divided. It’s simply not controversial to suggest police should be transparent, wear body cameras, receive de-escalation training, or only take a person’s stuff after they’ve been convicted of a crime.

Furthermore, these data show that we don’t all have to agree about the source of every policing problem in order to support criminal justice reform. Despite different perceptions of how the police actually do their jobs, Americans reach consensus about how police should do their jobs. Furthermore, Americans of all backgrounds support a variety of reforms that many criminal justice scholars believe can help keep police safe and mend relationships between police and the communities they serve.

Emily Ekins is a research fellow at the Cato Institute.