Working Paper

Policing in America: Understanding Public Attitudes Toward the Police. Results from a National Survey


Stark racial and partisan divides in favorability toward police, but no group is “anti-cop”

While 68% of white Americans have a favorable view of the police, only 40% of African Americans and 59% of Hispanics have a favorable view.1 Attitudes have changed little since the 1970s when 67% of whites and 43% of blacks reported favorable views of the police. 2 Racial minorities do not have monolithic attitudes toward the police. This report finds that Hispanics’ perceptions of police occupy a “middle ground” between black and white Americans’ views.

Republicans (81%) are far more favorable toward the police than independents (59%) and Democrats (59%). Nevertheless, majorities of all three groups share a favorable view.

  • Confidence gaps matter: Groups who feel less favorable toward local law enforcement are less certain they would report a crime they witnessed. For instance, black and Hispanic Americans are more than 20 points less likely than white Americans to say they definitely would report a crime. Research finds that when the police have legitimacy, the law has legitimacy, which encourages compliance and cooperation.3
  • No group is “anti-cop”: Although some groups have less positive views of the police, survey findings weaken the assertion that these groups are “anti-cop.” For instance, few individuals have “unfavorable” views of law enforcement. Instead, 40% of African Americans, 28% of Hispanics, and 18% of whites are conflicted and report having “neutral” feelings toward the police. A quarter of Democrats and independents and 13% of Republicans share such feelings.

Furthermore, it’s hard to argue that any group is “anti-cop” since no group wishes to cut the number of police officers in their communities (9 in 10 oppose) and majorities are sympathetic toward the difficulty of police work.4 About 6 in 10 believe officers have “very dangerous” jobs. However, these groups diverge widely on whether Americans show enough respect for officers these days-64% of whites, 45% of Hispanics, and 34% of blacks say Americans don’t show enough.

Perceptions of how the police do their jobs vary widely by race and partisanship

  • Police Tactics: African Americans (73%) are far more likely than whites (35%) and Hispanics (54%) to say that police are too quick to use lethal force. Similarly African Americans (56%) are far more likely to say police tactics are generally too harsh, compared to Hispanics (33%) and whites (26%). Republicans (80%) are considerably more likely to believe that police only use lethal force when necessary, while 63% of Democrats think police are too quick to use it.
  • Courteousness: White Americans (62%) are 19 points more likely than African Americans (43%) and 13 points more likely than Hispanics (49%) to rate their local police departments highly for being courteous. Similarly, Republicans (74%) are nearly 30 points more likely than Democrats (48%) to say their local police conduct themselves professionally.
  • Racial Impartiality: Black (31%) and Hispanic (42%) Americans are far less likely than white Americans (64%) to be highly confident their local police departments treat all racial groups equally. Democrats (40%) are about half as likely as Republicans (78%) to believe the police are impartial.
  • Competency: Four in 10 African Americans and 5 in 10 Hispanics give their local police high ratings for enforcing the law, protecting them from crime, and responding quickly to a call for help, compared to 6 in 10 white Americans. In a similar pattern, 5 in 10 independents and Democrats believe the police are highly competent, compared to about 7 in 10 Republicans.

Reported experiences with police vary by race and ethnicity

Most Americans have 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 white Americans to report a police officer swearing at them. A quarter of African Americans and Hispanics report a police officer personally using abusive language or profanity with them compared to 15% of white Americans. This study finds evidence that suggests whites who are highly deferential toward police are less likely to report experiences with police profanity, whereas blacks and Latinos who are highly deferential do not report similarly improved treatment.
  • African Americans are about twice as likely as white Americans to know someone physically abused by police. 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.

Americans do not believe the US justice system treats everyone equally

  • 65% think police officers regularly racially profile Americans and 63% oppose the practice.

Nearly two-thirds (65%) say police commonly “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.” Another 63% also oppose police using racial profiling for traffic and pedestrian stops.

Majorities of whites (62%), Hispanics (62%), and blacks (77%) oppose racial profiling by police. 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.5

Results from an experiment embedded in the survey reveal that liberals are more likely than conservatives to support criminal justice reform when primed to consider charges of racial bias in the system. Such charges have little impact on conservatives’ support for reform.

  • 58% say the US justice system fails to treat everyone equally before the law.

Only 42% of Americans say the US justice system treats all racial groups equally. A plurality (45%) says the US justice system gives preference to white Americans, and 13% say the system treats blacks and Hispanics better. About half of whites (49%) say the justice system treats all racial groups equally, compared to 17% of African Americans and 27% of Hispanic Americans. White Republicans stand out with a solid majority (65%) who say the justice system treats everyone the same; however, only about a third of non-white Republicans agree. Seven in 10 white and non-white Democrats alike believe the system is biased in favor of whites.

White Americans are more likely to believe accounts of racial bias in the system if they are predisposed toward empathy. Respondents who score high on the Sensitivity to Harm Index (SHI) are more than twice as likely to believe racial bias plagues the criminal justice system than those who score low (62% vs. 28%).6

  • African Americans are five times as likely as Caucasians to personally expect worse treatment from police officers, but a majority still expect to receive equal treatment from law enforcement. A third of African Americans expect police officers to treat them worse than other people, compared to 6% of white and 13% of Hispanic Americans. Nevertheless, while many believe the system overall is not impartial, majorities of whites (77%), Hispanics (72%) and blacks (60%) expect to personally receive equal treatment from law enforcement.
  • Nearly half (49%) of Americans say “most” police officers think they are “above the law.” African Americans (61%) and Hispanics (61%) are considerably more likely than whites (46%) to say that most police officers think they are above the law. Instead, a majority of whites (54%) say police don’t think they’re above the law.
  • 46% of Americans say police are “generally not” held accountable for misconduct. 64% of African Americans say police are generally not held accountable for misconduct, compared to 43% of white Americans. A slim majority (51%) of Hispanics say police aren’t held accountable. Most Democrats (59%) worry police aren’t held accountable. In contrast, a strong majority (76%) of Republicans and a slim majority (51%) of independents think officers are brought to account.

Most Americans agree about top priorities for the police

Although Americans have different perceptions about how the police actually do their jobs, majorities of black, white, and Hispanic Americans agree on what the top three priorities for the police should be: investigating violent crime (78%), protecting citizens from crime (64%), and investigating property crime (58%).

Majorities across racial and ethnic groups agree on path toward reform

  • 89% of Americans support police body cameras and slim majorities are willing to raise taxes pay for them (51%) and let police look at the footage before making official statements (52%). Three-fourths also think body cameras protect both officers and citizens equally.
  • 79% support outside law enforcement agencies conducting investigations of police misconduct, while 21% prefer police departments handle such investigations internally.
  • 68% support additional training for police officers to deal with confrontations, while 32% think officers already have the appropriate training.
  • 73% want police to notify citizens if they may refuse to submit to a stop and requested search.
  • 77% support prohibiting police officers from using profanity with citizens.

Majorities across racial and ethnic groups also oppose a variety of actual and alleged police practices:

  • 84% 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.
  • 54% say police using military equipment is going too far, while 46% say it’s necessary for law enforcement purposes. Majorities across racial groups oppose police using military weapons and armored vehicles (58% of blacks, 53% of whites and 51% of Latinos). 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.
  • 63% oppose racial profiling, but 65% think it’s commonly used.

Six in 10 Americans (59%) support police using drones, but a majority (54%) also worry drones could invade people’s privacy

Americans across demographic and political groups support police use of drones. However, Democrats and independents (57%) are more wary than Republicans (46%) about the risks drones present to privacy.

Americans want police to get warrants before conducting searches of cars and houses and before monitoring phone calls

Americans agree that even if a person is suspected of breaking the law, police should obtain a court order before searching suspected drug dealers’ homes (66%) and before monitoring suspected criminals’ phone calls (76%). A majority (63%) also oppose police regularly checking cars for drugs during routine traffic stops without a court order.

However, Americans might be willing to bend the rules depending on the suspect. While 66% say police ought to obtain a court order before searching the home of a suspected drug dealer, only 51% feel the same for individuals who “might be sympathetic to terrorists”-a 15 point difference. Forty-nine percent (49%) say police shouldn’t need a court order to search the home of a person the police think “might” be sympathetic to terrorists.7

Respect for Authority Figures Informs Public Attitudes Toward Police

Many American conservatives have a greater respect for authority that may predispose them to hold more positive views of the police. Americans who score high on our Respect for Authority Index (RAI) (who also happen to be disproportionately conservative) are much more likely than those who score low to favor pedestrian stops (87% vs. 43%), to favor police using drones (71% vs. 46%), to say police only use lethal force when necessary (69% vs. 41%), and to say there is a war on police (77% vs. 42%).8 Statistical tests indicate that being conservative predicts attitudes toward the police much more than being liberal.

Changes in socioeconomic status or partisanship do little to change African Americans’ perceptions of law enforcement

White Republicans and whites with higher incomes report more favorable attitudes toward the police than white Democrats and whites with lower incomes. However, blacks who are Republican or have higher incomes are not much more likely to report favorable attitudes toward the police than blacks who are Democratic or have lower incomes. 9 Thus, race appears to affect views of the police even after considering the influence of income and ideology.

  • Favorability: White Americans with annual incomes exceeding $60,000 a year are 23 points more favorable toward the police than white Americans with incomes less than $30,000 a year (79% vs. 56%). However, African Americans with higher incomes are about as favorable toward the police as those with lower incomes, with a little less than half favorable toward the police.
  • Impartiality: White Republicans are 41 points more likely than white Democrats to believe the US justice system treats everyone equally (67% vs. 26%). However, black Republicans (15%), black independents (16%), and black Democrats (13%) are about equally likely to think the system is impartial. Hispanic Republicans are 28 points more likely than Hispanic Democrats to agree (45% vs. 17%).
  • Use of Force: White Republicans are 41 points more likely than white Democrats to believe police only use lethal force when necessary (85% vs. 44%). However, black Republicans (36%) are only 16 points more likely than black Democrats (20%) to agree. Similarly, Hispanic Republicans (58%) are 16 points more likely than Hispanic Democrats (42%) to say police only use necessary force.

These data provide some indication that if whites become wealthier and more Republican they become more favorable toward the police; however, African Americans do not become more favorable toward the police if their income rises or they become more Republican.

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 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 supporters say it’s worse to imprison the innocent.10

61% say there is a “War on Police” in America

At first glance, most Americans (64%) have favorable attitudes toward their local police department and are confident their local police use the appropriate amount of force (58%), are courteous (57%) and honest (57%), treat all racial groups equally (56%), protect people from violent crime (56%), respond quickly to a call for help (56%), and care about community members (55%).

Furthermore, 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. Since many Americans don’t perceive systemic problems in policing, they view intensifying criticism of policing practices as an attack on police: 61% of Americans think there is a “war on police” today.

Attitudes toward the police vary across four ideological groups of Americans: Libertarians, Liberals, Conservatives, and Communitarians

To improve upon ideological self-identification (i.e. liberal/conservative) this report uses answers to a three-question screen (found in Appendix A) about the role of government in economic and personal affairs to identify four primary groups of Americans: Liberals (18%) who favor a larger government that doesn’t promote traditional values, Libertarians (17%) who favor a smaller government that doesn’t promote traditional values, Communitarians (16%) who favor a larger government that promotes traditional values, and Conservatives (26%) who favor a smaller government that promotes traditional values. (Another 25% do not fit in any of these categories). This report also examines how these four ideological clusters perceive policing in America today.

Table of Contents


Notes:

1 In this study the term ‘Hispanic’ is used interchangeably with ‘Latino,’ ‘Caucasian’ interchangeably with ‘white,’ and ‘African American’ interchangeably with ‘black.’

2 Louis Harris and Associates Study No. 2043, 1970, cited in Michael J. Hindelang, “Public Opinion Regarding Crime, Criminal Justice, and Related Topics.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 11 (1974): 101-116.

3 See Linquin Cao, James Frank, and Francis T. Cullen, “Race, Community Context and Confidence in the Police,” American Journal of Police 15 (1996): 3-22; Tom Tyler and Jeffrey Fagan, “Legitimacy and Cooperation: Why Do People Help the Police Fight Crime in Their Communities?” Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law 6 (2008): 232-275; Andrew V. Papachristos, Tracey L. Meares, and Jeffrey Fagan, “Why Do Criminals Obey the Law? The Influence of Legitimacy and Social Networks on Active Gun Offenders,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 102 (2009): 397-440; Tom R. Tyler, “The Role of Perceived Injustice in Defendants’ Evaluations of Their Courtroom Experience,” Law & Society Review 18 (1984): 51-74; Tom Tyler, Why People Obey the Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006); Jonathan Blanks, “How Pretextual Stops Undermine Police Legitimacy.” Case W. Res. L. Review 66 (2016): 931-946.

4 To be sure, advocates of cutting police presence are not necessarily “anti-cop” either; however, it is hard to argue someone is “anti-cop” if that person doesn’t want to cut the police force.

5 Data for support of racial profiling by race/ethnicity and partisanship come from the combined June 2016 and November 2015 national surveys (N=4000), which offer greater precision and smaller margins of error for subgroups. (Unweighted: Black Republicans=45.)

6 High Sensitivity to Harm Index (SHI) scores are defined as those in the top quartile, while low SHI scores are defined as those in the bottom quartile.

7 Results are from the November 2015 Cato Institute/YouGov National Survey, conducted November 19 to 24, 2015.

8 High Respect for Authority (RAI) scores are defined as those in the top quartile, while low RAI scores are defined as those in the bottom quartile.

9 Data for this section come from the combined June 2016 and November 2015 national surveys (N=4000), which offer greater precision and smaller margins of error for subgroups. (Unweighted: Black Republicans=45, Hispanic Republicans=165, White Republicans=1193, Black Democrats=630, Hispanic Democrats=409, White Democrats=634.)

10 Results are from the November 2015 Cato Institute/YouGov National Survey, conducted November 19 to 24, 2015.

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Emily Ekins is a research fellow at the Cato Institute. Her research focuses primarily on American politics, public opinion, political psychology, and social movements, with an emphasis in survey and quantitative methods.