criminal justice reform

77% Say On-Duty Police Shouldn’t Swear at People

Nearly 20% of Americans report a police officer having used profanity with them. Yet, an overwhelming majority—77%—of Americans say police should be prohibited from using profanity or swearing at citizens while on the job. Twenty-three percent (23%) say police ought to be allowed to swear at citizens while on duty, according to a newly released Cato Institute/YouGov survey.

Find the full public opinion report here.

Opposition to police profanity reaches rare bi-partisan consensus—77% of Democrats and 75% of Republicans agree that police shouldn’t swear at people. Americans of virtually every demographic group identified strongly oppose allowing police use such language, including 77% of whites, 82% of blacks, and 72% of Latinos.

Why might police profanity matter? First, police image matters, and profanity could make police appear unprofessional, undisciplined, or “lacking self-control” as one research subject put it. Research experiments have shown that police using profanity are perceived as less fair and impartial. Further, police using profanity at the same time as using physical force with a person may cause people to view the force as excessive.  Given that personal encounters with police may be the strongest driver of attitudes toward law enforcement, one bad experience with police profanity may significantly harm a person’s willingness to trust and cooperate with police.

Second, some have argued that officers using profanity can “set someone off” and unnecessarily escalate confrontations with people leading to more force being used than was otherwise needed. Third, some contend police using such language can harm officers during court proceedings by appearing less sympathetic in front of the judge and jury.

Black Republicans and White Republicans Disagree About Bias in the Justice System

Survey data shows that black Republicans and Hispanic Republicans are far less likely than white Republicans to believe the nation’s criminal justice system is impartial.

I was able to combine two surveys conducted by the Cato Institute that included the same question on impartiality in the justice system to obtain a much larger sample size.[1] This offers an opportunity to take a look at how Republicans who are black, white, and Hispanic think about the justice system. Why do this? Essentially this “controls for” or accounts for the effect of political values when looking at how different racial/ethnic groups evaluate bias in the justice system.

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.

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.

Cato/YouGov Poll: 92% Support Police Body Cameras, 55% Willing to Pay More in Taxes to Equip Local Police

Amidst increased public scrutiny of policing practices and rising concerns over police officer safety, a recent Cato/YouGov national survey finds fully 65% of Americans say there is a “war on police” in America today. Majorities across partisan groups share this view, although Republicans (81%) express greater concern than independents (62%) and Democrats (55%). 

While Americans are concerned about police safety, this does not mean they wish to avoid reform. Instead, Americans overwhelming support (92%) requiring police officers wear body cameras that would record video of their interactions. Moreover fully 6 in 10 “strongly support” such a proposal. A paltry 8% oppose police wearing body cameras. Support extends across demographic and political groups. In an era of hyper-partisanship, police wearing body cameras achieves rare post-partisan consensus.

Sign up here for Cato’s regular digest of Public Opinion Insights.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act Is a Compromise, but a Pretty Good One

Last week a bipartisan group of senators, led by conservative Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), announced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015.

The bill clearly represents a compromise between criminal justice reformers and more conservative law-and-order legislators, but the aggregate effect on the criminal justice system would be a substantial improvement.

On the positive side, the bill reduces several mandatory minimums relating to non-violent drug and firearm offenses (notably reducing the “three strikes” life sentence to 25 years), adds several safety valves to allow judges to adjust the penalties for certain non-violent offenses, and in many cases works retroactively to lower the excessive sentences of those already convicted of the relevant crimes.  Further, the bill would require the federal government to compile and publish a database of all federal crimes, their elements, and their potential penalties.  In addition, the bill would restrict the use of solitary confinement on juvenile offenders, create a new system for assessing the risk level of federal prisoners, among several other corrections changes.

On the other hand, the bill creates brand new federal mandatory minimum sentences for interstate domestic violence crimes that result in death and for providing prohibited support to terrorist organizations. It’s unclear why legislators feel that terrorism suspects are treated too leniently by the current sentencing structure, and taking discretion away from judges to impose sentences based on the particular facts of the cases before them is a step back.  Also on the negative side, the bill increases the mandatory minimum for felons caught in possession of a firearm from 10 to 15 years.  There are nearly 6 million convicted felons in the United States, a great many of them having been convicted of non-violent drug offenses. Once again, it is unclear why legislators, rather than judges and juries, should determine the proper punishment for a felon who is caught with a firearm, or why the current 10 year mandatory prison sentence is considered insufficient.

Subscribe to RSS - criminal justice reform