police reform

82% Say It’s Hard to Ban Hate Speech Because People Can’t Agree What Speech Is Hateful

An overwhelming majority (82%) of Americans agree that “it would be hard to ban hate speech because people can’t agree what speech is hateful,” the Cato 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey finds. Seventeen percent (17%) disagree. Majorities across partisan and demographic groups alike agree that hate speech is hard to define and thus may be hard to regulate.

Full survey results and report found here.

How Do Americans Define Hate Speech?

When presented with specific statements and ideas, Americans can’t agree on what speech is hateful, offensive, or simply a political opinion

Besides slurs and biological racism, Americans are strikingly at odds over what speech and ideas constitute hate.[1] For instance, a majority of Democrats (52%) believe saying that transgender people have a mental disorder is hate speech. Only 17% of Republicans agree. On the other hand, 42% of Republicans believe it’s hateful to say that the police are racist, while only 19% of Democrats agree.

Among all Americans, majorities agree that calling a racial minority a racial slur (61%), saying one race is genetically superior to another (57%), or calling gays and lesbians vulgar names (56%) is not just offensive, but is hate speech. Interestingly a majority do not think calling a woman a vulgar name is hateful (43%), but most would say it’s offensive (51%). Less than half believe it’s hateful to say that all white people are racist (40%), transgender people have a mental disorder (35%), America is an evil country (34%), homosexuality is a sin (28%), the police are racist (27%), or illegal immigrants should be deported (24%). Less than a fifth believe it’s hateful to say Islam is taking over Europe (18%) or that women should not fight in military combat roles (15%).

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.

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.

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.

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