Many Americans Prefer Better Policing Than Less Policing

In villages, towns and cities all across the U.S., violent crime is on the rise. While defunding the police became the favored mantra shortly after George Floyd’s death in May, 2020, new polls show a clear but sometimes complex change in how citizens view and what they expect from police. Salient points from numerous polls, which were conducted by a consortium of new organizations including USA Today, the Detroit Free Press, Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, and Politico-Morning Consult, were recently published by Slate.

Although Floyd’s death inspired Democratic politicians to focus on the ongoing problem of unjust police violence, the impetus to defund police backfired during the 2020 election cycle and caused both Democrats and criminal justice reform advocates to lose ground. The acceleration of crime including homicides is causing fear among citizens and increasing support for law and order. Republicans are using that new fear to hold back efforts to implement new reform measures. 

Democrats want to get rid of bad cops, correct racial disparities in the criminal justice system and eliminate inappropriate police practices that have caused needless deaths. Figuring out just how to accomplish that goal without alienating White voters and at the same time staying true to Black and Brown voters is not an easy task.  

As the polls attest, citizens are still demanding that policing needs to be reformed. Even those who generally trust police officers believe that there are pragmatic reasons to breathe new life into stale rules and practices. Quite naturally many Black Americans feel a high level of fear and distrust toward police officers. When the community is threatened by police, the ability of police to do their jobs effectively is greatly diminished. 

Survey participants rejected the notion of defunding police, let alone abolishing them. While White voters are offended by the now-unpopular concept, voters of color don’t believe defunding police clearly expresses their views either. Some believe the defunding rhetoric could further undermine public safety in minority communities and set back the entire notion of criminal justice reform. Black, Latino and White voters support mental health services, drug rehabilitation, and other non-police strategies to reduce crime. Instead of wanting less policing, they yearn for better policing. 

Citizens across all racial and party lines express a strong consensus for accountability. Among their demands are mandatory body cameras, civil liability for officer misconduct and independent investigations of deadly police violence. Democrats in Congress have been pressing to make many of these changes only to be thwarted by Republicans. The GOP believes that because support for U.S. law enforcement is currently so strong, that Democrats will give in. Regardless of voters’ current feelings on law enforcement, reform is still the hot issue.

Even in Minneapolis where Black voters view the police unfavorably, support for reducing the size of its police force is minimal. White Minneapolis voters favored the creation of a Department of Public Safety that would also focus on public health and be more closely monitored by the City Council. Black voters disapproved. In Detroit, White voters chose police reform rather than public safety as their first priority. Police reform was ranked last among eight available priorities by Black voters.

A review of findings from a broad cross-section of polls show that support is strong for banning chokeholds and no-knock search warrants. Police supervisors should be held responsible for the racially biased conduct of their officers. Non-violent first offenders should be given shorter sentences that can be served via an alternative to prison including community service or drug rehabilitation. 

Almost 60 percent of U.S. voters support transferring some police money to community policing or non-police first responder programs. Black voters are skeptical that Whites have the capacity to understand how people of color are treated by law enforcement. In an Axios-Ipsos survey taken earlier this year, White respondents believed that police “look out for Black or Brown People” while Black respondents disagreed. More than three-quarters of White respondents also agreed that they trust police to “promote justice and equal treatment for people of all races.” The very same percentage of Black respondents said that police violence against the public is a very serious problem.

In an Economist-YouGov poll taken earlier this month, nearly three times as many Black Americans as Whites indicated that someone in their family had been “the victim of violent use of force by police.” A majority of Black Americans also responded that they feared that they or a family member would suffer at the hands of a police officer. Black voters are also more likely to say that violent crime is a major problem in their communities. The majority of Black Americans support increased funding for the police to put more officers on duty and to deploy more officers to street patrols.

The pollsters found that Latinos trust the police and view them favorably. Although many are leery of interacting with officers, most believe that “police officers are generally good and well-meaning.” Latinos are in favor of larger, not smaller police budgets.   

Developing consensus on how accountability is defined is the key to building a solid bi-racial coalition which can move forward together to accomplish additional criminal justice reform initiatives.

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