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What Americans say about policing and race

Confidence in police varied by race before George Floyd’s death; blacks and whites both perceive unequal treatment

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Daisy Mulamba, Daniella Mulamba and Jose Solano gather to protest racism, police brutality and the death of George Floyd in front of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 5, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Race, age and political views all influence how Americans assess the performance of law enforcement and the criminal justice system and whether people of different races are treated equally.

Most Americans say the answer is no, they are not, based on several different polls that frame the question in different ways.

A majority of Americans do believe most police generally act in the public interest. But they also believe police treat white Americans better than black Americans.

Race also influences the perceptions of police officers. Black officers are more likely to view protests as heartfelt pleas for change than as anti-police efforts, compared to their white counterparts. And they’re less likely to see fatal encounters between police and people of color as “isolated incidents.”

More than older adults, younger adults are more skeptical that justice is equal regardless of race. That holds true within political affiliations, too.

Conservatives are less critical of police than are liberals.

A CBS poll released last week found nearly 80% of black Americans believe whites receive better treatment by police. Across races, 57% agree that’s the case. More Democrats see differences in treatment based on race, compared to Republicans, who mostly believe people are treated the same.

Those are among findings from polls conducted over the past four years that look at policing and the court system in terms of how people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds are treated.

“Race has been such an important aspect of our country’s history. Obviously race has been at the center of protest in previous generations — the 1960s and civil rights movement,” said Kim Parker, director of social trends research for the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, which has examined issues of policing and the broader legal system for years. “It’s an issue we seem to come back to again and again and now we’re seeing in the expression of these protests how the lived experiences of blacks and whites and Hispanics and Asians can be different across different realms of life.”

Police encounters

Against the backdrop of nationwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in police custody, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center released a summary of its recent research on race and law enforcement, including major studies in 2016 and 2019. Among highlights:

  • While white and Latino officers say encounters with police that end in the death of black Americans are “isolated incidents,” 57% of black officers say those incidents are “signs of a broader problem.” Black officers are more apt to see protests over the deaths of black people during police encounters as genuine efforts to change the system than as signs of anti-police bias, the summary said.
  • Most officers in 2016 described the relationship between police and black members of their community as “good” or “excellent,” though less than said the same of relationships with whites, Asians or Hispanics.
  • Black adults more often than whites say they’ve been unfairly stopped by police because of their race or ethnicity (44% versus 9%).

Questions about how fairly law enforcement officers treat black Americans predate Floyd’s high-profile death in Minneapolis on May 25. And differences in both perception and experience go back some, too, Pew reported.

In April, Pew found nearly 8 in 10 Americans overall felt at least “a fair amount” of confidence that police act in the best interests of the public. Fewer black Americans agreed, at 56%. Whites agreed the most at 84%, while 74% of Hispanics agreed.

That report, released June 5, noted that “these views — and the wide racial and ethnic gaps in opinions — had changed little over the prior few years.”

But younger American adults express concern about what they perceive as differences in treatment based on race, according to Parker. She said while protests around the country include Americans of all ages, “there seems to be a pretty heavy concentration of young adults who are highly engaged in this issue. ... I’m really intrigued and interested to follow this generational pattern and see if this younger generation is going to sort of pull the rest of the population along with it.”

A generational shift

The survey found younger black Americans were the most skeptical of police. Just half of black Americans under 55 said they had “at least a fair amount of confidence in the police to act in the best interest of the public,” wrote study author Hannah Gilberstadt. That’s compared to 68% of older black Americans, a number similar to the two-thirds of younger white and Hispanic adults who said that.

The center’s earlier research found differences not just by age, but by political party. In a 2019 survey, nearly 9 in 10 white Democrats said black people are treated less fairly than whites by police or in the criminal justice system, while close to just 4 in 10 Republicans agreed.

Parker noted a generational shift there, too.

“We even see in the data that among Republicans the younger generation stands apart from older generations of Republicans. So I think that would suggest If young adults hold onto those views, we’re likely to see change in the future,” Parker added.

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Mercedes McKinley and other protesters listen during a rally at Washington Square in Salt Lake City on Saturday, June 6, 2020.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“The last couple of major studies just sort of underscored the different experiences that blacks and whites in America have across various realms — not just in dealing with the police and the criminal justice system, but in other areas of life as well, in employment and housing. We’ve seen in the research that we’ve done on the economic well-being of Americans across different race and ethnic groups that there are big gaps by income and wealth. In our research, a common theme across a body of work has been the disparate experiences that blacks and whites and Hispanics and Asians have across various realms of society,” she told the Deseret News.

Growing concerns

Multiple recent surveys convey concern about policing and race, including a new Washington Post-Schar School poll. “More than 2 in 3 Americans (69%) say the killing of Floyd represents a broader problem within law enforcement, compared with fewer than 1 in 3 (29%) who say the Minneapolis killing is an isolated incident,” the story accompanying the poll said.

“That finding marks a significant shift when compared with the reactions in 2014 to police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York. Six years ago, 43% described those deaths as indicative of broader problems in policing while 51% saw them as isolated incidents,” wrote Scott Clement and Dan Balz for The Washington Post.

A poll by Axios-Ipsos, conducted the week after Floyd’s death, said 77% of white Americans and 69% of Americans overall trust law enforcement “to look out for the best interests of you and your family.” Only 36% of black Americans agree.

Similarly, a Monmouth University poll found 76% respondents believe racial and ethnic discrimination is a big problem in America; 7% say it’s not a problem. And most surveyed said anger about black deaths at the hands of police officers that have sparked protests is “fully justified,” though they often disagree with some protester’s actions.

Mixed opinions

Despite criticism of police, Pew’s most recent survey found most Americans give police high marks for ethical standards. But there were sharp contrasts. Nearly three-fourths of the public overall rate police high or very high on ethical standards, while just over half, 52%, of black adults said that.

Broken down by age, 61% of adults 18 to 29 gave police high or very high marks on ethical standards, while 83% of older adults gave at least high marks. Again, differences were found between Republicans and Democrats, 83% to 64%.

Majorities of Republican and conservative-leaning independents (87%) and Democrats and independents who lean more liberal (71%) also held that view. When race was taken into account, 54% of black Democrats gave high or very high marks, compared to 78% of white Democrats.

While most white liberal Democrats (72%) expressed some confidence that police act in the best interests of the public, just under half (48%) of black liberal Democrats said so.