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

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.

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