August 25, 2014

Few Say Police Forces Nationally Do Well in Treating Races Equally

Most Have At Least ‘Fair Amount’ of Confidence in Local Police

Police Forces Across the U.S. Get Low Job Ratings in Many AreasAmid continuing tensions over the police shooting of an unarmed teen in Ferguson, Mo., most Americans give relatively low marks to police departments around the country for holding officers accountable for misconduct, using the appropriate amount of force, and treating racial and ethnic groups equally.

However, most also continue to express at least a fair amount of confidence in their local police forces to avoid using excessive force and to treat blacks and whites equally, though there are large racial gaps in opinion here as well as in views of police performance nationally. Public confidence in community police in these areas has not changed substantially since 2009.

The new national survey by the Pew Research Center and USA TODAY, conducted August 20-24 among 1,501 adults, finds that overall perceptions of relations between blacks and whites are only modestly changed from five years ago.

Currently, 69% of the public, including majorities of both whites (75%) and blacks (64%), say blacks and whites in this country get along “very well” or “pretty well.” Since 2009, the share of blacks with a positive view of relations between the races has fallen 12 points (from 76% to 64%) while remaining largely unchanged among whites (80% in 2009).

Blacks Express Less Confidence than Whites in Local Police to Treat Blacks and Whites EquallyThere are much wider differences in how blacks and whites assess the way police departments do their jobs – both across the country and locally.

Fully 70% of blacks say police departments around the country do a poor job in holding officers accountable for misconduct; an identical percentage says they do a poor job of treating racial and ethnic groups equally. And 57% of African Americans think police departments do a poor job of using the right amount of force.

Yet whites’ views of police performance in these areas are hardly positive. For instance, just 37% whites say police forces nationally do an excellent or good job of holding officers accountable for misconduct. And 38% say the same about police departments’ performance in treating racial and ethnic groups equally.

Public Confidence in Local Police  Little Changed from 2009The survey finds little change since 2009 in public confidence in local police departments to do a good job enforcing the law, to avoid using excessive force against suspects and to treat blacks and whites equally. Currently, 39% say they have a  great deal of confidence in police officers locally to do a good job enforcing the law; 36% say they have a fair amount of confidence. Majorities also have at least a fair amount of confidence in police officers in their communities to not use excessive force on suspects (31% great deal/33% fair amount) and to treat blacks and whites equally (30% great deal/32% fair amount).

There are substantial differences in the confidence that blacks and whites have in their local police forces. For instance, whites are twice as likely as blacks to express at least a fair amount of confidence in police officers in their communities to treat blacks and whites equally (72% of whites vs. 36% of blacks). That gap was about as great in November 2009 (69% of whites vs. 38% of blacks). However, the share of blacks saying they have “very little” confidence in their local police to treat blacks and whites equally has increased, from 34% five years ago to 46% currently.

Similarly, 74% of whites and just 36% of blacks have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in the police officers in their communities to not use excessive force on suspects. These differences also are little changed from 2009, though more blacks have very little confidence in their local police to not use excessive force than did so (40% now, 30% then).

The public has concerns over police departments’ use of military equipment and weaponry. Overall, 54% say they have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in police departments around the country to use military equipment and weapons appropriately, compared with 44% who say they have not too much or no confidence at all in police departments to wisely deploy this type of equipment.

Nearly seven-in-ten blacks (68%) say they have not too much or no confidence at all in police using this type of equipment appropriately; by contrast, most whites (60%) have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in police department to appropriately use military equipment and weapons.

Most Blacks and Whites Have Positive Views of Black-White RelationsOverall, most Americans (69%) continue to say that blacks and whites get along very well (12%) or pretty well (57%). Just 28% say blacks and whites get along not too well (23%) or not at all well (5%). The share viewing black-white relations positively has slipped seven points since 2009.

Majorities of  blacks (64%) and whites (75%) say the two races get along at least pretty well, though fewer blacks express this view than did so four years ago (76%). In 2007, 69% of blacks said blacks and whites get along very well or pretty well.

Perceptions of relations between blacks and Hispanics, and whites and Hispanics, are more positive than they were in 2009 or 2007. Currently, 59% of the public – including 78% of blacks and 67% of Hispanics – say blacks and Hispanics get along at least pretty well. And 76% of the public says whites and Hispanics get along at least pretty well; far more whites (83%) than Hispanics (60%) have positive views of relations between those groups.

Party Divides in Views of Police Nationwide

Racial Divide Within Democratic Party in Views of National Police PerformanceDemocrats are much more critical of the performance of police departments across the country than are Republicans. However, some of this difference – though not all – is driven by the highly negative views of black Democrats.

Overall, 73% of Democrats say police departments nationwide do an only fair (27%) or poor (46%) job holding officers accountable when misconduct occurs; this compares with 52% of Republicans who rate police performance in this area as only fair (29%) or poor (23%).

Among Democrats, blacks are 33 points more likely than whites to say police departments do a poor job holding officers accountable (67% vs. 34%). Nonetheless, white Democrats remain more critical of accountability at police departments across the country than Republicans overall.

These patterns in views by race and partisanship are consistent across the four other elements of police performance tested in the survey.

Young People Critical of Police Performance

Age Differences in Rating of PoliceYounger adults under the age of 50, and especially those under 30, are more critical of the performance of police departments nationwide than are Americans 50 and older.

By more than two-to-one, those under 50 say police departments do an only fair or poor job using appropriate levels of force (68%) than say they do an excellent or good job (29%). By comparison, those ages 50 and older are less negative in their views: 54% say police are doing an only fair or poor job in this area, 41% an excellent or good job.

The youngest adults (ages 18-29) are particularly critical of police performance when it comes to treatment of racial and ethnic groups. Fully 46% of those under 30 say police departments are doing a poor job when it comes to treating racial and ethnic groups equally, another 27% say they are doing an only fair job. Among those 65 and older, half as many rate police performance in this area as poor (23%), while 34% say it is only fair.