Americans overwhelmingly want clear standards on when police officers may use force and the consequences for officers who do so excessively, according to a new poll that finds nearly all Americans in favour of at least some level of change to the nation’s criminal justice system.
The new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research also finds there is strong support for penalising officers who engage in racially biased policing. Americans are more likely now than five years ago to say police violence against the public is a very serious problem and officers who cause injury or death on the job are treated too leniently.
“For me, as a Black person, I’m like, this has been happening,” said Kevin Richardson, 38, of Charlotte, North Carolina. “We should’ve been knowing it, we should’ve been seeing this and so now what’s happened is, I’ll be honest, white people are seeing it and saying: ‘This is wrong.'”
The survey of American adults took place after weeks of mass demonstrations against police violence and calls from some politicians and activists to “defund” departments in response to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died in custody after a white Minneapolis officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
Americans are largely united behind the idea that action is required: Twenty-nine percent think the criminal justice system needs “a complete overhaul”, 40 percent say it needs “major changes” and 25 percent say it needs “minor changes”. Just 5 percent believe no changes are necessary.
Differing views on reform
Megan Pecknold, 33, of Spokane, Washington, said the protests have forced her to think about these issues in a way she, as a white person, had previously not done.
“I had never really given much thought to police use of force. I’m white. I’ve never had a bad encounter with a police officer,” she said. “The last few months have brought to light more of this for me, and now I am educating myself.”
Nearly six in 10 Black Americans think the criminal justice system needs a complete overhaul, compared with about a quarter of white Americans who said the same. About four in 10 white Americans say significant changes are needed; three in 10 prefer minor changes.
While Democrats are more likely than Republicans to think the system needs an overhaul, 44 percent to 12 percent respectively, Americans across party lines are nearly unanimous in thinking at least some change is necessary. Another 44 percent of Democrats think significant changes are necessary. Among Republicans, 34 percent call for significant changes and 47 percent for minor changes.
The poll finds overwhelming support for changes in how police departments operate: Requiring officers to wear body cameras, establishing clear standards for use of force, prosecuting officers who use excessive force and requiring officers to report misconduct by their peers.
Despite their popularity, body cameras have not always proved to be the fix reformers hoped for. But Kimberly Jones, 52, of New York City, said they are at the top of her list. “You need more seeing what’s going on as they’re pulling up on people,” she said. “You need to know from the start so you can stop something bad from happening.”
Majorities of Democrats and Republicans alike strongly support establishing clear standards for use of force, requiring officers to wear video cameras and requiring officers to report misconduct by their peers. There is also bipartisan support for prosecuting officers who use excessive force and penalising officers for racially biased policing, though more Democrats than Republicans intensely favour these policies.
Brian Bernard, 54, a Republican and retired IT worker from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, said the bystander video of Floyd’s death was like watching a “nine-minute murder”. But he said the problem is one of a bad cop, not a bad system. Banning chokeholds or requiring retraining will not make a bad officer better, he said.
“Democrats and liberals seem to have a problem of only fixing symptoms,” he said. “They can never see the actual problem, and the problem is just a bad cop.”