65% of Americans Believe Racial Profiling is Commonly Used: Study

Demonstrators stand in front of law enforcement officers during a protest against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, near the White House in Washington, U.S., June 3, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

65% of Americans Believe Racial Profiling is Commonly Used: Study

Want to know what Americans really think about the police? One study has some important clues. 

Connor Friedersdor writes in the Atlantic that police reform is popular, while rioting is not. He’s right. While only 16% of Americans favor cutting funding for police departments, the Cato Criminal Justice National Survey found that Americans across racial and political backgrounds support a variety of policy changes that reformers say would help mend fences between police and the communities they serve.

It’s true that Americans of different racial backgrounds have vastly different perceptions of police. Strong majorities of African Americans believe police are too quick to resort to deadly force (73%) and aren’t held accountable for misconduct if it happens (64%). On the other hand, whites believe police use deadly force only when necessary (65%) and generally are held accountable for bad behavior (57%). But the racial divide in perceptions largely vanishes when it comes to policy reforms. The Cato survey found:

  • 79% of Americans support having outside law enforcement agencies investigate police misconduct, rather than leave it to the department to handle. It may surprise some readers to learn that most jurisdictions in the U.S. allow police departments to investigate and discipline their own officers. Instead, most Americans think having some outside oversight could enhance accountability. Majorities across racial groups support this: 81% of whites, 82% of blacks, and 66% of Latinos support outside investigations of misconduct.
  • 65% of Americans believe racial profiling is commonly used, but nearly the same share oppose it. 63% oppose the practice of police stopping motorists or pedestrians of certain racial or ethnic groups if police believe that these groups are more likely than others to commit certain types of crimes. 62% of whites, 77% of blacks, and 62% of Hispanics all oppose racial profiling.
  • 68% support de‐​escalation training for police to aid police officers during confrontations with citizens. 62% of whites, 81% of blacks, and 70% of Hispanics support providing this additional training to officers.
  • 53% think local police departments using military weapons and armored vehicles “goes too far” and aren’t necessary for law enforcement purposes. Presumably, these same Americans think police ought not to use such equipment. 53% of whites, 58% of blacks, and 51% of Hispanics think local police using military weapons goes too far.
  • 89% support the police wearing body cameras. Americans don’t think this is just for civilians’ benefit—but for police officers too. Nearly three‐​fourths (74%) think body cameras equally protect police officers who wear them and citizens who interact with them. 90% of whites, 89% of blacks, and 87% of Hispanics support police wearing body cameras.
  • 73% support a law requiring police officers to notify citizens when a stop is voluntary and they are free to decline a search, including 74% of whites, 63% of blacks, and 74% of Latinos.
  • 54% favor treating drug offenses like minor traffic violations with small fines rather than as felonies. Some scholars believe cooling the drug war could reduce the number of high stakes encounters between police and communities thereby helping to rebuild trust. 54% of whites, 59% of blacks, and 52% of Hispanics support re‐​categorizing drug offenses from felonies to civil offenses.
  • 84% support ending a practice called civil asset forfeiture in which police may take money or property of a person they suspect may have been involved in a crime before the person is convicted. 84% of whites, 86% of blacks, and 80% of Hispanics think police should only be allowed to seize property after a conviction.
  • 67% support banning neck restraints as a police tactic, including 67% of whites, 74% of blacks, and 59% of Latinos. (According to a Yahoo/​YouGov May 2020 survey)
  • 80% support implementing an early warning system to identify problematic officers, including 81% of whites 88% of blacks, and 74% of Latinos. (According to a Yahoo/​YouGov May 2020 survey)

Americans across racial lines also support a number of changes to the criminal justice system.

  • Majorities of Americans support eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences for both violent offenders (58%) and non‐​violent offenders (75%) so that “judges have the ability to make sentencing decisions on a case‐​by‐​case basis.” Majorities of whites (59%), blacks (63%), and Hispanics (54%) agree with eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences for violent offenders as well as non‐​violent offenders (76%, 75%, and 67% respectively).
  • 73% of all Americans support a plan that would cut the length of prison sentences for non‐​violent drug offenders: 74% of whites, 77% of blacks, and 67% of Hispanics agree.
  • 73% of all Americans support allowing non‐​violent drug offenders who have served their sentences to vote: 75% of whites, 81% of blacks, and 66% of Latinos agree.

It’s also useful to keep in mind that few Americans of any racial group support some of the more radical changes demanded by some activists. For instance, few people support calls to abolish or defund the police: 9 in 10 black, white and Hispanic Americans oppose reducing the number of police officers in their community—and a third say their community needs more officers the Cato survey found. And a Yahoo/​Yougov survey found that only 16% of Americans favor cutting funding for police departments, including 12% of whites, 33% of blacks, and 17% of Hispanics.

While Americans support (57%) the general purpose behind the protests in response to the death of George Floyd. They do not like protests that turn violent and lead to rioting. And the Yahoo/​YouGov poll found that 51% felt the Minneapolis protests were mostly violent riots, not peaceful. This may be why a Morning Consult poll found that 71% of Americans support sending in the national guard to address the protests.

Especially as tensions and emotions are high, these data demonstrate that Americans don’t have to reach consensus about every policing problem. Instead, we should remember that Americans across racial lines agree a great deal about how police should do their jobs and support policies intended to help achieve that goal.

This article by Emily Ekins first appeared in CATO on June 4, 2020.

Image: Reuters.