WASHINGTON (AP) – Americans are overwhelmingly wanting clear standards about when police officers can use violence and consequences for agents who do this excessively, according to a new poll in which almost all Americans support some level of change in the national criminal justice system.
The new poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research also finds much support for punishing officers who engage in racially biased police work. Americans now say more than five years ago that police brutality against the public is a very serious problem, and agents who cause injury or death at work are treated too mildly.
“To me, as a black person, I’m like, this happened,” said Kevin Richardson, 38, of Charlotte, North Carolina. “We should have known, we should have seen this and so what happened now, I’ll be honest, white people see it and say, ‘This is wrong.’ ”
The survey of American adults took place after weeks of mass demonstrations against police brutality and calls by some politicians and activists to ‘expose’ departments in response to the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in custody after a white Minneapolis officer on his knee almost Floyd’s neck for almost eight minutes.
Americans largely support the idea that action is required: 29% say the criminal justice system needs “a complete overhaul”, 40% say it needs “big changes”, and 25% say it needs “small changes”. Only 5% believe that no changes are necessary.
Megan Pecknold, 33, of Spokane, Washington, said the protests forced her to reflect on these issues in a way that she as a white person had the luxury of ignoring earlier.
“I never really thought about the use of force by the police. I am white. I never had a bad meeting with a police officer, ” she said. “The past few months have revealed more for me, and now I’m training myself.”
Nearly 6 in 10 black Americans think the criminal justice system needs to be completely overhauled, compared to about a quarter of white Americans who said the same. About 4 in 10 white Americans say major changes are needed; 3 in 10 prefer small changes.
While Democrats rather than Republicans think the system should be revised, 44% to 12%, Americans across the party are almost unanimous in the view that at least some change is needed. Another 44% of Democrats consider major changes necessary. 34% of Republicans advocate for big changes and 47% for small changes.
The poll finds overwhelming support for changes in the way the police work: requiring officers to wear body cameras, setting clear standards for the use of force, prosecuting officers who use excessive force, and forcing officers to commit misconduct from their colleagues.
Despite their popularity, body cameras have not always been the solution for the reformers. But 52-year-old Kimberly Jones from New York City said they were at the top of her list.
“You need to see more what’s going on when they address people,” she said. “You need to know from the start so you can prevent something bad from happening.”
Both the majority of Democrats and Republicans strongly support the establishment of clear standards for the use of force, requiring officers to wear video cameras and officers reporting misconduct of their colleagues. There is also bipartisan support for prosecutors who use excessive force and punish agents for racially biased police work, although more Democrats than Republicans strongly support this policy.
Brian Bernard, 54, a Republican and retired IT worker from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, said the bystander’s video of Floyd’s death was like watching a “9-minute murder.” But he said the problem is one of a bad agent, not a bad system. Banning chokeholds or needing retraining won’t make a bad officer better, he said.
“Democrats and liberals seem to have a problem solving symptoms only,” he said. “They can never see the real problem and the problem is just a bad agent.”
While hymns about “rejecting the police” have become a rallying cry in some protests, the survey found that only 25% of Americans support cuts in law enforcement funding. Democrats support, rather than resist, 41% to 33%, while Republicans overwhelmingly resist.
Bob Haines, 75, an Oklahoma City pilot who supports President Donald Trump, said he thinks police officers are doing an excellent job.
“As in my profession, most of us do a good job, but there are some bad pilots out there,” said Haines. “A few incidents have happened and suddenly the sky falls, you know?”
Democrats and republicans agree whether the legal system should reduce the focus on police and prosecution of minor offenses, with 63% of Democrats and 30% of Republicans. In general, Americans are in favor of, rather than against, 46% to 25%.
To avoid police brutality, most Americans also prefer that all officers be required to participate in more extensive racial bias training. Majority of Americans believe that the police are more likely to use lethal force against a black person, and that black Americans are generally less treated fairly by the police.
Peckhold, who favors moderate changes to the criminal justice system, said those changes should be aimed at cutting off systemic racist behavior.
“I don’t think Americans really understand how the police learned these tactics in the beginning,” she said. “By better understanding the details, we can make smarter changes.”
AP writer Sean Murphy contributed to this report from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The AP-NORC survey of 1,301 adults was conducted June 11-15 using a sample from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling errors for all respondents is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.
AP-NORC Center: http://www.apnorc.org/.
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