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Let’s step back for a moment to look at black and white attitudes before the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Understanding the history of attitudes towards the criminal justice system and the police sheds light on views today.
In 1993, 68 percent of blacks told Gallup the American justice system was biased against black people, and twenty years later, in 2013, an identical 68 percent gave that response. Only a third of whites in 1993 and a quarter in 2013 thought the system was biased against blacks. In a question asked in August 2013 by the Pew Research Center, 68 percent of blacks said blacks in their community were treated less fairly than whites in the courts, and 70 percent gave this response about dealings with the police. Seventeen percent of blacks in a summer 2013 Gallup poll said they had been treated unfairly in dealings with the police in the last thirty days.
These long-standing views in the black community help to explain why 65 percent of blacks told Pew Research Center interviewers this past week that the police response in the aftermath of the shooting in Ferguson had gone too far. Twenty percent said it had been about right. Whites were less certain of their views. A third said the response had gone too far, 32 percent that it had been about right, but a large 35 percent volunteered they didn’t know or refused to answer.
Nationally, views about the police have held steady for the past 20 years. In 1993, 52 percent nationally said they had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the police. When Gallup repeated the question in June this year, 53 percent gave that response. But there are sharp differences in the perceptions of blacks and white. Gallup recently aggregated the data on this question for the years 2011-2014 to look specifically at racial attitudes. Fifty-nine percent of whites and 37 percent of blacks expressed high confidence in the police. That said, Americans are always suspicious of concentrated, centralized authority, and in another question from earlier this year, 56 percent nationally told Pew researchers that “the police should not be able to search people just because they look suspicious,” while 41 percent said they should be allowed to “stop and search anyone who fits the general description of a crime suspect.”
Questions asked by the libertarian Reason Foundation in recent polls show concerns about police power. Thirty-five percent of whites, compared to 58 percent of blacks, believed cases of police misconduct “such as the use of excessive force or covering up mistakes have been increasing in the past decade.” A majority of whites, compared to 32 percent of blacks, said cases of misconduct had stayed the same of the past decade. Blacks (29 percent) were much less confident than whites (51 percent) about whether police are generally held accountable for their actions in the March Reason/Rupe poll.
Although differences of opinion about criminal justice and police practices are large, blacks and whites are in agreement on many other issues. In a December 2013 Reason/Rupe poll, fifty-seven percent of whites and 67percent of blacks said local police departments using drones, military weapons, and armored vehicles was “going too far.” In terms of larger questions on race relations, an August 2013 Pew survey found that 81 percent of whites and 73 percent of blacks said that the races get along with each other very or pretty well.
A stark racial divide in attitudes about the criminal justice system and the police has long been evident in public opinion data. The tension on the streets of Ferguson in part reflects long-held and deeply felt convictions of many in the black community nationally.
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