These results were no fluke. The same thing had happened in July, when pollsters asked similar questions in Detroit. That survey, commissioned by the Detroit Free Press and USA Today, presented a list of eight issues and asked residents which was the biggest one facing the city. White respondents were slightly more likely to choose police reform than public safety. But Black respondents named public safety as their top concern, and they ranked police reform last. White residents opposed defunding the police, but Black residents rejected it even more decisively.
The findings in Minneapolis and Detroit are part of a larger story. When people are asked what they really think about criminal justice, the answers are complicated. Many white people are open to police reform, and many Black people are wary of curtailing law enforcement. These aspects of public opinion are important to understand as Democratic politicians and advocates of reform grapple with a treacherous political environment. Floyd’s death brought sustained attention to the ongoing problem of unjust police violence, but calls to defund the police backfired in the 2020 elections, hurting Democrats and undermining the movement for reform. Meanwhile, homicides surged in many cities, alarming residents and boosting public support for law and order. Republicans, emboldened by this support, have drawn a hard line in the Senate, rejecting Democratic proposals to reform law enforcement.
The challenge, in short, is that crime is returning to prominence as a national issue—whether justified or not—and Democrats haven’t figured out how to deal with it. They want to root out bad cops, rectify racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and rein in police practices that have caused unnecessary deaths. But they have to do this without getting swept up in ideas that scare many voters and don’t represent the needs or wishes of people of color. To clarify how Americans of all backgrounds think about these issues, I’ve looked at more than 100 recent polls. The surveys, comprising tens of thousands of interviews, show how reformers can make a more effective case for changing the system.
There’s also broad support for easing up on prosecutions of nonviolent first-time offenders. Two-thirds of Americans favor shorter sentences for this group and want to let them serve time in community service, drug rehabilitation, or some other alternative to prison.
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If you go beyond lawsuits and try to prosecute cops, however, Americans get a lot more squeamish. In May, a Politico–Morning Consult survey asked whether “the federal government should lower the standard for convicting a police officer of misconduct, from willful to knowing or reckless.” Only 42 percent of voters were ready to take that step. That’s more than the 35 percent who opposed the idea, but probably not enough to change the law.
One of the worst things to propose, politically, is defunding the police. Americans reject that idea by about 40 percentage points. Democrats and people of color are against it. The only idea that’s less popular is abolishing the police, which, in an Economist-YouGov poll taken this month, lost by 45 points among Black Americans, by 64 points among Democrats, and by 76 points among all voters.
The problem with threatening to defund police is that the public likes police. Cops have a strong favorable rating, even among liberals. Activists who think police departments are overfunded—or that some of their money would be better spent elsewhere—would be wise to choose less confrontational language, such as advocating for “redirecting” money to mental health or other community services. In polls, that language earns the support of around 35 percent to 40 percent of Americans, but half of the public is still against it. Softening the language again, by promising to shift the money “gradually,” gets a little more support but still doesn’t reach 50 percent.
To attract majority support, critics of police funding can do a couple of things. First, they can specify that money subtracted from police budgets would be moved not to unrelated needs, but to other kinds of policing or emergency response. A solid majority of Americans, around 60 percent, favors shifting some police money to “community policing” or “non-police first responder programs.” In May, an Axios-Ipsos poll showed that this message could dramatically change the political equation. Only 27 percent of the poll’s respondents supported defunding police, but 57 percent endorsed moving money to community policing and social services.
Another way to get majority support is to make it clear that any transfer of money away from police budgets would be accompanied by a transfer of responsibilities so that cops are relieved of certain burdens. In April, Data For Progress, a progressive strategy group, asked likely voters about the idea of reallocating portions of police budgets to create a new class of first responders who would deal with issues related to mental illness. Sixty-three percent of respondents favored that idea. The message behind such proposals is that advocates of reallocation aren’t trying to punish cops. They’re trying to liberate cops from duties to which they’re ill-suited, and pay somebody else to handle those duties instead.
But there’s a simpler way to get around the unpopularity of defunding police: Don’t mention police budgets at all. Don’t say reallocate, divert, or any of those words. Just talk about funding mental health services, social workers, and non-police first responders. When pollsters test these ideas on their own—without any suggestion that the money would come from cops—they’re overwhelmingly popular. In a Navigator survey taken in July, only 43 percent of voters endorsed “moving funding away from the police into other resources, like social services.” Most respondents opposed that idea. But in the same poll, 83 percent of voters, including 79 percent of Republicans, supported “investing in additional services to reduce pressure on police.”
The lesson for activists and politicians is clear: Don’t talk about defunding police. Instead, talk about investing in alternatives, and make those alternatives work. Then we can have a conversation about how many cops we need to handle the work that remains. And in the meantime, rather than getting bogged down in a debate over defunding, we can talk about how to make law enforcement work better.
A few years ago, I was talking with a group of friends about parents who leave their kids in cars in hot weather. One person in the group, who was Black, said that if he were to see a child in such a situation, he would find a way to help, but he wouldn’t call the cops. I was stunned. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my amazement was part of a larger gulf: Many white Americans are still seriously out of touch with how Black Americans experience law enforcement. An Axios-Ipsos survey, taken from April through May, illustrates this gap: Most white respondents claimed that police “look out for Black or Brown people” well, but two-thirds of Black respondents said that wasn’t true.
There’s also a stark racial gap in feelings about encounters with law enforcement. Most white Americans agree that “if you abide by the law, the police will leave you alone, no matter your race or your ethnicity.” Two-thirds of Black Americans disagree. White people say they’re far more likely to feel reassured than fearful when they see a police car in their neighborhood; Black people say they’re more likely to feel fearful than reassured. In the Axios poll, most Black respondents agreed that “calling the police or 911 in uncertain situations often does more harm than good.” Only 25 percent of white respondents felt that way.
These anxieties among Black Americans are based, in many cases, on direct experience. In this month’s Economist-YouGov poll, Black respondents were nearly three times as likely as white respondents—22 percent to 8 percent—to report that they or someone in their family had been “the victim of violent use of force by police.” Most Black respondents worried that they or their family members would suffer such violence; only 23 percent of white respondents expressed such worry.
When Black Americans complain about police, part of their complaint is that police aren’t doing enough to protect them from crime. Most white Americans express a great deal of confidence in police to keep them safe; fewer than 20 percent of Black Americans share that confidence. More than 70 percent of white Americans trust police to improve public safety; most Black Americans don’t. Sixty-five percent of Black likely voters say “regular police patrols in your neighborhood” would make them feel safer.
These concerns about crime and inadequate law enforcement make “defund the police” a tone-deaf message to most Black Americans. It’s true that Black people are more likely than white people to support cutting police budgets, but their support level is still low. Black respondents are more likely to oppose than support “defunding” police, by about 10 to 20 percentage points. And when polls ask about “abolishing” police, the margin of opposition among Black Americans rises far higher. In fact, most Black voters think “the defunding of police departments” is a contributing factor to violent crime.
Given these sentiments, Latinos overwhelmingly favor bigger, not smaller, police budgets. Most Latinos, unlike most white Americans, agree that recent incidents of police brutality and misconduct warrant major changes to police practices. But they don’t want defunding. They want reform.
People of color can form a strong base of support for police reform. But they’re not enough. To build a political majority, they need allies. That’s a challenge, because many white people are hostile to or wary of reform. Others, however, are sympathetic, and many more are persuadable. Polls suggest three ways to reach this audience. First, don’t challenge the integrity or trustworthiness of law enforcement officers. Instead, talk about what’s wrong with the process of policing. Second, broaden the conversation to the whole criminal justice system. And third, focus on holding bad cops accountable, not on arguing about how many cops are good or bad.
Personalization is the key. When poll questions focus on the experiences of Black people in interactions with law enforcement—asking, for example, whether Black people and white people “receive equal treatment from the police”—white respondents are significantly more likely to acknowledge unequal treatment than to deny it. But when the questions focus instead on officers’ conduct and motives from their own perspective—asking whether police are generally “tougher on Black people,” “more likely to use deadly force against a Black person,” or “more likely to use excessive force if the culprit is Black”—white respondents are slightly more likely to deny bias than to admit it. They don’t like the implication that cops are personally racist.
White Americans are also more willing to criticize the criminal justice system than to criticize police. This gap shows up in polls that repeat the same question, asking it first about cops and then about the system. A pivotal segment of white respondents—roughly 10 to 15 percent—agrees that the criminal justice system treats Black people unequally and needs major changes, but doesn’t agree when the same statements are made about police.
Given this discrepancy, it’s easier to build white support for criminal justice reform by focusing on prosecution or incarceration, not policing. White Americans narrowly oppose mandatory minimum sentences for drug convictions. They support limiting or abolishing cash bail. Forty-three percent support “reducing the criminal justice system’s focus on policing and prosecuting low-level offenses.” Many of these changes would benefit communities of color but are broadly embraced by white people because, in addition to focusing on nonviolent incidents, they’re framed as race-neutral.
Thematically, the fight over police reform hinges on which side owns the message of accountability. When conservatives advocate targeted punishment of bad officers and portray the alternative as radical change, they win the white vote and split the electorate. In April, a Navigator survey tested this scenario by asking voters which side they agreed with more: making serious changes to policing to prevent police brutality and misconduct, or punishing “a few bad apples” without major reform. White voters chose the “bad apples” position, 55 percent to 38 percent.
By emphasizing accountability, advocates of reform can overcome a central challenge in the criminal justice debate: They can persuade white Americans to choose a message of solidarity with Black Americans over a message of solidarity with cops. In April, a Washington Post–ABC News survey asked respondents to choose between two statements: “The country should do more to hold police accountable for mistreatment of Black people,” or “The country is doing too much to interfere in how police officers do their job.” Despite their trust in police, white respondents chose the former message, 53 percent to 39 percent. When the debate is about holding wrongdoers accountable—even wrongdoers who are officers of the law—most white Americans agree that the system must change.
The details in these polls are sometimes complex, and the numbers can be overwhelming. But taken as a whole, they teach three basic lessons. First, policing has to be reformed. Even if you generally trust law enforcement officers, there’s a pragmatic reason to change some of their rules and practices: The fear and distrust many Black Americans feel toward police is dangerously high. Cops can’t do their jobs effectively when the community sees them as a threat.
Second, the rhetoric of “defunding” police, let alone abolishing them, is politically disastrous. It alienates white people, and it doesn’t represent the views of people of color. It sets back the cause of criminal justice reform, and it threatens to further undermine public safety in minority communities. Black and Latino Americans, like white Americans, support mental health services, drug rehabilitation, and other non-police approaches to reducing crime. But they don’t want less policing. They want better policing.
Third, there’s a strong consensus for accountability. It crosses racial and party lines, and it supports significant policies, such as mandatory body cameras, civil liability for officer misconduct, and independent investigations of deadly police violence. Republicans in Congress have rejected Democratic proposals to make such changes. They think Democrats will fold because so many Americans support law enforcement. But support for law enforcement is just one aspect of what these Americans believe. A richer understanding of public opinion—Black, brown, and white—points toward reform.
This content was originally published here.