- In an exclusive poll, just 1 in 5 Americans said the police treat all Americans equally.
- Skepticism about the fairness of the criminal justice system crossed racial and partisan lines.
- Americans trusted Biden more than former President Donald Trump, 42% to 37%, to address crime.
Concerns about crime and gun violence have surged to the top of issues that worry Americans, a new USA TODAY/Ipsos Poll finds, but attitudes about how to respond reflect the repercussions of the nation’s debate over racial justice.
Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed said violent crime has worsened in the United States over the past year, and nearly a third have seen it rise in their communities. While they expressed trust in their local police, however, the classic call to get tough on crime has been tempered by broad concerns about law enforcement tactics and the equality of the criminal justice system.
“The country has always used that phrase ‘tough on crime,’ and, if anything, things have gotten worse,” Kathy Kelly, 67, a health care consultant from Glendale, Arizona, said in a follow-up interview after being called in the poll. “I don’t know that we can get any tougher on crime. I think we have to be more discerning about what we’re getting tough on.”
In the survey, 7 in 10 supported increasing police department budgets; 77% said they would like additional police officers deployed on street patrols. But 62% also said some of the police budgets should be used to fund community policing and social services. And 81% endorsed a mandate that police-involved shootings be investigated by a separate and independent authority.
More than a year after George Floyd was murdered on a Minneapolis street by a then-police officer who knelt on his neck, video of that and other instances of police misconduct toward Black Americans have sparked protests and a national reckoning on race.
Now just 1 in 5 Americans, 22%, said the police treat all Americans equally. Even fewer, 17%, said the criminal justice courts and lawyers treat everyone equally.
That is a double-digit decline in public confidence since a USA TODAY/Pew Research Center Poll in 2014, when 32% of Americans said police departments did an excellent or good job in treating racial and ethnic groups equally.
“Strong majorities support increased police funding to combat crime, making it clear that America is still a law and order country,” said Cliff Young, president of Ipsos Public Affairs. “However, this Ipsos/USA TODAY poll shows most Americans recognize racial inequalities in law enforcement, suggesting many Americans want justice in addition to safety.”
The poll of 1,201 adults, taken online June 29-July 6 using Ipsos’ probability-based KnowledgePanel, has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points for the full sample.
Concerns about racism cross partisan lines
Skepticism about the fairness of the criminal justice system crossed racial and partisan lines.
Among whites, 54% said the police don’t treat all Americans equally; 63% said the criminal justice system doesn’t treat everyone equally. The majorities were bigger among Black Americans at 77% and 72%.
Even Republicans, who expressed more faith in law enforcement, were inclined to say the criminal justice system doesn’t treat everyone equally, 47% to 31%. Among Democrats, that was the view by nearly 9 to 1 (78% to 9%) and among independents by more than 4 to 1 (64% to 15%).
“Tim Scott is a senator from here,” said Marcia Clark, 67, a retired airline worker and political independent from Bluffton, S.C. “In one year, he’s been stopped seven times by the police, and one time he got a ticket for turning his direction (indicator) on but it wasn’t fast enough. So there’s got to be something to do with race, because I know Lindsey Graham’s not getting stopped, and they’re stopping Tim Scott, right?”
Graham, one of South Carolina’s senators, is white. Scott, the state’s other U.S. senator, is Black and the lead Republican in bipartisan negotiations on a criminal justice bill.
Crime has once again begun to roil American politics as murder rates have spiked – up 24% over last year – and as the threat of COVID-19 has ebbed. In the poll, crime topped a list of 16 issues of potential concern. The coronavirus pandemic dropped to No. 7, tied with racial injustice and discrimination. (They trailed political extremism, climate change, health care, government budget and debt, and immigration.)
Last month, President Joe Biden announced a crime prevention strategy targeting rogue gun dealers and the illegal sale of firearms. But Republicans have blamed the rise in crime on progressive activists’ calls to cut funding for law enforcement, spotlighting the slogan “defund the police.”
“The defunding message that’s been going on has been really, really bad,” said Ron Johnston, 73, an independent from the Toledo suburb of Ottawa Hills, Ohio. “Over the summer, I saw all these riots and I saw people doing things and not getting arrested – and when they are getting arrested, they’re getting bailed out and they’re being dismissed. That really bothers me.”
He added: “‘Defund’ is the biggest farce of a word that I’ve ever heard. ‘How can we get better? We need to take away your protection.'”
In the poll, the movement known as “defund the police” received little support. Only 22% endorsed the idea. Black Americans opposed it 60% to 38%, Democrats 63% to 37%.
Across party lines, about 4 in 10 said just talking about the idea had hurt Democratic candidates in last November’s elections.
Whom do you trust to handle crime?
Crime and public safety is the issue on which the Republican Party now holds its strongest advantage. By 32% to 24%, those polled said the GOP was better at handling crime. Democrats were preferred in handling health care, education and gun violence. The parties were roughly tied on handling employment and job creation.
That said, Americans trusted Biden more than former President Donald Trump, 42% to 37%, to address crime.
Asked to chose between two statements, 45% agreed with this: “We should shift some funding to social services, get guns off the street, and demilitarize policing.” That was the view of Democrats by more than 6 to 1.
In contrast, 37% agreed with the alternative: “We should spend more on police and let police officers do their job as they see fit.” That was the view of Republicans by more than 6 to 1.
What specific strategies did most Americans support?
The message was mixed, presumably a reflection of conflicting impulses and priorities. An overwhelming 9 of 10 endorsed training police officers to de-escalate difficult situations and avoid violence. But nearly 6 in 10 also backed military or SWAT-style training for all police officers.
Some approaches that gained favor during previous tough-on-crime campaigns don’t have majority support now. Mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug convictions were backed by 48%. Just 36% endorsed “stop and frisk” policing, the policy that gives police broad latitude to stop people with little cause and search them for weapons or drugs.
“We need to rethink the way we train police completely, from the very beginning,” said Craig Blek, 58, an economics professor at Imperial Valley College in California, who is a registered Republican. “Everybody thinks that you can just overhaul the police system tomorrow, and you can’t. It’s going to take 20 years of recruiting and training to fix the problem. But we need to start it.”