NYT poll: 65% of whites, 80% of blacks say police shouldn't have military-style weapons

Evidence of a “libertarian moment”? Or evidence of loaded language in a poll question?


Eighty percent of blacks, 65 percent of whites, and 59 percent of conservatives agree. The question is fine in a vacuum but the context, obviously, is what the police have been doing lately in Ferguson, and cops there haven’t been using tanks. You wouldn’t know that from social media, where the “tank” claim was repeated endlessly during the worst nights of the protests, but what they actually had was a Bearcat. That’s not unlike an MRAP, but it’s nothing new to SWAT units and not supplied by the Pentagon. As for “assault rifle,” some cops in Ferguson did carry the M4, a military weapon, at times, but given how vague the term “assault rifle” is (conveniently so, right gun-control fans?), it’s impossible to tell from the phrasing here what sort of weaponry the public thinks crosses the line. Should police be denied any weapon carried by the military? Any semiautomatic rifle? I’m skeptical that the public would want SWAT units disbanded altogether. What I think this question is getting at is public distaste for SWAT-style tactics when there’s no terrorist-type situation that would warrant them. The actual weapons they’re being asked about are almost incidental; “tank” is essentially a stand-in for “armored vehicle.” The public hasn’t seen an actual tank over the past 10 days in Ferguson but, if this poll is accurate, they’re clearly alienated by what they did see.


Spend some time with the rest of the poll data as there are interesting tidbits within, especially within the sample of black Americans. For instance:


Maybe there’s some nuance behind the word “enemy” there, i.e. blacks don’t regard the police as an enemy but may feel that the police regard them as an enemy. But either way, after the past 10 days of cable coverage, you would expect at least a significant minority here to choose “enemy.” Nope. The results on these questions may come as a surprise too:


More blacks believe that the protesters have behaved properly (or should have gone even further) and that the police haven’t than vice versa, but not by wide margins. Which is not to say there aren’t major divisions between blacks and whites on some questions. When asked whether the police are friends or enemies, whites split 42/9. When asked whether they’ve felt discriminated against by the police based on race, whites split 7/93 versus 45/55 for blacks. (The latter is a bit surprising in itself. A majority of blacks haven’t felt discriminated against by cops?) And when asked whether cops are more likely to use deadly force against someone who’s black versus cops being race-neutral in using deadly force, whites split 31/58 while blacks split 71/20. Hard to square the latter with the result on police as enemies, but there you have it. Lots of suspicions but not quite hostilities.


Oh, and a grand total of 10 percent of Americans think race relations have gotten better during the Obama presidency. Thirty-five percent think race relations have gotten worse.

Update: Whoops, brain freeze in the headline. Should read “80% of blacks,” not “whites.” I’ve changed it now.

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David Strom 2:30 PM | March 03, 2024