Have Americans given a second chance to police? The past year or more has been marked by protests and demands for greater accountability and restrictions on police forces, in some cases for good cause and with some constructive proposals. Mostly, though, the focus has been on angry protests that claim to represent the attitudes of entire communities toward police officers. A new poll from Gallup indicates the opposite — and a rebound in the very communities in question:
After dipping to 48% in 2014 amid a national firestorm over police treatment of young black men, the rating Americans give the honesty and ethical standards of police has rebounded to 56%. This is more consistent with the 54% to 58% ratings Gallup found between 2010 and 2013.
Four in 10 nonwhites now rate the ethical standards of police as very high or high — a sharp increase from the 23% who held this view in 2014. A steep drop in nonwhites’ ratings of the police in 2014 was the sole cause of the profession’s overall ratings dip last year. While nonwhites’ attitudes have not rebounded to their pre-2014 levels, the slight increase in whites’ positive views of the police this year, from 59% to 64%, coupled with the rise in nonwhites’ ratings, pushes the overall percentage back to the “normal” range seen in recent years.
This chart shows the sharp improvement, while also making clear that it’s not a blanket vote of confidence:
The one point of interest that remains unexplained is the sharp spike of support in 2012 for police among “nonwhites” in Gallup’s poll. It’s the only other time that it ends up in a virtual tie with the level of trust shown by whites. One has to assume that this coincides with Barack Obama’s two successful elections, but the linkage is still a little ambiguous, as is the declines immediately afterward in both cases. The current level of 40% is closer to the historical level (and within the MoE of it) than either the 2014 nadir or the apexes in 2008 and 2012.
The 2014 nadir is easy to explain, of course; the Ferguson riots took place in August of that year, just three months before Gallup’s polling. Even while the “hands up, don’t shoot” meme got debunked, it still resonated, and the initial paramilitary response of the police raised serious questions about the balance of force in normal police work. That led to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which continues to this day.
The rebound might be a little more difficult to explain. The Freddie Gray homicide in Baltimore, which resulted in charges against several police officers, took place in April of this year, not last year. It also led to riots, and to a pullback of police intervention. The result of that policy may have contributed to a reassessment, in fact, as crime went up and police responded passively. That may have reminded “nonwhites” that an engaged police presence is necessary for their own well-being. That, and the moves made by metropolitan police forces to equip officers with body cams, may have moved the needle back to its historic position.
The gap is still far too wide, though. We need police to keep the peace, and in order to do that, the police need the trust of the communities they serve. That means we have to enhance accountability without issuing blanket statements of condemnation when misbehavior or worse occurs. That requires rational discussion and cooperation, not silly die-ins in retail stores. The chart above shows how ineffective that kind of outrage theater is, and points us to the path of constructive policymaking instead.
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