Why Americans trust the police less now than they did 20 years ago

Or to bring it to a sharper point: I live in a city that was partially wrecked by riots forty-five years ago, in an era when similar riots devastated cities around the country. If a replay of that kind of sweeping unrest seemed like a live possibility right now, in my home and other cities like it, I would probably look at the images from Ferguson and feel a little more sympathy for the masked, armored-up, guns-drawn police tactics than I do right now. That’s unfair in certain ways: Unfair to the rioters of the 1960s, given the deep historical injustices and specific tragedies shaping that era’s turmoil; and unfair, perhaps, to the cops in Ferguson, given the challenges of policing a potential riot when you haven’t faced that kind of challenge previously. But again, both life and public policy all depend on such slightly-unfair generalizations; you should be aware that they’re unfair, but you still have to make them in order to think, assess, and judge.

So am I more of a police skeptic, a civil libertarian now on these issues, and is my generation more libertarian, than the conservatives who supported tough-on-crime policies in the age of Nixon and Reagan and Bush I? Well, yes, but not necessarily in a way that necessarily speaks to a fundamental shift in first principles or underlying ideological beliefs. Rather, we’re responding to what we’ve lived through and seen happen, in the same way that an earlier generation did. Or to rewrite a famous quip about ideology and experience, if the experience of the ’60s and ’70s didn’t make you a little more pro-law-and-order, you might not have a brain; if the experience of the 2000s and 2010s haven’t made you a little more skeptical of expansive police powers − well, you might not have one either.

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