Blacks and whites live in different worlds when it comes to perceptions of the criminal justice system and the role that police play in society. But divisions within the white community are almost as stark, with opinions heavily shaped by partisan identification and ideology, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The overall findings underscore the depth of distrust among a sizable majority of African Americans toward the police, as well as doubts about the treatment of blacks following decisions not to prosecute officers in the killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City.
Only 1 in 10 African Americans says blacks and other minorities receive equal treatment with whites in the criminal justice system. Only about 2 in 10 say they are confident that the police treat whites and blacks equally, whether or not they have committed a crime.
In contrast, roughly half of all white Americans say the races are treated equally in the justice system and 6 in 10 have confidence that police treat both equally.
But white Americans are hardly homogenous in their views about these issues. While 2 in 3 white Republicans say minorities and whites are treated equally in the criminal justice system, only 3 in 10 white Democrats agree with that view. Similarly, while more than 8 in 10 white Republicans say they are confident that police treat blacks and whites equally, half as many white Democrats share that opinion.
Non-whites, Democrats doubt justice system
The Post-ABC survey was undertaken after a grand jury in New York early this month declined to indict a police officer in the July chokehold death of Eric Garner, who was stopped on Staten Island for selling cigarettes without a license. That ruling followed a Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict a white officer in the August shooting of black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson.
The poll was completed before the Dec. 20 killing of New York police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu by gunman Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who referenced the Brown and Garner deaths on social media before he acted. The killings came amid rising racial tensions in New York after weeks of protests over the decision not to issue an indictment in the Garner case.
Those killings have sparked widespread sympathy for the families of the two slain officers and outrage over Brinsley’s brazen act. But they have also heightened racial tension in New York and deepened preexisting strains between Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City police union.
In the Post-ABC survey, there were areas of common ground across the races and among whites of both parties. Overwhelming majorities say they would support requiring police officers to wear small video cameras whenever they are on duty.
Similar majorities of blacks, whites and Hispanics say they would support a policy requiring an outside prosecutor, unconnected to the police, to investigate any case of a police officer killing an unarmed civilian.
Those two responses were exceptions to the pattern of division on most other questions. There is a 2-to-1 gap between whites and blacks on whether police are adequately trained to avoid the use of excessive force, and slightly larger differences on whether the police try hard to maintain good relations with varied community groups and whether they are held accountable for any misconduct.
While 6 in 10 whites see the Ferguson and Staten Island killings as isolated cases, 3 in 4 blacks say they are a sign of a broader problem in the treatment of African Americans by police.
The lack of indictments in the Ferguson and Staten Island cases produced sharply negative reactions among African Americans surveyed, but whites reacted differently to the two cases. In a separate Post-ABC poll last month, a majority of whites said they approved of the decision by the Ferguson grand jury, but a plurality of whites in the new poll say they disapprove of the decision not to hand up indictments in the death of Garner (49 percent disapprove, 38 percent approve).
While the recent events have highlighted the differences between whites and blacks in their perceptions, they have not resulted in a significant change in those attitudes. For more than two decades, African Americans have been far more negative in their assessments of whether there is equal treatment of minorities and whites in the criminal justice system, with the overwhelming majority of blacks saying no.
Throughout that same period, with limited exceptions, a bare majority of whites have consistently said the system treats all races equally. In the latest survey, 6 in 10 Hispanics shared the view that the system treats minorities differently from how it treats whites.
Partisan differences among white Americans are a more recent phenomenon. A 1988 survey by the Associated Press and Media General found a 13-percentage-point gap between white Republicans and white Democrats in their assessment of how evenhanded the criminal justice system was.
By the fall of 2007, that had tripled to a 36-point gap, and it has stayed in that range since, with more white Republicans saying they think blacks and other minorities receive equal treatment and more white Democrats saying the opposite.
The growing partisan differences among white Democrats and Republicans over issues of race and justice coincided with the deepening red-blue divisions in the country that have affected attitudes on other issues, perceptions of political leaders, assessments of the state of the economy and the hardening of voting patterns.
Political partisanship and ideology play a stronger role in white Americans’ views on these issues than almost all other demographic and regional factors, according to a statistical analysis looking at the impact of many factors at once.
Higher-educated whites and those living in areas with larger black populations are more apt to doubt that minorities are treated equally in the justice system. But these factors are far outweighed by political considerations. When holding these and other demographics constant, conservatives and Republicans continue to be far more likely to say whites and blacks receive equal treatment in the justice system.
Here are some examples of the differences among whites from the latest Post-ABC poll:
●Eight in 10 white Republicans say the killings of Brown and Garner were isolated incidents, while more than 6 in 10 white Democrats say they are part of a broader pattern.
●Over half of white Republicans say they approve of the grand jury decision not to indict in the death of Garner, but only a fifth of white Democrats approve.
●Almost twice as many white Republicans as white Democrats say they are confident that police are held accountable for misconduct, and twice as many say they are confident that police are adequately trained to avoid the use of excessive force.
The Post-ABC poll was conducted by telephone Dec. 11 to 15 among a random national sample of 1,012 adults, including 310 interviews among cellphone-only respondents. Overall results have margin of error of 3.5 percentage points; the error margin is 11 points for results among African Americans and Hispanics.
Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.
This article was originally published in The Washington Post on December 27, 2014.
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