While 72 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the police, 47 percent think the number of cases of police officers using excessive force against civilians is on the rise, according to the latest Reason-Rupe poll. Forty-three percent say the rate of police misconduct is steady and 7 percent think it’s on the decline.
When it comes to the use of lethal force, only 49 percent of Americans are confident the police only use it when necessary. Another 45 percent believe the police are too quick to pull the trigger. Some may find it quite troubling that on such an important issue, only half are confident in police officers’ decisions.
There are significant differences in perception across race and ethnicity, as well as income and age. Younger, lower-income, and nonwhite Americans are considerably more likely than older, high-income, and white Americans to perceive injustice in the police force.
Nevertheless, majorities across all remain favorable toward their local law enforcement. However, African-American and Hispanic Americans are more likely than Caucasians to believe police abuse their authority and use force excessively. For instance, only 38 percent of white Americans believe excessive force in police departments is increasing, compared to 73 percent of African-Americans and 67 percent among Hispanics. Only 34 percent of Caucasians believe the police use lethal force unnecessarily, compared to 82 percent of African-Americans and 72 percent of Hispanics.
Differences in income cannot explain these race/ethnic disparities. Majorities of both lower and higher income nonwhite Americans say police abuse is on the rise and are just as likely to believe the police often use lethal force unnecessarily. However, lower income white Americans are more likely than middle class and higher income white Americans to perceive abuse of authority.
There are also regional differences in perception of police abuse. Fifty-four percent of those in urban areas say the police are too quick to use lethal force, compared to 35 percent of those in rural areas. Southerners are also more likely to say abuse is on the rise—52%—compared to only 38 percent of those in the Midwest.
Republicans don’t think excessive force is increasing: 54 percent say it hasn’t changed much, and fully 70 percent say the police only use lethal force when necessary. Democrats see things differently; 57 percent say cases of excessive force is on the rise and 61 percent say the police are too quick to use lethal force. Independents agree with Democrats’ perception that cases of excessive force are on the rise—52 percent. However, 50 percent believe the police only use lethal force when necessary while 40 percent think the police are too quick to use it.
Perhaps ironically, Americans who prefer larger government are the most likely—58 percent—to believe excessive force by the police is on the rise and they are too quick to use lethal force. In contrast, 52 percent of Americans who prefer limited government think cases of police misconduct remain steady and 62 percent believe police only use lethal force when necessary. Many Americans do not see a connection between the size of government and its impact on policing power.
The Reason-Rupe national telephone poll, executed by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, conducted live interviews with 1004 adults on cell phones (503) and landlines (501) October 1-6, 2014. The poll’s margin of error is +/-3.8%. Full poll results can be found here. including poll toplines (pdf) and crosstabs (xls).