Public opinion hardens against protesters, softens on police

William JordanUS Elections Editor
August 22, 2014, 1:34 PM GMT+0

Views of the police reaction to protests in Ferguson, Mo. have become more favorable since last week, but views on the subject have become even more racially polarized

Rallies and vigils are planned around the country for this weekend and Monday to mark the funeral of Michael Brown, the Missouri teenager who was shot to death on August 10 by a police officer. His death sparked weeks of unrest in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, centering on accusations of racial discrimination by the almost totally white police force against a majority black population. The police department’s reaction to the protests – which have led to looting in some cases – has also been criticized for being too heavy-handed.

YouGov’s previous polling on the subject revealed a national public divided on the police response but less sympathetic to the reaction of Ferguson residents to the shooting. The latest polling finds that public opinion has hardened further against the residents, and softened slightly when it comes to the police.

56% of Americans now say people in Ferguson have reacted in an “unreasonable” way, up from 45% the week before. However, the number who say the residents have been reasonable has increased too, albeit by an insignificant amount, from 25% to 27%.

The reverse (to a lesser extent) has taken place when it comes to views about the police reaction to the protests in Ferguson. Whereas last week the public was evenly divided between those who said the police have reacted reasonably (32%) and those who said the police have reacted unreasonably (33%), now the public tends to say the police reaction has been reasonable by 40-33%.

After a week during which the unrest was covered extensively by national news media, the number who responded “not sure” fell from 30% to 17% when asked about the residents and fell from 35% to 27% when asked about the police.

YouGov noted previously that there were stark divisions along racial lines regarding the events in Ferguson and what they meant for the country. This week’s survey suggests views opinions about Ferguson, in particular the police reaction to the protests there, have become even more racially polarized: 63% of blacks in the survey say the police reaction has been “unreasonable”, up from 48% the previous week. At the same time the number of whites who take the opposite view – that the police have been reasonable – has increased from 34% to 45%.

Due to the small size of the sample used for blacks (115, unweighted, in the latest survey), the margin for error for that group is much larger than it is for the general public, but the large swing towards “unreasonable” makes it very unlikely that opinions of the Ferguson police have softened, and, either way, the shift among whites (a much larger group) is nearly as large.

A similar, but less dramatic, shift has taken place with views about the residents of Ferguson. The number of whites who say the residents have been unreasonable is now 58%, up from 48%, and the number of blacks who say the residents have been reasonable is 45%, an insignificant change from last week’s 42%.

Full poll results can be found here.

Image: PA