How Americans feel about law enforcement and the military

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
August 26, 2022, 4:43 PM GMT+0

A number of law-enforcement agencies have made headlines recently, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Secret Service, and the United States Capitol Police. A recent poll by the Economist/YouGov asked Americans their opinions on these and other law-enforcement agencies, as well as various branches of the U.S. military. The survey finds that Americans are more likely than not to hold favorable views of each of the groups polled about, though far more hold positive views of military branches than of law-enforcement agencies. While Republicans view most groups asked about more positively than Democrats do, there are a couple of exceptions: the FBI and the U.S. Capitol Police.

The poll asked Americans whether they have favorable or unfavorable views of seven law-enforcement entities: four specific federal law-enforcement agencies, as well as three categories of local and state policing agencies. While each of the law-enforcement agencies polled about is viewed favorably by more Americans than view it unfavorably, there are big differences across the agencies. To compare them, we present the net favorability of each of these agencies, which is calculated by subtracting the percentage of people who view them unfavorably from the percentage who view them favorably.

Federal law-enforcement agencies, including the FBI (+14 net rating), the U.S. Capitol Police (+25), the Secret Service (+30), and Border Patrol (+33) receive lower net ratings than types of state and local agencies, including county sheriffs (+38) and people's state police (+41) and local police (+44).

  • Your local police: +44 net (68% view favorably, 24% unfavorably)
  • Your state police: +41 net (65% view favorably, 24% unfavorably)
  • County sheriffs: +38 net (62% view favorably, 24% unfavorably)
  • Border Patrol: +33 net (60% view favorably, 26% unfavorably)
  • Secret Service: +30 net (56% view favorably, 26% unfavorably)
  • U.S. Capitol Police: +25 net (52% view favorably, 27% unfavorably)
  • FBI: +14 net (50% view favorably, 37% unfavorably)

Compared to how they view law-enforcement agencies, Americans tend to hold more positive views of the military. Each branch of the military is rated favorably by a similarly large share of Americans, with one exception: the Space Force (+27 net favorability rating). Americans are far less likely to view the Space Force in a positive light than they are other military branches, though only a small share (19%) view the Space Force negatively; 36% say they don't know, about three times the share for each of the other branches. The Coast Guard, which receives the highest net favorability rating (+68), is both a branch of the military and a law-enforcement agency.

  • Coast Guard: +68 net (77% view favorably, 10% unfavorably)
  • Air Force: +66 net (77% view favorably, 11% unfavorably)
  • Marines: +66 net (78% view favorably, 12% unfavorably)
  • Navy: +66 net (77% view favorably, 12% unfavorably)
  • Army: +64 net (77% view favorably, 13% unfavorably)
  • Space Force: +27 net (46% view favorably, 19% unfavorably)

Republicans and Democrats have different views on most law-enforcement and military groups polled. Most notable is the gap in how they view the FBI: Only one-third of Republicans (34%) hold a favorable view of the FBI compared to nearly three-quarters of Democrats (72%). This represents a large shift from earlier polls; for instance, a poll from 2007 showed that 86% of Republicans and 74% of Democrats held a favorable opinion of the FBI. The agency's weakened reputation among Republicans may be related to the recent FBI investigation into former President Donald Trump's handling of classified materials: 73% of Republicans consider the FBI's execution of a search warrant of Trump's home in Mar-a-Lago to be a politically motivated act, while only 11% consider it a serious investigation.

Other than the FBI, the only other group polled about that is viewed more favorably by Democrats than by Republicans is the U.S. Capitol Police, which may have lost favorability among Republicans due to its involvement in defending the Capitol against rioters in the January 6, 2021 attack. All other law-enforcement and military groups are viewed more positively by Republicans than by Democrats.

We also find significant differences in how younger and older American adults rate various law-enforcement agencies and military branches. Americans who are 45 and older are far more likely to have favorable views of most military and law-enforcement agencies than younger adults do. The only groups that younger Americans hold slightly more positive views on than older Americans do are the FBI and the Space Force.

— Kathy Frankovic and Carl Bialik contributed to this article.

This poll was conducted on August 20 - 23, 2022 among 1,500 U.S. adult citizens. Explore more on the methodology and data for this Economist/YouGov poll.

Image: Aldeca Productions / Adobe Stock