Local PDs better regarded than cops around the nation

December 19, 2014, 3:32 PM UTC

Local cops tend to be seen in a more positive light than police in general, but most black Americans don't even think their local police do a good job

The recent shootings of African-Americans by white police officers and the non-indictment of two of them have returned questions about equal treatment by police to the national agenda.  Although Americans in a recent Economist/YouGov Poll tend to feel better about police behavior in their own communities than they are about police behavior nationally, black Americans don’t see much of a difference.

Just about half the public believes the police in the U.S. do their main job well – protecting people from crime.  But there is skepticism about their performance when it comes to using the right amount of force, and their accountability when it comes to investigating police misconduct, and only 40% overall say the police treat racial groups equally. 

Local police – those in a respondent’s own community – receive better marks on all these issues, with majorities in the poll giving them good or excellent ratings on every characteristic except holding police officers accountable for misdeeds.

But that more positive assessment of local police definitely does not match the feelings of African-Americans.  For them, both the police in the country and in their local areas receive negative ratings, and any improvement in local ratings over national evaluations is small.  Only 36% of blacks even give local police credit for a good or excellent job protecting people from crime, not much different from the 27% who say that about police nationwide. 

There is evidence in the poll that African-Americans have more negative interactions with the police than do whites.  A majority of blacks – 55% -- say they have at least once felt discriminated against by police because of their race or ethnicity.  Only 9% of whites say this.  Hispanic respondents fall in between whites and blacks when they assess possible discrimination because of race or ethnicity. 

There is more support by blacks than by whites for having charges of police misconduct investigated outside the local police force, and at the highest level.  48% of African-Americans, compared with 16% of whites, want the federal government to investigate charges of local police misconduct.   A quarter of whites would let the local departments investigate; nearly half would move up any investigation to the state level.  But large majorities of both blacks and whites support a Wisconsin law that would require any death caused by a police officer to be investigated by an independent outside organization.  That bill passed in April with bi-partisan support.  

The poll found similar results to those seen in other polls on two specific instances of white police shooting and killing unarmed black men: the Ferguson, Missouri death of Michael Brown, and the shooting of Eric Garner in New York City.  In both cases, there was no indictment.  The racial divide on the Ferguson result narrows significantly when it comes to the Garner case.  Majorities of both blacks and whites disapprove of the decision not to charge the police officer in that case, though disapproval is higher among blacks.

The racial split on police behavior occurs as well when Americans are asked more generally about the existence of racism first in the country and then in their local community.  There is less perceived racism locally than nationally, but most blacks today still see racism as a somewhat serious problem in their local communities. 

See the full poll results

Economist/YouGov poll archives can be found here.