Amid waves of civil unrest as protesters across the country continue to demonstrate against police brutality, Americans’ confidence in the police has dropped to a record low, according to a Gallup poll released on Wednesday.
The survey, conducted by Gallup from early June to mid-July, found that confidence in the police had fallen five points, to 48 percent, from the year before. Gallup, which started tracking the public’s confidence in a range of public institutions in 1973 during the Watergate scandal, adding the police in 1993, said this was the “first time in the 27-year trend that this reading is below the majority.”
But despite the overall decline, the survey found that Republicans’ confidence in the police had risen seven points, to 82 percent. Democrats’ faith in law enforcement dropped six points, to 28 percent.
Gallup conducted telephone interviews with a random sample of 1,226 adults for the poll. The margin of sampling error for a sample of this size is plus or minus four percentage points, according to Gallup, meaning that differences of less than that amount are statistically insignificant.
The drop in confidence came after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed in Minneapolis police custody at the end of May, inspiring weeks of civil unrest nationwide. Mr. Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” echoed those of Eric Garner, a Black man who died after being put in a chokehold by a police officer on Staten Island in 2014.
Black people are far more likely than whites and other groups to be the victims of use of force by the police, even when racial disparities in crime are taken into account. A New York Times report found that at least 70 people over the past decade, ranging in age from 19 to 65, had died in law enforcement custody after saying the same words: “I can’t breathe.” A majority of them had been stopped or held over nonviolent infractions, 911 calls about suspicious behavior, or concerns about their mental health. More than half were Black.
The Gallup survey also found that the gap between white and Black Americans’ expressed confidence in the police has never been greater, said Mohamed Younis, Gallup’s editor in chief.
The survey found that 56 percent of white adults said they were confident in the police, whereas only 19 percent of Black adults said the same. That 37-point gap is larger than it has been historically, according to Gallup, which also found a divide in Americans’ trust in the criminal justice system.
“One of the starkest metrics in this year’s poll is that 11 percent of Black Americans express confidence in the criminal justice system,” Mr. Younis said. “That means nine out of 10 Black Americans in this country do not have confidence in a process built on the theory that all citizens are equal before the law.”
That’s compared with 24 percent of white Americans, according to Gallup’s poll results.
Gallup, which added the police to the list of institutions it asked about in 1993, said that from then until “the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013” — after the acquittal of the man who fatally shot the Black 17-year-old Trayvon Martin — “about 25 points separated Black and white adults’ ratings of confidence in the police.”
But from 2014 through 2019, “Black Americans’ confidence in police dipped six points, to an average of 30 percent, while white Americans’ confidence was steady at 60 percent, increasing the racial gap to 30 points.”
The downward trend is not a surprise “if you’ve been watching the news,” said Phillip Atiba Goff, co-founder and chief executive of the Center for Policing Equity, and a professor of African-American studies and psychology at Yale.
Dr. Goff said that the racial gap in trust in the police could be attributed to the “kind of law enforcement people from different racial groups tend to receive in this country,” and that “none of these things are mysteries. It is exactly for the reasons that you think it is.”
But what Dr. Goff found most noteworthy is that now a majority does not have confidence in law enforcement.
That’s “unprecedented in this country,” he said, and it creates a problem for public safety because compliance with the law “begins with trust in it, and not fear of it.”
It remains to be seen if this year is “merely a low point for this institution, or if confidence in police will continue to suffer beyond 2020,” Mr. Younis said, but he noted that “despite a downtick this year, police are among the most highly regarded institutions Gallup has polled on — even in this year’s poll.”
“They have also maintained majority confidence in all of our polls except the latest one — which comes during a year when police, as an institution, have been under a microscope,” he said.
Mr. Younis pointed to other Gallup polls showing that although “most Americans want some kind of policing reform, they also want their local police to maintain or increase the amount of time they spend in their local neighborhoods.”
Dr. Goff said the police do have opportunities to improve, “and it’s not a deep scientific trick: Do better.”
Pointing to a Center for Policing Equity document called “A Roadmap for Exploring New Models of Funding Public Safety,” Dr. Goff said there were actionable steps that cities and the police could take immediately that would lead to an increase in trust.
“If your community is not in charge of the kind of public safety it’s getting, fix that,” he said, also explaining that officials need to be transparent with communities, including about what law enforcement can and cannot do.
Ensuring that there are enough resources for community issues, including mental health, substance abuse and homelessness, is also key.
The police, Dr. Goff said, “know that they can be trained to be effective in protecting people from the violence of street crime, but they can never be effective at protecting people from the violence of poverty.”