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A new national survey reveals a disparity among black and white community members when it comes to perceptions regarding violence against civilians by police. (Photo: AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research)

Black and White: Survey Reveals Huge Disparities in Assessing Police Violence

Nearly three-quarters of black respondents consider violence against civilians by law enforcement officers to be an extremely or very serious problem, while less than 20 percent of white people feel the same

Jon Queally

Just days ahead of the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown's killing by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri—a death which propelled the national Black Lives Matter movement and a national conversation about racialized police violence to the forefront—a new poll released Wednesday reveals just how different the perceptions and experiences regarding law enforcement in the United States remain for black community members compared to their white counterparts.

Conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago, the new survey found black people are much more likely to have had a personally negative experience with police officers, with more than 3 in 5 saying they or a family member had been ill-treated by police based on their race, compared to just 3 percent of white respondents who said the same. In addition to actual experience, the perceptions of law enforcement practices and behavior were starkly different between black and white civilians.

Strikingly, when it came to assessing the severity of problematic police violence in the country, nearly three-quarters of black respondents consider violence against civilians by law enforcement officers to be an extremely or very serious problem, while less than 20 percent of white people feel the same.

Additionally, as AP reports, the survey found:

  • More than two-thirds of blacks — 71 percent — thought police are treated too leniently by the criminal justice system when they hurt or kill people. A third of whites say police are getting away with it, while nearly half — 46 percent — say the police are treated fairly by the criminal justice system.
  • When asked why police violence happens, 62 percent of whites said a major reason is that civilians confront the police, rather than cooperate, when they are stopped. Three out of 4 blacks, or 75 percent, said it is because the consequences of police misconduct are minimal, and few officers are prosecuted for excessive use of force. More than 7 in 10 blacks identified problems with race relations, along with poor relations between police and the public that they serve, as major reasons for police violence.
  • Whites and blacks disagreed over whether police are more likely to use deadly force against blacks. Nearly 3 out of 4 whites — 74 percent — thought race had nothing to do with how police in their communities decide to use deadly force. Among blacks, 71 percent thought police were more likely to use deadly force against black people in their communities, and 85 percent said the same thing applied generally across the country. Fifty-eight percent of whites thought race had nothing to do with police decisions in most communities on use of deadly force.
  • Seventy-two percent of whites said they always or often trust police to do what is right for them and their community, while 66 percent of blacks said they only sometimes, rarely, or never trust the police to do what is right.

While accounting for how the diversity of a community impacts certain perceptions, the survey found white Americans who live in more diverse communities—those where census data show at least 25 percent of the population is non-white—were more likely than whites who live in more homogenous communities to say police in their communities sometimes treat minorities more roughly, 58 percent to 42 percent. Additionally, those in more diverse areas are more likely to see police officers as too quick to use deadly force, 42 percent to 29 percent.

Despite the very large differences in experience and perception, the study also discovered widespread agreement among both races that specific police reforms, in fact, are needed. For example, 71 percent of overall respondents said body cameras on police would be an effective deterrent to police aggression and 52 percent said they think community policing programs would help reduce the friction in minority communities.

"This survey indicates that while there is a deep divide among  Americans on these issues, there are key points of agreement as well," said Trevor Tompson, director of the AP-NORC Center. "There is  widespread agreement that race relations in the United States are in a sorry state, and blacks and whites agree that changes in policies and procedures could be effective in reducing tensions between minorities and police and in limiting violence against civilians."

The nationwide poll was collected July 17 to 19 using the web, landlines, and cell phones to conduct interviews with 1,223 adults, including 311 blacks who were sampled at a higher rate than their proportion of the population for reasons of analysis.

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