Poll Finds Widespread Support for Greater Police Accountability

Police clear the area around Lafayette Park and the White House in Washington on June 1, 2020, as demonstrators gather to protest the death of George Floyd. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

(CN) — Two-thirds of Americans want civilians to be able to sue police officers for misconduct and use of excessive force, even if it makes officers’ jobs more difficult, according to a survey published Thursday.

The Pew Research Center found that only 32% of respondents felt that police officers needed to be protected from such lawsuits in order to effectively do their jobs. The survey also suggested a broad racial coalition on this question – of black respondents, 86% agreed that civilians must be able to sue officers for misconduct; 75% of Hispanic respondents agreed, as did 60% of whites polled.

These results suggest that Americans may be turning their back on qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that prevents citizens from suing police officers and government officials who act in “good faith” unless their behavior violated a citizen’s “clearly established” rights.

Pew researchers polled 4,708 U.S. adults between June 16 and 22 — the same week House lawmakers debated police reforms, including ending qualified immunity, and nationwide protests amplified activists’ demands for cities to defund their police departments.

The survey found that reducing police spending is a widely unpopular policy option. Only one quarter of respondents supported a reduction in police departments’ budgets, and just 12% said police budgets should be significantly reduced.

But fewer Americans believe police use an appropriate amount of force and treat ethnic groups equally now than they did in 2016.

In 2016, 62% of American adults polled said the police do a good or excellent job of protecting people from crime. This number only dropped to 58% in Thursday’s poll.

But while 45% of adults surveyed in 2016 said the police were using the right amount of force, only 35% agreed in the latest poll. Double-digit drops were also seen in respondents’ thoughts on whether police treat racial groups equally (47% in 2016 to 34% in 2020) and whether police departments hold their officers accountable for misconduct (44% to 31%).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the starkest differences were in Republicans and Democrats’ answers. Of the respondents who say they are Republican or lean Republican, 78% said that the police are doing a good or excellent job of protecting people from crime, but only 43% of Democrats and respondents who lean Democrat agreed.

Only 27% of black Democrats said the police do at least a good job — 72% say police do a poor job of protecting people from crime — while 49% of white Democrats and 42% of Hispanic Democrats agreed.

Bipartisan consensus has been achieved on certain policy proposals. Nine in 10 respondents said they want police to be trained in “nonviolent alternatives to deadly force” and support a federal database tracking officers accused of misconduct.

Additionally, about three-quarters of all respondents supported requiring police officers to live where they serve, criminalizing police officers’ use of chokeholds or strangleholds, and giving civilian oversight boards the ability to investigate and discipline officers who are accused of misconduct.

Pew Research Center notes that its margin of sampling error for results based on the full sample of 4,708 respondents is plus-or-minus 1.8%.

A January 2017 Pew survey of police officers found that 86% agreed that high-profile incidents between black people and police officers have made their job harder, and that about three-quarters of officers have become less willing to stop and question suspicious people and have become more reluctant to use force as a result of these incidents.

Of the officers polled, 53% said their agency’s disciplinary processes are not fair, and only 27% said that officers who consistently do a poor job are held accountable.

Last month, House Democrats sent a sweeping police reform bill to the Senate that would end qualified immunity, prohibit no-knock warrants in drug cases, establish a national registry tracking police misconduct and ban carotid holds like the one that killed George Floyd on Memorial Day, sparking weeks of protests against police brutality and institutionalized racism.

The Senate, where Republicans enjoy a majority of 53 seats, is unlikely to pass the bill, though 36 senators co-sponsored the legislation.

On Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S. Colorado passed its own police-reform bill that declared “qualified immunity is not a defense” to civil suits against police officers.

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