David Carson/AP

New poll shows big racial gulf in opinions on police conduct

Black Americans gave police lower marks amid tensions over death of Michael Brown than in previous polls

Americans of different races have significantly different opinions on police performance – especially as to whether they believe their local forces typically avoid using excessive force and treat blacks and whites equally – according to a new Pew Research poll.

Concerns over the relationship between black Americans, police, and the wider criminal justice system have been raised by the police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in a St. Louis suburb earlier this month after an alleged altercation with an officer. The policeman who shot him was white, prompting many African-Americans to question whether the situation would have unfolded the same way if the teen had not been black.

Most Americans of all races gave police forces relatively low marks in holding officers accountable for misconduct, using the appropriate amount of force and treating races equally, according to the poll carried out from Aug. 20-24 and released Monday. But significant fissures remained over how different ethnicities and races assessed the way police departments operate.

At least 70 percent of African-Americans said police do a poor job of holding officers responsible for misconduct, the poll results said. The same percentage said law-enforcement officers fail to treat all races equally.

Even though whites were less critical, their opinion of police conduct was far from positive — a little over a third of respondents said police forces do a poor job of holding officers responsible for misconduct and treating races equally.

The differences in opinion were even starker when the poll asked about the conduct of local police departments, as opposed to law enforcement performance on a national scale.

Whites were twice as likely as African-Americans to express at least a fair amount of confidence that their local police departments treat different races the same, according to the poll. The number of blacks who said they have very little confidence in their local police treating races equally has increased over the past five years, from 34 percent to 46 percent.

And while 74 percent of whites said they were fairly confident that local police would not use excessive force on suspects, only 36 percent of African Americans said the same, according to the poll results.

Among the respondents, younger people were more critical of police performance overall than those over 50 years old.

Respondents ages 18-29 were most critical of police treatment of different racial and ethnic groups — 46 percent of people in that age range said police do a poor job of treating races equally. Only about a quarter of those over 50 years old expressed the same belief.

Along with raising the issue of police misconduct, Brown’s killing has sparked racial tensions and a national conversation over whether or not the teen’s race played a role in his death.

African-Americans are far more likely to say the shooting was part of a broader pattern in the way law enforcement treats black men, at 76 percent, according to a HuffPost/YouGov poll. Just 35 percent of white respondents agreed with that statement.

Another recent Pew Research poll echoed that finding, with 80 percent of blacks saying Brown’s case raised important issues about race that should be discussed; only 37 percent of whites agreed. Though the poll showed that the majority of both whites and blacks said the two races get along “pretty well,” a slight decrease in that belief occurred among African-Americans over the past four years.

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