Blacks and whites live in different worlds when it comes to perceptions of the criminal justice system and the role that police play in society. But divisions within the white community are almost as stark, with opinions heavily shaped by partisan identification and ideology, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The overall findings underscore the depth of distrust among a sizeable majority of African Americans toward the police, as well as doubts about the treatment of members of their community following decisions not to prosecute officers over the killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York.
Only 1 in 10 African Americans say that blacks and other minorities receive equal treatment with whites in the criminal justice system. Only about 2 in 10 say they are confident that the police treat whites and blacks equally, whether or not they have committed a crime.
In contrast, roughly half of all white Americans say the races are treated equally in the justice system and 6 in 10 have confidence that police treat both equally.
But white Americans are hardly homogenous in their views about these issues. While 2 in 3 white Republicans say minorities and whites are treated equally in the criminal justice system, only 3 in 10 white Democrats agree with that view. Similarly, while more than 8 in 10 white Republicans say they’re confident that police treat blacks and whites equally, half as many white Democrats share that opinion.
The Post-ABC survey was undertaken after a grand jury in New York declined to indict a police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, who was detained for selling unlicensed cigarettes. That case followed the shooting of black teen Michael Brown by white officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., over the summer.
However, the poll was completed before the Dec. 20 killing of New York police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu by gunman Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who referenced the Brown and Garner deaths on social media before he acted. The killings came amid rising racial tensions in New York after weeks of protests over the decision not to issue an indictment in the Garner case.
In the Post-ABC survey, there were areas of common ground, across the races and among whites of both parties. Overwhelming majorities say they would support requiring police officers to wear small video cameras whenever they were on duty.
Similar majorities of blacks, whites and Hispanics say they would support a policy requiring an outside prosecutor, unconnected to the police, to investigate any case of a police officer killing an unarmed civilian.
But those two responses were exceptions to the pattern of division on most other questions. There is a 2 to 1 gap between whites and blacks on whether police are adequately trained to avoid the use of excessive force and slightly larger differences on whether the police try hard to maintain good relations with varied community groups and whether they are held accountable for any misconduct.
And while 6 in 10 whites see the Ferguson and Staten Island killings as isolated cases, 3 in 4 blacks say they are a sign of a broader problem in the treatment of African Americans by police.
The lack of indictments in the Ferguson and Staten Island cases produced sharply negative reactions among African Americans surveyed, but whites reacted differently to the two cases. A majority of whites said they approved of the decision by the Ferguson grand jury in a separate Post-ABC poll last month, but a plurality of whites in the new poll say they disapprove of the decision not to hand up indictments in the death of Garner (49-38 percent, disapprove-approve).
While the recent events have highlighted the differences between whites and blacks in their perceptions, they have not resulted in a significant change in those attitudes. For more than two decades, African Americans have been far more negative in their assessments of whether there is equal treatment of minorities and whites in the criminal justice system, with the overwhelming majority of blacks saying no.
Throughout that same period, with limited exceptions, a bare majority of whites have consistently said the system treats all races equally. In the latest survey, 6 in 10 Hispanics shared the view that the system treats minorities differently from how it treats whites.
The Post-ABC poll was conducted by telephone Dec. 11-15 among a random national sample of 1,012 adults, including 310 interviews among cellphone-only respondents. Overall results have margin of error of 3.5 percentage points; the error margin is 11 points for results among African Americans and Hispanics.