Beyond Ferguson, police across US get low marks on fairness

A new poll suggests that many Americans are unconvinced that police forces nationwide treat all races equally, use the right amount of force, and hold officers accountable for misconduct. But blacks are far more skeptical than whites.

Adrees Latif/Reuters
Police stand guard outside the Ferguson Police Department as demonstrators protest the killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Saturday.

The concern about alleged racial bias in policing has come to the forefront of national attention in the wake of the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., at the hands of a white police officer.

It’s a longstanding concern of black Americans, now quantified in a new nationwide poll that comes in the wake of street protests in Ferguson since the death of Michael Brown.

Some 7 in 10 African American respondents to the poll rate police forces across America as “poor” when it comes to treating different racial and ethnic groups equally. And nearly 57 percent of blacks also give a poor rating to police on “using the right amount of force for each situation.”

In the case of Mr. Brown, who was mourned in a funeral service Monday, key details surrounding his death remain unsettled, even as the protests reflect wide perceptions that the gunshots that killed him on Aug. 9 were fired without cause.

The new poll, conducted by the Pew Research Center and USA Today, reveals that criticism of police for unfairness and disproportionate response is strongest among black Americans – but is not limited to them.

In fact, only 38 percent of whites rated police in America as “excellent” or “good” when it comes to equitable treatment of the races, while 25 percent gave a “poor” and 33 percent an “only fair” rating. The percentages were similar when whites answered questions about whether police use the right amount of force and whether police forces hold officers accountable when misconduct occurs.

“Most Americans give relatively low marks to police departments around the country for holding officers accountable for misconduct, using the appropriate amount of force, and treating racial and ethnic groups equally,” the Pew Research Center said in releasing results of the poll, which was conducted Aug. 20-24.

While both white and black Americans show skepticism about police behavior, the perception of unfairness is clearly strongest among blacks.

The poll, taken as the US Justice Department launched an investigation of Brown’s death, found 70 percent of black Americans saying police do a “poor” job disciplining officers for misconduct, for example.

Just as Americans tend to feel more positively about their own representative in Congress than about Congress in general, the Pew/USA Today poll found respondents viewing their local police forces more favorably than they view police nationwide.

About 7 in 10 whites say they have confidence their local police treat blacks and whites equally, a percentage that hasn’t changed much since the same question was asked in 2009 and 2007. The share of blacks giving their local police a “poor” score for treating the races equally is 46 percent – not an approving view but not as unfavorable as their view of police nationwide.

[Editor's note: The original version misstated the time of the shooting.]

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