Majority of white Americans say justice system too lenient on police, new poll finds

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Americans’ opinions toward police have changed drastically over the course of just five years, a new poll shows, particularly those of white people, who increasingly harbor misgivings about equality in law enforcement.

The poll, done by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, was previously conducted in 2015, just a few months after the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man who sustained a life-ending injury while being transported by Baltimore police officers. None of the six officers involved were convicted of the misconduct and second-degree murder charges levied against them.

At that time, 41% of Americans said the criminal justice system treats police who injure or kill civilians “too leniently,” according to the survey.

Views have since shifted, with 65% of Americans now agreeing the justice system isn’t aggressive enough in pursuing cops who maim or kill on the job — a sentiment shared by 62% of white people and 84% of Black people, according to the poll.

In 2015, only 32% of white respondents said the system is too lenient on police.

A majority of whites, 54%, also now say police are more likely to use force on a Black person — up from 39% five years ago.

The poll was conducted June 11-15, more than two weeks after the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died in Minneapolis police custody. It’s impossible to measure how much of an impact the death of Floyd — and the anti-racism and police brutality protests it triggered, have had on these figures. But, in multiple categories, larger jumps can be seen from 2019 to now.

Last year, a little over a third of Americans, 36% of them, said police violence against the public is an “extremely” or “very serious” concern, compared to 48% in the new poll.

Just 26% of whites felt that way in 2019, but now 39% agree. Black people, whose views generally held steadiest over time, rose from 72% to 83% on the issue.

These figures also highlight that while white and Black Americans are more aligned on some key law enforcement issues than before, they stand far apart on others.

“While attitudes among Americans overall and white Americans in particular are shifting, there are still large gaps in how Black and white Americans view racism and police violence,” according to the survey.