Last month—more than a year after the murder of George Floyd, and several months after a Minneapolis police officer was convicted for killing him—a consortium of news organizations asked 800 Minneapolis voters what they thought of the city’s police department. Most viewed the department unfavorably. Nevertheless, three-quarters of the poll’s Black respondents said the city shouldn’t reduce its police force. Black voters were considerably more opposed to this idea than white voters were. When the poll offered an alternative—replacing the police department with a “Department of Public Safety,” which might include cops but would focus on public health and be more closely supervised by the City Council—white respondents favored the idea. But Black respondents, on balance, rejected it.
These results were no fluke. The same thing had happened in July, when pollsters asked similar questions in Detroit. That survey, commissioned by the Detroit Free Press and USA Today, presented a list of eight issues and asked residents which was the biggest one facing the city. White respondents were slightly more likely to choose police reform than public safety. But Black respondents named public safety as their top concern, and they ranked police reform last. White residents opposed defunding the police, but Black residents rejected it even more decisively.
The findings in Minneapolis and Detroit are part of a larger story. When people are asked what they really think about criminal justice, the answers are complicated. Many white people are open to police reform, and many Black people are wary of curtailing law enforcement. These aspects of public opinion are important to understand as Democratic politicians and advocates of reform grapple with a treacherous political environment. Floyd’s death brought sustained attention to the ongoing problem of unjust police violence, but calls to defund the police backfired in the 2020 elections, hurting Democrats and undermining the movement for reform. Meanwhile, homicides surged in many cities, alarming residents and boosting public support for law and order. Republicans, emboldened by this support, have drawn a hard line in the Senate, rejecting Democratic proposals to reform law enforcement.
The challenge, in short, is that crime is returning to prominence as a national issue—whether justified or not—and Democrats haven’t figured out how to deal with it. They want to root out bad cops, rectify racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and rein in police practices that have caused unnecessary deaths. But they have to do this without getting swept up in ideas that scare many voters and don’t represent the needs or wishes of people of color. To clarify how Americans of all backgrounds think about these issues, I’ve looked at more than 100 recent polls. The surveys, comprising tens of thousands of interviews, show how reformers can make a more effective case for changing the system.
Let’s start with the no-brainers. Across the political spectrum, there’s a consensus for requiring officers to wear body cameras, mandating independent investigations of officer-involved shootings, and creating a national registry of police misconduct records. By 2 to 1, the public supports banning chokeholds and no-knock search warrants. In a survey of more than 1,800 Americans, conducted in April and May by the Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 60 percent of respondents said police supervisors should be penalized for racially biased conduct by their officers; only 15 percent disagreed.
There’s also broad support for easing up on prosecutions of nonviolent first-time offenders. Two-thirds of Americans favor shorter sentences for this group and want to let them serve time in community service, drug rehabilitation, or some other alternative to prison.
In bipartisan Senate negotiations on police reform—which collapsed in September—Republicans refused to abandon qualified immunity, a rule that shields officers from being sued directly for conduct on the job. But the public supports changing the rule. When the question is phrased neutrally in various ways, the results are consistent: Nearly 60 percent of Americans favor allowing such lawsuits; only about 30 percent disagree.
If you go beyond lawsuits and try to prosecute cops, however, Americans get a lot more squeamish. In May, a Politico–Morning Consult survey asked whether “the federal government should lower the standard for convicting a police officer of misconduct, from willful to knowing or reckless.” Only 42 percent of voters were ready to take that step. That’s more than the 35 percent who opposed the idea, but probably not enough to change the law.
One of the worst things to propose, politically, is defunding the police. Americans reject that idea by about 40 percentage points. Democrats and people of color are against it. The only idea that’s less popular is abolishing the police, which, in an Economist-YouGov poll taken this month, lost by 45 points among Black Americans, by 64 points among Democrats, and by 76 points among all voters.
The problem with threatening to defund police is that the public likes police. Cops have a strong favorable rating, even among liberals. Activists who think police departments are overfunded—or that some of their money would be better spent elsewhere—would be wise to choose less confrontational language, such as advocating for “redirecting” money to mental health or other community services. In polls, that language earns the support of around 35 percent to 40 percent of Americans, but half of the public is still against it. Softening the language again, by promising to shift the money “gradually,” gets a little more support but still doesn’t reach 50 percent.
To attract majority support, critics of police funding can do a couple of things. First, they can specify that money subtracted from police budgets would be moved not to unrelated needs, but to other kinds of policing or emergency response. A solid majority of Americans, around 60 percent, favors shifting some police money to “community policing” or “non-police first responder programs.” In May, an Axios-Ipsos poll showed that this message could dramatically change the political equation. Only 27 percent of the poll’s respondents supported defunding police, but 57 percent endorsed moving money to community policing and social services.
Another way to get majority support is to make it clear that any transfer of money away from police budgets would be accompanied by a transfer of responsibilities so that cops are relieved of certain burdens. In April, Data For Progress, a progressive strategy group, asked likely voters about the idea of reallocating portions of police budgets to create a new class of first responders who would deal with issues related to mental illness. Sixty-three percent of respondents favored that idea. The message behind such proposals is that advocates of reallocation aren’t trying to punish cops. They’re trying to liberate cops from duties to which they’re ill-suited, and pay somebody else to handle those duties instead.
But there’s a simpler way to get around the unpopularity of defunding police: Don’t mention police budgets at all. Don’t say reallocate, divert, or any of those words. Just talk about funding mental health services, social workers, and non-police first responders. When pollsters test these ideas on their own—without any suggestion that the money would come from cops—they’re overwhelmingly popular. In a Navigator survey taken in July, only 43 percent of voters endorsed “moving funding away from the police into other resources, like social services.” Most respondents opposed that idea. But in the same poll, 83 percent of voters, including 79 percent of Republicans, supported “investing in additional services to reduce pressure on police.”
The lesson for activists and politicians is clear: Don’t talk about defunding police. Instead, talk about investing in alternatives, and make those alternatives work. Then we can have a conversation about how many cops we need to handle the work that remains. And in the meantime, rather than getting bogged down in a debate over defunding, we can talk about how to make law enforcement work better.
A few years ago, I was talking with a group of friends about parents who leave their kids in cars in hot weather. One person in the group, who was Black, said that if he were to see a child in such a situation, he would find a way to help, but he wouldn’t call the cops. I was stunned. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my amazement was part of a larger gulf: Many white Americans are still seriously out of touch with how Black Americans experience law enforcement. An Axios-Ipsos survey, taken from April through May, illustrates this gap: Most white respondents claimed that police “look out for Black or Brown people” well, but two-thirds of Black respondents said that wasn’t true.
Most Black Americans, unlike white Americans, view cops unfavorably and disapprove of how police are doing their job. Seventy-two percent of white people say most officers can be trusted; only 32 percent of Black people agree. Seventy-seven percent of white people trust police to “promote justice and equal treatment for people of all races”; only 42 percent of Black people agree. Most white people have at least some confidence in the criminal justice system; most Black people have very little or none. Seventy-seven percent of Black people say police violence against the public is a very serious problem; only 36 percent of white people share that view.
White people and Black people agree that police don’t treat everyone equally, but they disagree about what that means. White people are more inclined to see the inequality as a matter of class, while Black people see it as a matter of race. In the Axios poll, 40 percent of white respondents agreed that “a wealthy Black person will get better treatment from the criminal justice system than a poor white person”; only 23 percent disagreed. Black respondents saw it the other way around: Most said a rich Black person wouldn’t be treated better; only 20 percent said she would.
There’s also a stark racial gap in feelings about encounters with law enforcement. Most white Americans agree that “if you abide by the law, the police will leave you alone, no matter your race or your ethnicity.” Two-thirds of Black Americans disagree. White people say they’re far more likely to feel reassured than fearful when they see a police car in their neighborhood; Black people say they’re more likely to feel fearful than reassured. In the Axios poll, most Black respondents agreed that “calling the police or 911 in uncertain situations often does more harm than good.” Only 25 percent of white respondents felt that way.
These anxieties among Black Americans are based, in many cases, on direct experience. In this month’s Economist-YouGov poll, Black respondents were nearly three times as likely as white respondents—22 percent to 8 percent—to report that they or someone in their family had been “the victim of violent use of force by police.” Most Black respondents worried that they or their family members would suffer such violence; only 23 percent of white respondents expressed such worry.
Given their distrust of police, Black Americans are significantly more likely than white Americans to insist on independent monitoring of officers. They’re also more wary of practices that can lead to unnecessary and potentially fatal confrontations. For instance, most white people approve of “allowing police to stop and search people for weapons and drugs,” but most Black people oppose it. Only 30 percent of white Americans say it’s very important that bystanders record video of encounters with police; among Black Americans, the number is 60 percent.
But distrust of cops is only half the story. Another difference is that Black people worry more about crime than white people do. They’re more likely than white respondents to say that violent crime is a major problem in their communities and in the country as a whole—and that they or their family members have been victimized. This might be one reason why, despite their misgivings about cops, many Black Americans worry about law and order.
When Black Americans complain about police, part of their complaint is that police aren’t doing enough to protect them from crime. Most white Americans express a great deal of confidence in police to keep them safe; fewer than 20 percent of Black Americans share that confidence. More than 70 percent of white Americans trust police to improve public safety; most Black Americans don’t. Sixty-five percent of Black likely voters say “regular police patrols in your neighborhood” would make them feel safer.
These concerns about crime and inadequate law enforcement make “defund the police” a tone-deaf message to most Black Americans. It’s true that Black people are more likely than white people to support cutting police budgets, but their support level is still low. Black respondents are more likely to oppose than support “defunding” police, by about 10 to 20 percentage points. And when polls ask about “abolishing” police, the margin of opposition among Black Americans rises far higher. In fact, most Black voters think “the defunding of police departments” is a contributing factor to violent crime.
What most Black people want is better policing, not less policing. And they’re willing to pay for it. Sixty percent of Black Americans favor “increasing funding for the police to put more officers on duty,” and 64 percent favor “deploying more police officers to street patrols.” When they’re asked how much money should be spent on “police reform,” 60 percent of Black people say more; only 17 percent say less. It’s not so much the funding or defunding that appeals to them. It’s changing the system and protecting the community.
Defunding police is an even worse message to Latinos. Most Latinos, unlike most Black Americans, trust police and view them favorably. Many are wary of interacting with law enforcement, but most affirm that “police officers are generally good and well-meaning.” Sixty percent agree that police “look out for people like you.” When they’re asked which problem worries them more—“crime in your community” or “police brutality against minorities”—Latinos are slightly more likely to say crime. In a June–July Gallup survey, Latinos expressed less confidence in police, but more confidence in the criminal justice system, than white people did.
Given these sentiments, Latinos overwhelmingly favor bigger, not smaller, police budgets. Most Latinos, unlike most white Americans, agree that recent incidents of police brutality and misconduct warrant major changes to police practices. But they don’t want defunding. They want reform.
People of color can form a strong base of support for police reform. But they’re not enough. To build a political majority, they need allies. That’s a challenge, because many white people are hostile to or wary of reform. Others, however, are sympathetic, and many more are persuadable. Polls suggest three ways to reach this audience. First, don’t challenge the integrity or trustworthiness of law enforcement officers. Instead, talk about what’s wrong with the process of policing. Second, broaden the conversation to the whole criminal justice system. And third, focus on holding bad cops accountable, not on arguing about how many cops are good or bad.
Most white Americans agree that police and the criminal justice system treat some people better than others. They also recognize that police violence against Black people is common. They’re significantly more likely to agree that the loss of Black lives in police encounters reflects a broader problem than to dismiss these deaths as isolated incidents. Nearly half of white respondents acknowledge systemic racism in law enforcement; only a third deny it. But when advocates of reform personalize this indictment—when they go beyond complaints of systemic inequity and accuse officers of direct racial discrimination—they lose a crucial segment of the white audience.
Personalization is the key. When poll questions focus on the experiences of Black people in interactions with law enforcement—asking, for example, whether Black people and white people “receive equal treatment from the police”—white respondents are significantly more likely to acknowledge unequal treatment than to deny it. But when the questions focus instead on officers’ conduct and motives from their own perspective—asking whether police are generally “tougher on Black people,” “more likely to use deadly force against a Black person,” or “more likely to use excessive force if the culprit is Black”—white respondents are slightly more likely to deny bias than to admit it. They don’t like the implication that cops are personally racist.
White Americans are also more willing to criticize the criminal justice system than to criticize police. This gap shows up in polls that repeat the same question, asking it first about cops and then about the system. A pivotal segment of white respondents—roughly 10 to 15 percent—agrees that the criminal justice system treats Black people unequally and needs major changes, but doesn’t agree when the same statements are made about police.
Given this discrepancy, it’s easier to build white support for criminal justice reform by focusing on prosecution or incarceration, not policing. White Americans narrowly oppose mandatory minimum sentences for drug convictions. They support limiting or abolishing cash bail. Forty-three percent support “reducing the criminal justice system’s focus on policing and prosecuting low-level offenses.” Many of these changes would benefit communities of color but are broadly embraced by white people because, in addition to focusing on nonviolent incidents, they’re framed as race-neutral.
White people agree that policing needs to be reformed. They want to ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants—that’s why those changes have the wide support mentioned earlier—and they don’t think cops should have broad discretion to stop and frisk. But what they really like is accountability. Given their overwhelming sympathy for law enforcement—more than 75 percent view police favorably—they tend to see bad officers as anomalies. That’s one reason why they hate defunding police. But they’re willing to expose and punish bad cops. In the Economist’s October poll, 60 percent of white respondents said controversial police actions should be subject to oversight by the Department of Justice or other government agencies; fewer than 20 percent said such investigations should be left entirely to police departments.
Thematically, the fight over police reform hinges on which side owns the message of accountability. When conservatives advocate targeted punishment of bad officers and portray the alternative as radical change, they win the white vote and split the electorate. In April, a Navigator survey tested this scenario by asking voters which side they agreed with more: making serious changes to policing to prevent police brutality and misconduct, or punishing “a few bad apples” without major reform. White voters chose the “bad apples” position, 55 percent to 38 percent.
But the same poll showed that when reformers control the accountability message, they win. When voters were asked to choose among three options—hold police more accountable, give them more power, or don’t change police practices—50 percent of white voters chose the accountability option, making it by far the dominant choice among all respondents. Most white Americans also favor changing the law to let citizens sue officers for misconduct. And in the AP-NORC poll, they endorsed “penalizing police supervisors for racially-biased policing by their subordinate officers.”
By emphasizing accountability, advocates of reform can overcome a central challenge in the criminal justice debate: They can persuade white Americans to choose a message of solidarity with Black Americans over a message of solidarity with cops. In April, a Washington Post–ABC News survey asked respondents to choose between two statements: “The country should do more to hold police accountable for mistreatment of Black people,” or “The country is doing too much to interfere in how police officers do their job.” Despite their trust in police, white respondents chose the former message, 53 percent to 39 percent. When the debate is about holding wrongdoers accountable—even wrongdoers who are officers of the law—most white Americans agree that the system must change.
The details in these polls are sometimes complex, and the numbers can be overwhelming. But taken as a whole, they teach three basic lessons. First, policing has to be reformed. Even if you generally trust law enforcement officers, there’s a pragmatic reason to change some of their rules and practices: The fear and distrust many Black Americans feel toward police is dangerously high. Cops can’t do their jobs effectively when the community sees them as a threat.
Second, the rhetoric of “defunding” police, let alone abolishing them, is politically disastrous. It alienates white people, and it doesn’t represent the views of people of color. It sets back the cause of criminal justice reform, and it threatens to further undermine public safety in minority communities. Black and Latino Americans, like white Americans, support mental health services, drug rehabilitation, and other non-police approaches to reducing crime. But they don’t want less policing. They want better policing.
Third, there’s a strong consensus for accountability. It crosses racial and party lines, and it supports significant policies, such as mandatory body cameras, civil liability for officer misconduct, and independent investigations of deadly police violence. Republicans in Congress have rejected Democratic proposals to make such changes. They think Democrats will fold because so many Americans support law enforcement. But support for law enforcement is just one aspect of what these Americans believe. A richer understanding of public opinion—Black, brown, and white—points toward reform.