1142 GMT January 25, 2021
About half of American adults believe police violence against the public is a “very” or “extremely” serious problem, according to a poll conducted earlier this month by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Only about a third said the same as recently as last September, as well as in July 2015, just a few months after Freddie Gray, a black man, died in police custody in Baltimore, The Associated Press reported.
Floyd, a black man, died on May 25 after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes. In the weeks that followed, protests erupted nationwide.
The recent shifts in public opinion stand out when compared with years of survey research conducted following similar slayings of black people by police. They are distinct from slow and steady movement on other social issues. And there is evidence they may last.
“I think this seems to be something different from the gradual change that we often see with cultural and social issues,” said Jennifer Benz, the deputy director of the AP-NORC Center.
The new poll and recent trends from NORC’s General Social Survey, she said, are “suggestive that there’s been something brewing for the past couple of years that could well be leading to lasting change, as opposed to situational change.”
More Americans than in 2015 say police in most communities are more likely to use deadly force against a black person than a white person, 61 percent today compared with 49 percent in 2015. Only about a third of Americans say the race of a person does not make a difference in the use of deadly force, compared with roughly half in 2015.
And 65 percent say that police officers who cause injury or death in the course of their job are treated too leniently by the justice system, compared with 41 percent in 2015. Fewer now think police are treated either fairly or too harshly.
The recent poll builds on marked changes in public attitudes toward race relations observed in the 2018 General Social Survey, a long-running poll of Americans that started in 1972. The percentage saying the country spends too little on improving conditions of black Americans peaked at 52 percent, up dramatically from 30 percent in 2014. Republicans and Democrats alike were more likely to say that. The poll also found more Americans attributing racial disparities in income, jobs, housing and education to discrimination.
Sometimes, public opinion responds to specific events that bring attention to a social issue, but then returns back to a “normal” in quiet moments. Polling by Gallup is evidence of how American views on gun laws are responsive to mass shootings, with somewhat more saying they want to see laws on the sale of firearms made more strict in the aftermath of such an attack.
Support for stricter gun laws ticked up from 60 percent in February 1999 to 66 percent in late April that year, just after the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, which killed 21 people. By the early 2000s, the percentage of Americans preferring stricter gun laws slipped back down — as low as 51 percent in October 2002.
Gallup polling shows the trend has oscillated regularly since. It fell as low as 43 percent in 2011 but rose again to 58 percent the next time the question was asked in December 2012, after the shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 28 people. A year later, support fell back to 49 percent.
A similar bump again happened after the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018.
Meanwhile, significant shifts in public opinion inevitably follow presidential and midterm elections. In April 2016, before President Donald Trump was elected, just 34 percent of Republicans considered the nation’s economy to be in good shape, according to an AP-NORC poll. By March 2017, that figure rose to 63 percent and was 89 percent in January 2020 before taking a hit amid the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, according to Gallup polling, just 24 percent of Democrats in 2018 said they were satisfied with the country’s global standing, down 32 percentage points from 2017. What changed? Trump’s inauguration in 2017 following eight years of president Barack Obama’s time in office.
But events or crises that touch most Americans can often be agents of change.
Approval of president George W. Bush went from 51 percent in the days just before the September 11 attacks to 86 percent in the days just after, according to Gallup polling.
And more recently, the pandemic has deeply affected Americans’ views of their own lives. A May poll from NORC at the University of Chicago found the lowest percentage of Americans saying they are very happy in nearly five decades. Just 14 percent say they very happy today, down from 31 percent in 2018.