Public confidence in police dropped after Tyre Nichols was fiercely beaten by officers in Memphis last month, with Americans increasingly doubtful that law enforcement officers are properly trained in using appropriate force or that they treat White and Black people equally, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The increased skepticism about police appears to be fueled by declining trust on the part of White and Hispanic Americans, compared with just a few years ago. For the first time since the Post-ABC poll began asking about the issue in 2014, just under half of White Americans say they are confident about police avoiding excessive force or racial bias. About two-thirds of Hispanic Americans lack confidence in police on both fronts.
The poll was conducted after police stopped Nichols, a 29-year-old FedEx employee, on Jan. 7 in Memphis and then brutally beat him. Nichols died three days later. The beating spawned local, state and federal investigations, and five officers involved were fired and charged with second-degree murder. Video footage of the beating was made public last week, showing officers repeatedly hitting and kicking Nichols, leading to nationwide outrage.
The Post-ABC poll suggests that the Memphis case — the latest in a long line of law enforcement uses of force, many captured on video, that ignited protests — has depressed Americans’ view of police officers.
Overall, 39 percent of Americans say they are “very” or “somewhat” confident police are adequately trained to avoid using excessive force, and 60 percent believe police are not, according to the Post-ABC poll.
That level of confidence in police is even lower than it was shortly after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020. Floyd’s death, along with the shooting death of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police earlier that year, prompted protests across the country and drove calls for police reform. A Post-ABC poll conducted that summer found that 47 percent of Americans were confident police were adequately trained to use excessive force.
The drops in confidence are partly driven by changing views among Republicans and older Americans, both groups that have, historically, expressed greater faith in police than others. Among Republicans, 60 percent are confident police are adequately trained to avoid using excessive force. While that is a majority, it is down considerably from the 77 percent who felt that way in 2020. The level of confidence in police on this front remains lower among independents (39 percent) and Democrats (20 percent), also down over the past decade.
Older Americans, too, appear to have less faith in police on the issue than three years ago. Under half, or 44 percent, of people age 65 and older say they are confident in police training to avoid excessive force, which is down from 55 percent in 2020. The Post-ABC poll also found that women grew somewhat less confident in police on both excessive force and racial equality fronts since 2020 while shifts among men were more muted.
Over the past decade, police across the country have repeatedly faced public anger over uses of force, with protests bubbling up in city after city. Nichols’s death, like Floyd’s, did not involve any officer firing a gun, but some of the most contentious cases have involved police shootings, which have happened more frequently since 2020, according to a Washington Post database.
Since The Post began tracking fatal police shootings in 2015, Black people have been shot and killed at higher rates than White people.
The latest Post-ABC poll also finds that since 2020, Americans are even less confident that police treat Black and White people equally.
The poll finds 41 percent of Americans are either very or somewhat confident that police treat Black and White people equally, down from 47 percent in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.
Since 2020, Black Americans have remained consistently sure that police do not treat White and Black people equally. White and Hispanic Americans, meanwhile, have seen their confidence on that front decline over the same span.
Just 12 percent of Black Americans say they believe police treat people of different races equally, while 88 percent are not confident. In the summer of 2020, 10 percent of Black Americans said they believed police treated people equally and 89 percent said they did not.
Among other demographic groups, though, sentiment has shifted much more. White Americans are now basically split on whether police treat Black and White people equally. While 48 percent of White Americans say they are confident police do, 49 percent are not confident. In the summer of 2020, 55 percent of White Americans were confident police treated people equally, and 44 percent said they did not.
In 2020, Hispanic Americans were also split on the issue, with 49 percent saying they were confident police treated Black and White people equally and 50 percent saying the opposite. In the new poll, 33 percent of Hispanic Americans say they are confident about equal police treatment, while the share lacking confidence has leaped to 66 percent.
Divisions are also notably wide on this question based on political affiliation. More than 7 in 10 Republicans (72 percent) say they are confident police treat White and Black people equally, significantly higher than the 40 percent of independents and 14 percent of Democrats who say the same.
Overall, public belief in police has dropped since 2014, the year a White police officer in Ferguson, Mo., shot and killed Michael Brown, a Black 18-year-old, setting off a nationwide debate over how law enforcement officers use force. That December, 54 percent of American adults said they were confident police were adequately trained in using deadly force and 52 percent believed officers treated Black and White people differently. Nearly a decade later, majorities now believe the opposite.
The Post-ABC poll was conducted Jan. 27 through Feb. 1, 2023, among a random national sample of 1,003 adults and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points among the full sample and a larger error margin among subgroups.
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.