This week’s grand jury decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson once again brought the nation’s attention to Ferguson, Mo. Reactions to the verdict suggest that this decision will only extend and deepen the controversy about Wilson’s shooting of Michael Brown.
Amidst this controversy, we have a rare opportunity to examine opinions within Ferguson itself. Two doctoral students at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, Tyler Chance and Dawna Williams, conducted an exit poll in Ferguson on Nov. 4. The results show that race continues to structure the perceived legitimacy of fatal police actions.
The exit poll was administered in two precincts in predominantly white neighborhoods and two precincts in predominantly black neighborhoods. In total, 129 people participated in the exit survey, of which a majority of respondents identified as black (58 percent); over a third identified as white (35.5 percent); and, a handful of respondents identified either as Asian, Latino or some other.
Obviously, this small sample of data has its limitations. But it provides advantages too, since it is rare for polls to focus on local jurisdictions. To my knowledge, none has focused specifically on Ferguson.
Unsurprisingly, the exit poll reveals substantial racial cleavages in opinion. Sixty-three percent of black respondents express unfavorable attitudes toward the police, compared to 14 percent of white respondents.
Whites and blacks also had starkly different beliefs about what happened before Wilson shot Brown. A majority of whites (71 percent) believed that Wilson was seriously injured, but very few black respondents (9 percent) believed this. These impressions were formed before much information on Wilson’s condition was released.
Whites and blacks also differed, though to a lesser degree, on whether police should be required to wear body cameras. Fewer white (80 percent) than black respondents (94 percent) support police wearing body cameras.
Beliefs among exit poll respondents also depended on the racial composition of their precinct and how closely their precinct was located to to the scene of Michael Brown’s death. In both predominantly white precincts, the belief that Wilson was seriously injured was more prevalent in the precinct further from the site of Wilson’s confrontation with Brown. In the precinct closest to the scene of Brown’s death — at Koch Elementary School about half a mile away — none of the respondents, all of whom were black, believed that Wilson was seriously injured.
While the nation continues to learn about the racial and economic disparities in Ferguson, public debates over police shootings will affect communities outside the St. Louis suburb. Social scientists are just beginning to understand how these debates affect how both police officers and suspects are understood by the public, and thus the impressions they form about law enforcement. In an ongoing study, Chance, David Kimball and I are investigating how witness accounts, police statements and local media coverage shape public opinion.
These information channels and the institutions that sustain them — which Joshua Tucker and Clarissa Hayward have already discussed — likely only reinforce the differences in how racial groups respond to police shootings.
Adriano Udani is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.