It is a time of intense scrutiny for American police officers, an era that FBI Director James B. Comey recently called “uniquely difficult” during a speech to police chiefs. Many people in and around law enforcement would agree with his assessment. Police officers, retired and current, as well as their relatives, have said in interviews since last year they feel as if officers are disparaged, targeted and vilified amid years of protests over how authorities use deadly force. And throughout the presidential campaign, Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, has repeatedly assailed what he calls a lack of respect for police.
Yet despite all of this, if you ask Americans how they feel about their local police, people say they have more respect for them than they have in almost half a century.
A Gallup poll released this week found that a little more than three in four Americans (76 percent) reported having “a great deal” of respect for the police who patrol their communities, a significant uptick over last year and the highest share reported to Gallup since 1967.
This poll followed on the heels of a Pew Research Center survey last month that delved more into how Americans view law enforcement, and found sharp divisions between black and white Americans over the ways they viewed the protests that have erupted since 2014 in Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland, New York, Baltimore, Chicago and, most recently, Charlotte. And that poll suggested an American public that respected law enforcement while also believing high-profile fatal encounters involving officers are indicative of a broader problem.
These surveys were taken after sometimes violent protests erupted in Charlotte when a police officer shot a man there, prompting the most heated flash point in the debate over policing since a violent stretch in July that saw multiple shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas. Police fatally shot men during encounters in Baton Rouge and outside Minneapolis on successive days, followed quickly by a gunman killing five officers in Dallas and days later, another attacker killing three Baton Rouge officers.
After Baton Rouge, a weary fear had settled in among law enforcement. The number of law enforcement officers fatally shot by suspects declined last year, the FBI said last week, but this year’s toll has already surpassed that of all of last year. This debate repeatedly spilled over into the presidential campaign, with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton speaking about the importance of restoring trust between communities and law enforcement, and Donald Trump, her Republican opponent, decrying how police officers are viewed.
Most people, though, say they do have respect for the police, even as they acknowledge more complex views about the nature of law enforcement today. The earlier Pew poll found that big majorities of Americans approved of the jobs their local police departments were doing, with more than seven in 10 people (72 percent) telling Pew they thought local police were doing an excellent or good job protecting them from crime. (Yes, despite the fact that violent crime went up last year — because even with that spike, crime remains at historically low levels and an overwhelming majority of Americans say they had no personal experience with violent crime last year.)
That poll shed more light on how Americans had a more nuanced view of law enforcement, one that balanced a feeling of respect and appreciation for the job done by police with a belief that there are broader issues between police and communities of color.
On this issue, as with many others relating to law enforcement, a wide gulf remained between the viewpoints of white and black Americans. Overall, six in 10 people told Pew that cases involving black people killed by police officers were signs of a broader problem rather than isolated incidents. More than half of white people felt this way (54 percent), compared with larger numbers of Hispanic (66 percent) and black (79 percent) people. There were also yawning gaps between how black and white people feel about the way police use force, treat different racial groups and respond to misconduct by police.
The share of Americans who told Gallup they have “a great deal” of respect for the police in their areas has only increased in the two years since the Black Lives Matter movement emerged nationwide.
In October 2014, two months after the Ferguson protests began in Missouri, 61 percent of Americans said they had this amount of respect for police. That figure inched up to 64 percent in October 2015 and then spiked to 76 percent this month. According to the poll taken earlier this month, Gallup found an increase in respect for local police among all of the groups they broke down, regardless of racial demographic, political leaning, age group or whether people lived in big cities, suburbs or rural areas.
One of the biggest increases Gallup reported was among the youngest group they surveyed, people between the ages of 18 and 34. Nearly 70 percent of people in that group said they had a great deal of respect for police, up 19 points from a year earlier. The views of people in this age range are an area of concern for law enforcement, Comey said during his remarks in San Diego, because he worried that “quality young people” may opt away from pursuing careers in law enforcement.
“We need to show people the true heart of law enforcement,” he said, saying that this would “ensure that other great men and women follow into this frustrating, exhausting, dangerous and thoroughly wonderful career.”