The image of America’s police departments has been tarnished in recent months, with shootings and chokings of unarmed black men sparking nationwide protests charging racial bias.
But a new poll includes a surprising finding: The episodes might have actually increased white Americans' belief that their local cops treat blacks fairly.
An NBC News/Marist College poll released Sunday found 52 percent of whites saying they have a “great deal” of confidence that police officers in their community treat blacks and whites equally. That is 11 points higher than in a September NBC/Wall Street Journal poll asking the same question (albeit using a different polling firm). It also clearly exceeds levels of trust seen in a series of Pew Research Center and USA Today/Gallup surveys dating to 2007, as well as another NBC/WSJ poll conducted after the O.J. Simpson verdict in 1995.
There’s been no such boon in confidence among African Americans, though. Just 12 percent express a great deal of confidence in local police’s equal treatment of blacks and whites -- a number that is squarely within the 10-to-17-point range in previous surveys. Only one-third have at least a “fair amount” of confidence in their neighborhood police, compared with 78 percent of whites.
(See full data breakdowns and poll details in the Google doc below.)
Why are high-profile black deaths at police hands coinciding with an increase in whites’ confidence in local police?
One possibility is that whites broadly believe white police officers had good intentions in recent deadly altercations and sympathize with them following protests and accusations of racism. National polls are consistent with this view, especially before the acquittal in Eric Garner’s death after an officer put him in a chokehold.
But another possibility is that whites do see major problems in recent police shootings in Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island, but don’t see them reflecting negatively about their own neighborhood’s police. It’s easy to see how a “this doesn’t happen in my town” logic could bolster whites’ faith in their own police force, who might seem much more competent in comparison to departments embroiled in accusations of racism. (It's kind of the same way with your local congressman. While Congress as a whole is generally held in very poor repute, people are much more forgiving of their own member -- and almost always reelect him or her.)
An August Pew Research Center poll found just this sort of bifurcation when asking separate questions about police locally and nationwide. Fewer than four in 10 whites said police across the country do an “excellent” or “good” job treating racial and ethnic groups equally (38 percent). When asked about police in their own neighborhood, though, 71 percent expressed a great deal or fair amount of confidence that blacks and whites are treated equally. African Americans also expressed higher support for local police than cops across the country on racial equality, though most still rated both negatively.
In addition, while whites largely agreed with the grand jury decision not to charge Darren Wilson for shooting Brown in Ferguson, over half disagreed with the lack of indictment of officer Daniel Pantaleo in Garner’s death, according to a Bloomberg News poll released this weekend.
Whites’ persistent belief that their local police treat African Americans fairly might affect how the policy debate plays out going forward. Congress does not appear motivated to enact major reforms for police forces, leaving state and local governments and their police forces as the primary hubs for policy changes. And in their own neighborhoods, whites don’t appear to feel the same urgency for reform.
Indeed, at this point, it seems whites see racial bias in police treatment as something that happens far away from home.
Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.