Concern over crime has reached the highest point in four years amid a spike in killings in big cities and an uptick in violent crime, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Friday, and the percentage of Americans who say crime in the United States is “extremely serious” has reached its highest point in two decades.
The poll also finds that a sizable majority believe racial discrimination still exists in the country and say they hope that communities can find solutions to crime beyond putting more police officers on American streets, such as providing economic opportunities to people in low-income communities.
The poll reflects a larger debate — raging in city council chambers, activist circles and even the White House — about whether the nation can mitigate a troubling recent spike in violent crime and still make progress on the police reforms that gained momentum after George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer.
A 59 percent majority of Americans believe crime is an “extremely” or “very” serious problem in the U.S., according to the Post-ABC poll, an increase from 51 percent in Gallup polling last fall and the highest level since 2017. The sentiment crosses party lines, though worries are higher among Republicans than Democrats. Anxiety about local crime is far lower but has also grown, with 17 percent saying crime in their area is extremely or very serious, up from 10 percent last fall.
Some activists who have pushed to eliminate systemic racism from the criminal justice system worry that hard-fought gains, and support for innovative approaches, will fade if anxious communities reach instead for what they see as the simplistic remedy of hiring more police.
President Biden laid out an anti-crime strategy in June, focusing on gun crime as part of an effort to stem the rise in homicides. His plan would also allow communities to use coronavirus relief funds to hire police officers or engage in other crime mitigation efforts, though he conceded in his remarks that “there is no one . . . answer that fits everything.”
Americans give Biden negative ratings for how he has handled the issue of crime, according to the poll, with 38 percent approving and 48 percent disapproving, while a sizable 14 percent offer no opinion.
The Post-ABC poll finds a 55 percent majority of Americans who say increasing funding for police departments would reduce violent crime, with views diverging sharply by party and race.
Although the data is not complete, the murder rate appeared to rise last year by double digits in many major cities, according to crime statistics compiled by the FBI, while violent crime in general increased 3 percent.
But it’s unclear whether those numbers are a peak or a prelude. Crime rates historically rise in the summer, when people are more likely to congregate, increasing opportunities for conflict. And no one is certain what effect a year of being cooped up during the pandemic will have as society returns closer to normal.
Despite the clear worries over crime, the poll shows that many Americans have internalized some of the equity concerns, in policing and other matters, that have arisen during the sometimes fractious debate over systemic racism that spilled protesters into American streets over the past year or more.
More than three-quarters of Americans say some people experience discrimination based on their race or ethnicity in the United States, including clear majorities across partisan, racial, age and educational groups.
Yet the public is divided on whether conditions are getting better or worse. Among those who perceive discrimination, 37 percent say the country is making progress while 27 percent say it is losing ground and 34 percent say it is staying the same.
White people who say discrimination exists are more than twice as likely as Black people to say the country is making progress on this issue — 41 percent compared with 18 percent.
Those racial differences persist when people are asked whether the country is making progress on how police interact with Black people. While 17 percent of Black Americans say the country is making progress, that figure is 33 percent for White Americans. A plurality of Black Americans, 45 percent, say the country is “staying the same.”
Last month, bipartisan congressional negotiators conceded that an agreement on police reform legislation remained elusive after nearly four months of intensive talks. The negotiations could also be sidelined as the Senate tries to an infrastructure plan and Biden’s social policy agenda, while the looming midterm elections threaten to make things steadily more fractious.
The crime reduction plan Biden unveiled last month puts the White House at the forefront of a delicate issue that has dogged him and the Democratic Party in the past and carries potential political consequences in the future.
Administration officials have tried to show that Biden is taking concrete steps to reduce crime, even as the Democratic coalition that put him in the White House continues to pull in different directions. Some on the left want to dismantle traditional policing, while others believe slogans like “defund the police” are a big reason Democrats did not do better in 2020 and are concerned that spiking crime will only exacerbate the political fallout of such slogans.
Biden’s negative numbers do not necessarily translate to a Republican advantage on the crime issue, since 35 percent of Americans say they trust the Democrats to do a better job on crime, 36 percent trust Republicans more and 20 percent volunteer that they trust neither party on the issue.
The poll asks whether respondents believe five different policies would reduce violent crime. At the high end, 75 percent say increased funding for economic opportunities in poor communities would reduce crime, while 65 percent say the same for using social workers to help police defuse volatile situations involving people with emotional problems.
A 55 percent majority say more funding for police departments would be effective. About half, 51 percent, say stricter enforcement of gun laws would reduce crime, while a slightly smaller 46 percent say the same of tougher gun laws.
Clear majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents believe crime would be reduced by funding economic opportunities in poor communities, although partisans disagree on most other approaches.
More than 8 in 10 Democrats and nearly 7 in 10 independents say social workers helping police defuse situations would reduce violent crime, while just over 4 in 10 Republicans agree. And while roughly 8 in 10 Democrats say stricter enforcement of existing gun laws would reduce violent crime, that drops to about half of independents and about one-quarter of Republicans.
Republicans see increasing police funding as the most effective policy mentioned in the poll ― 76 percent say it would reduce violent crime ― while 51 percent of independents and 45 percent of Democrats agree.
Racial differences are also apparent, with 60 percent of White adults saying increased police funding would reduce violent crime, compared with 50 percent of Hispanic adults and 39 percent of Black adults.
Among Black Americans, more than 7 in 10 say violent crime could be reduced by stricter gun laws and stricter enforcement of existing gun laws, and more than 8 in 10 say funding for economic opportunities for poor communities and pairing social workers collaborating with police would be effective.
The Post-ABC poll was conducted June 27-30 among a random national sample of 907 adults, with a margin of sampling error for overall results of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. Error margins are larger among subgroups.
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.