Recent polls show that 97 percent of Americans are aware of George Floyd’s death, with other data showing an increased awareness of police brutality and racial injustice. Public perceptions of protests against police brutality remain politically divisive. Progressives argue that the violent actions of a few protesters distracts from the protests’ overall peaceful nature, while President Trump and other conservatives downplay or deny police brutality claims, asserting that a few “bad apples” do not reflect police departments as a whole. Furthermore, once championed by a progressive minority, broader public discourse now considers calls to reform, defund, or abolish police departments in response to recurring police violence.

We address three interrelated issues about these protests and policing. First, how does the public view these protests in comparison to civil rights era protests? Second, does the public judge protesters or the police by the actions of so-called “bad apples”? Third, how does the public view terms like “defund the police”?

Many have drawn parallels to 1960s civil rights protests, due to the emphasis on racial injustice, their size and geographic spread across the country, and the force used by police in response. Yet, this comparison may paint a glorified picture of the past, ignoring that protests were highly controversial at the time.

Historically, regardless of partisanship, most Americans viewed police favorably and especially their local police. However, Americans also increasingly view police brutality as problematic, and majorities believe recent peaceful protests were justified yet oppose violent protests. Meanwhile, evaluating police actions and protests remains contentious, as some view violence as isolated, non-representative actions of the group whereas others view these violent acts as core components.

Various local police reforms have also resulted from protests, though implementation remains to be seen. Cities such as Minneapolis voted to dissolve the police force, while New York City plans to reallocate an undetermined amount of funds from law enforcement to youth services. Yet, calls to “defund” or “abolish” the police remain controversial and perhaps misunderstood.

To address these issues of protests and police and with assistance from the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL) at Western Kentucky University, we conducted a web survey via mTurk of 1,027 American respondents on July 7, 2020. Acknowledging that web surveys commonly underrepresent Black people and other ethnic minorities, we focused our attention on partisan differences.

Respondents first were randomly assigned to one of four prompts to evaluate using a five-point Likert scale (strongly disagree to strongly agree).

Version 1:

I support protests against racial injustice like those seen regarding George Floyd.

Version 2:

I support protests against racial injustice like those organized by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Version 3:

Police departments should not be judged as a whole by the violent actions of a minority of its members.

Version 4:

Protests should not be judged as a whole by the violent actions of a minority of its members.

For clarity, we recoded the five-point scale into three categories by combining “strongly disagree” with “disagree” and “strongly agree” with “agree.” We find that more than 80 percent of Democrats expressed support for protests, regardless of the framing, with only a minor increase when Martin Luther King, Jr. was referenced. In contrast, a majority (57.14 percent) of Republicans agreed with the King prompt, but support dropped nearly 18 percent when Floyd was referenced.

So why the difference? Democrats perhaps see a clearer continuity between issues from the civil rights era to the present, supporting anti-police brutality and anti-racism platforms. If Republicans focus more on protest violence, then views of King-era protests may be sanitized views that disregard the looting, riots, and chaos that frequent major protests. The age distribution between the parties may also contribute if young people are more likely to see police brutality and protest coverage via social media.

Moving to the third and fourth versions, again, we see a stark difference. Among Democrats, more than 80 percent agree that protests should not be judged by the violent actions from a minority of its members. However, when the prompt focuses on police departments, only a plurality (47.46 percent) disagree with the statement. Among Republicans, we see nearly a mirror image, with more than 80 percent agreeing with the police department prompt while a slim majority (55.39 percent) agree with the protest version.

It should be noted that institutional protection for individuals differs greatly between police departments and protest groups. The “Blue wall of silence” describes the informal system amongst police officers who agree not to report another officer’s misconduct. In doing so, many police departments fail to report excessive force, as required by the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Broader institutional protections, from qualified immunity to the role of police unions, further protect police so much so that from 2005 to 2011 only 13 on-duty police officers were charged with armed aggravated assault in the United States despite over 1,000 police shootings each year. In contrast, protesters lack such institutional structures while their actions are more likely to be in public and documented.

Next, all 1,027 respondents were asked to rate their first impressions of the following three phrases on 1 to 5 scale:

“Reform the police”

“Defund the police”

“Abolish the police”

Half of respondents, through random assignment, were given additional information about the three terms to clearly evaluate whether the public understood the differences between the terms. The additional information included:

"Reform the police" means a long-term process that has usually involved putting more funding toward police and limiting officers' use of force and holding police accountable.

"Defund the police" means divesting some money from police budgets to invest in education, mental health care, housing, workforce development and other social services.

"Abolish the police" means reducing, with the vision of eventually eliminating, our reliance on policing to secure our public safety.  

We see the public most supportive of “reform” and least of “abolish,” with a much larger difference in support between “reform” and “defund” among Republicans. However, we see limited evidence that additional definitions influence views, with at best Democrats supporting “defund” and Republicans supporting “reform.” This suggests that the media discourse about the terms have already generated clear beliefs on what these terms mean. To Democrats, defunding the police implies a reallocation of funds to public services whereas Republicans think fewer officers means increased crime. This suggests a fundamental disagreement on the nature of policing.

What does this all mean? Disagreements on how to judge “bad apples” contributes to partisan disagreements on police reform as Democrats and Republicans, in general, view one side as undeserving of judgement based on the actions of a few violent offenders, but do not extend more broadly. The multifaceted nature of the issues surrounding police brutality also make finding consensus extremely difficult. Although city budgets for public services rarely take a front seat in national political discourse, we’re likely to see issue-based, local government functions continue to compound into a national partisan political debate.

The survey results also have clear implications for the 2020 presidential election. Studies suggest that protests have fused with the anti-Trump movement aiming to elect Democratic candidate Joe Biden. The protests have pushed prominent Republicans to reserve their vote for Biden and encouraged tens of thousands of Americans to register to vote. Meanwhile, President Trump, focusing on protest violence, has embraced campaign strategies reminiscent of Nixon and Reagan’s presidencies by claiming to be the “law and order” candidate, precisely at a time when the Democratic Party attempts to distance itself from “law and order” policies from the Johnson and Clinton administrations. Even if the size and scope of protests decline ahead of the election, the electoral rhetoric of injustice versus law and order is likely to endure precisely because of the chasm in perceptions between those party identifiers.

Timothy S. Rich is an associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University and director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL).

Maggie Sullivan graduated summa cum laude with a degree in International Affairs and Gender and Women’s Studies from Western Kentucky University and currently works in international development in Washington, DC.

Madelynn Einhorn is an honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University majoring in Political Science and Economics. 

Isabel Pergande is an honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University, majoring in Political Science.

Daniel Candee is an honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University majoring in History and International Affairs.

Published on Aug 12, 2020