Mellman: Reforming police in America

Mellman: Reforming police in America
© Bonnie Cash

Americans are demanding police reform. And it’s not just those who’ve taken to the streets. It’s folks sitting at home in every demographic subgroup of this country.

Whether George Floyd’s murder represents a long-term turning point in public opinion or a massive, but temporary, bump, we can’t know for a while.

But the current demand for change is clear, and elected officials ignore it at their political peril.

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A comparatively vast, 85 percent of Americans, heard or read about Floyd’s killing, while a stunning 70 percent say they’ve actually watched the video of a police officer killing him, according to a Yahoo/YouGov poll.

Two-thirds do not believe Blacks and whites receive equal treatment by police, with 61 percent saying that the deaths of African Americans during police encounters are signs of a broad problem, not just isolated incidents.

Despite perceptions of deep-seated inequities, only 24 percent believe police are usually held accountable for misconduct.

In this context, Americans favor almost any proposal that can be reasonably labeled police reform.

In a Reuters/Ipsos poll, 91 percent supported independent investigations of police departments that show patterns of misconduct—a procedure abandoned by the Trump administration, despite nearly unanimous public support.

Eighty-eight percent want police officers trained in deescalating conflicts and avoiding the use of force. Eighty-seven percent believe all officers should wear body cams. Eighty percent support a system to identify problematic officers early in their careers.

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Ipsos asked about allowing victims of police misconduct to sue departments — a reform favored by 75 percent overall, 89 percent of Democrats, 76 percent of independents and 59 percent of Republicans.

Eighty-two percent support “banning police from using choke holds to restrain suspects.” While using different wording, Quinnipiac pegged support for banning chokeholds at a still substantial 67 percent—including 75 percent of Democrats, 67 percent of independents and a clear 57 percent majority of Republicans.

Despite overwhelming demand for reform, most Americans are not “anti-police.” Even after the recent killings, as a society, we repose more trust in police than in churches and organized religion, universities, corporations or the news media.

Over three-quarters approve of the way police in their own communities are handling their jobs, a bit lower than the 84 percent that did so in 2016, according to Quinnipiac.

It’s police in other people’s communities that Americans really worry about. Only 49 percent approve of the way police across the country are handling their jobs, down nearly 20 points in the last two years, while disapproval rose to 44 percent.

Americans want to prevent abuses, and crack down on officers who commit them, but defunding the police goes too far for most.

Nearly everyone thinks Minneapolis did right by firing the four officers involved in Floyd’s killing and over two-thirds believe the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck was rightly charged with murder.

Attitudes toward defunding the police are somewhat more complex.

Only 44 percent claim any real familiarity with the terminology. In a series of polls, opponents of defunding police outnumber supporters by 30 to 50 percentage points, though it’s clear the words mean different things to different people.

YouGov found just 16 percent in favor of cutting funds for police departments, with 65 percent opposed, while Quinnipiac respondents opposed eliminating their current police department, and replacing it with another, by 81 percent to 14 percent.

Ipsos, however, used greater specificity and didn’t talk about “cutting,” but rather “moving some money” currently going to police budgets into better officer training, assistance for the homeless, mental health and domestic violence. Framed that way, support jumped to nearly 3 to 1.

Americans across party lines are angry about police violence being inflicted on communities of color in this country and support almost any reasonable step to stop it — including reprogramming dollars to other related functions.

But there is little appetite for punitive budget cutting or eliminating police departments. People see American policing in crisis, but most don’t believe that crisis extends to their own local police.

Mellman is President of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as President of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.