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One Third of Americans Believe Police Brutality Exists in Their Area

One Third of Americans Believe Police Brutality Exists in Their Area

by Mark Gillespie

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

March 22, 1999-As New York prosecutors prepare to put four police officers on trial for the beating of a Haitian immigrant in 1997, a new Gallup poll finds about one third of Americans believe police brutality exists in their local area, and that about one out of four Americans have personally felt treated unfairly by the police. At the same time, the public's confidence in the police to protect citizens against crime has gone up significantly over the past four years.

The poll, conducted March 5-7, shows that 38% of Americans believe there have been incidents of police brutality in their area, while 57% disagree. That compares with a similar Gallup poll conducted in March, 1991, in which roughly the same number, 35%, said police brutality existed in their area. The poll also underscores perceptions that minorities feel unfairly targeted by police officers. Fifty-eight percent of nonwhites believe police brutality takes place in their area, compared to only 35% of whites.

When asked "have you personally ever felt treated unfairly by the police or by a police officer," 27% of Americans said yes. Again, the answers differ along racial lines, with 39% of nonwhites saying yes, compared to just 24% of whites. Police brutality is also more likely to be reported in urban areas (57%, compared to 35% in rural areas) and in the West and the South (43% and 41%, respectively).

Almost all Americans indicate that they have at least some respect for the police in their local area, with 64% saying they have a great deal of respect, and another 29% saying they have some respect. This is roughly the same percentage that Gallup found in March of 1991, when the question was last asked, but lower than twenty-two years ago, in 1967. Sixty-six percent of whites say they have a great deal of respect for the police, compared to 54% of nonwhites.

Public Gives Police Credit for Fighting Crime
The poll reflects generally positive attitudes about the ability of the police to combat crime--attitudes which may, in part, be due to the lower crime rates which have been reported in the United States in recent years. Seventy percent of Americans say they are confident in the ability of police officers to protect them from violent crime, up from 50% in a Gallup poll conducted in September, 1995. Thirty percent say the police in their city are doing an excellent job in dealing with crime, up from 19% in a 1993 Gallup poll. Additionally, at a time when police officers are being criticized for shootings such as the one in the Amadou Diallo case in New York City, 80% of Americans believe the police officers in their area use their guns with about the right frequency, while the rest split equally in terms of saying that guns are used too frequently or not frequently enough. Here again, however, there are differences by race. Only 5% of whites say that police officers use their guns too frequently in their local area, compared to 21% of nonwhites. Interestingly, nonwhites are also slightly more likely to say that police in their area don't use their guns frequently enough.

The Diallo case, in which New York City police officers fired 41 shots at an unarmed African immigrant, is now being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department and a Bronx grand jury. When Gallup interviewers posed the question "some people feel that the job police officers perform is so difficult and important that it is wrong to second-guess them by prosecuting or punishing them for wrongdoing which occurs in the course of their job performance," 80% disagreed. Only 17% said that officers should not be held responsible for their actions.

For results based on the sample of national adults (N=1,021) the margin of error is ±3 percentage points.

How much respect do you have for the police in your area -- a great deal, some, or hardly any?

  A Great Deal Some Hardly Any No Opinion
99 Mar 5-7 64% 29% 7% *%
91 Mar 14-17 60 32 7 1
1967 77 17 4 2
1965 70 22 4 4

How much confidence do you have in the ability of the police to protect you from violent crime -- a great deal, quite a lot, not very much, or none at all?

  A Great Deal Quite A Lot Not Very Much None At All No Opinion
99 Mar 5-7 29% 41% 25% 4% 1%
98 Oct 23-25 19 36 37 8 *
98 Oct 23-25 20 30 39 9 2
93 Oct 13-18 14 31 45 9 1
1989 14 34 42 8 2
1985 15 37 39 6 3
1981 15 34 42 8 1

In general, how would you rate the job the police in your city are doing in dealing with crime -- an excellent job, a good job, or only a fair job?

  Excellent Job Good Job Only a Fair Job No Opinion
99 Mar 5-7 30% 48% 21% 1%
93 Feb 8-9 19 52 27 2

Have you personally ever felt treated unfairly by the police or by a police officer?

  Yes No No Opinion
99 Mar 5-7
Total 27% 73% *%
Whites 24 76 *
Blacks 43 57 0
95 Oct 5-7**
Total not available
Whites 9 90 1
Blacks 34 62 4
** Question Wording: "Have you personally ever felt treated unfairly by the police or by a police officer specifically because you are [white/black]?"; ASKED ONLY OF RESPONDENTS WHOSE RACE WAS WHITE OR BLACK

Some people feel that the job police officers perform is so difficult and important that it is wrong to second-guess them by prosecuting or punishing them for wrongdoing, which occurs in the course of their job performance. Would you agree or disagree that it is wrong to prosecute and punish police officers?

  Agree Disagree No Opinion
99 Mar 5-7 17 80 3
93 Feb 8-9 18 76 6

In some places in the nation, there have been charges of police brutality. Do you think there is any police brutality in your area, or not?

  Yes No No Opinion
99 Mar 5-7 38% 57% 5%
91 Jul 11-14 39 56 5
91 Mar 14-17 35 60 5
67 Aug 3-8 6 81 13
65 Apr 2-7 9 79 12

*Indicates less than 1% mention by respondents

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