It’s not just Buffalo and it’s not just Ferguson, Mo. Around the country, substantial majorities of Americans are critical of the way police are doing their jobs. Police need to take note, and act.
A new study by the Pew Research Center and USA Today showed that while black and white Americans hold significantly different views of the subject, neither could muster even 40 percent who believe that police forces do an “excellent” or “good” job of holding officers accountable for misconduct. They also don’t think police treat racial groups equally or can be counted upon to use the right amount of force.
It’s a damning report, and it contains the sprouting seeds of a bitter harvest for law enforcement. This isn’t – or shouldn’t be – an issue of race or party, although party does divide the responses. Fundamentally, this is a matter of restrained government: ensuring that a critical and powerful arm of government is well-trained, properly equipped and accountable for using its significant powers appropriately.
Not surprisingly, African-Americans hold a far dimmer view of police than whites. That was no doubt influenced by last month’s death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was unarmed when he was shot by a police officer in Ferguson. But that doesn’t fully explain these dismal results. The view of police has been trending downward for several years, and the results are nationwide.
Among the survey’s findings:
• 65 percent of respondents said police do a poor or fair job of holding officers accountable for misconduct. That includes 58 percent of white respondents and an overwhelming 91 percent of African-American respondents.
• Similarly, 65 percent said police do a poor or fair job of treating ethnic groups equally (including 58 percent of white respondents and 91 percent of black respondents).
• 61 percent said police do a fair or poor job of using the right amount of force for each situation (55 percent of whites and 94 percent of blacks).
Those numbers ought to be troubling to every police officer in every police department and to every American who relies on police for protection. It’s why Buffalo Police say they are taking seriously recent episodes of apparent police misconduct, including doubts about two off-duty officers who were present during an episode that cost one man his life and others in which police roughed up citizens and tried to confiscate video taken of their behavior by onlookers.
No thinking person wants to see police departments hamstrung by suspicion, but that is clearly the direction these poll numbers document. Support for the police and rallies on their behalf won’t change that trajectory. Only changes in policies will. Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda recognizes that. Those who want to support the police should support him and his nascent efforts to instill a more respectful culture in the city Police Department.
Inevitably, the issue is already being politicized. That’s disastrous. Blind support of police in light of recent events and broad national doubts is not only unhelpful, but actually hinders the prospects of improvement. The goal must be to support police by supporting policies, rules and conduct that allow them to earn and maintain the broad community support they need to do their difficult jobs well.
Police departments form the roof over the head of successful communities. The Pew/USA Today poll shows that Americans believe the roof is leaking badly. It can’t be allowed to collapse.