In June, Civis survey research focused on the Black Lives Matter movement and American attitudes toward police reform. We present three key findings below, based on two waves of surveys launched June 12th and June 19th. You can find additional analyses of this data in The New York Times.
As part of our regular polling, we asked Americans the simple question, “How much do you trust the police?” Differences in the answers largely broke along familiar demographic fault lines: trust in police forces was highest among Americans who are white, highly educated, older, and/or wealthier. The police retain a high level of trust; at least half of every demographic group below reported a slight or strong trust of the police except for Black Americans, young adults ages 18–34, and those without a high school diploma.
These results generally follow conventional wisdom, though it is worth highlighting the most extreme disparity: only 7% of Black Americans strongly trust the police, as compared with 40% of white Americans.
Understandably, different groups may trust the police more or less depending on the frequency and nature of their own interactions with the police. Fully 41% of Americans report that they or someone they know has been physically mistreated by the police; only 46% of this group strongly trust the police, as opposed to 74% trust displayed by Americans who have not heard a first-hand account of physical mistreatment. And in one of the starkest illustrations of our hyper-partisan era, 58% of Americans who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 expressed strong trust in the police, as compared to only 20% trust among Americans who did not vote for Trump.
However, despite Americans’ varying levels of trust in our police forces, common-sense reform measures have a broad base of support. Previous polling from across the political spectrum suggests that over 90% of Americans support the required use of body cameras. Our own polling reveals broad agreement that “information about complaints on specific police offices should be available to the public,” across every age group, income level, education level, race/ethnicity, and 2016 voting behavior. In fact, keeping public records on police complaints is more popular with well-educated and higher-earning Americans, who also display more trust in police. Despite (or perhaps because of) these Americans’ support in policing as an institution, they are quite willing to enact reforms which target rule-breakers.
In the weeks since George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers, new emphasis has been placed on proposals which would change the fundamental structure and mission of local police departments. These proposals go beyond accountability measures such as those mentioned above, and would radically decrease police presence and the total number of police-resident interactions. Some of these proposals have been described as “Defund the Police” or “Abolish the Police,” though both slogans can encompass a range of specific policies.
These proposals currently receive less support than more incremental reforms such as requiring the use of body cameras: only 34% of Americans agree with a policy which could be described as “Defund the Police” (specifically, one “that reduces the budget of police departments, allocates more money to municipal departments or community groups, and offloads some police responsibilities to these other groups”). The lower popularity of these proposals may be due to the relative newness of these ideas to many Americans — just as how body cameras were more controversial ten years ago but have been rapidly adopted by police forces since then.
A second contributing factor might be the slogans themselves. Some of our survey respondents read a short paragraph1 explaining the concept of defunding the police without referring to it as such, while other survey respondents were simply asked if they “support defunding the police.” Support for “defunding the police” was 7 percentage points lower than an equivalent, contextualized policy proposal with pro- and con- arguments.
While relatively only 27% of Americans at this time feel comfortable declaring “Defund the Police,” 62% of Americans express at least some support for Black Lives Matter, words which variously represent a rallying cry, a collective of advocacy organizations, and a foundational phrase among proponents of racial justice. Despite its self-evidence, Black Lives Matter has become a politically charged term: on July 1st, President Trump described a planned street painting with those words as “a symbol of hate”, while Vice President Pence refused to say the term when pressed during an interview held on June 19th.
Nationally, however, our polling finds that Black Lives Matters attracts more than 50% “slight support” or “strong support” from within almost every demographic: men and women, those with high school degrees, college degrees, or advanced degrees, and every income level. White Americans express 59% support and Black Americans express 79% support. The only group we found who do not offer at least 50% support for Black Lives Matter were those who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 (47% support).
We asked Americans (even those who said they did not support Black Lives Matter) which actions they had recently taken in support of Black Lives Matter. The most common forms of support were low-effort speech acts: sharing opinions and news articles on social media or signing petitions. Fewer Americans reported spending money or time in support of Black Lives Matters issues, such as donating to a campaign or participating in a protest. Sustained coordination with others, such as attending local political meetings or working for a specific candidate, was the least common form of support.
57% of Americans say they took none of these listed actions in the last four weeks, meaning that 43% had taken at least one of these actions. Compare this to the 62% of Americans who expressed support of Black Lives Matter — together, these findings suggest that roughly 19% of Americans express support for Black Lives Matter but have not taken any recent, personal actions to demonstrate their support. This gap between attitude and behavior does not necessarily represent disengagement or hypocrisy, as many forms of support require an investment of one’s time or money, resources which are not equally available to all Black Lives Matter supporters. Still, one remarkable finding is that this gap almost vanishes among younger adults: 66% of Americans ages 18–34 express support for Black Lives Matter, and 65% backed it up with personal action in the last four weeks. Perhaps the kids are alright.
As these and other national issues evolve over time, Civis will continue to run regular surveys, allowing us to more accurately understand trends emerging across the country. Stay safe out there!
Methodology: Responses were gathered through online web panels and weighted to accurately reflect the entire adult U.S. population. Findings in this report were drawn from two waves of surveys launched June 12th, 2020 and June 19th, 2020.