Americans sharply divided on grand jury decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island

NEW YORK, NY - In the wake of recent grand jury decisions in Ferguson, MO and Staten Island, NY – along with the protests which have followed nationwide – national discussions have occurred on a v

Americans sharply divided on grand jury decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island

NEW YORK, NY – In the wake of recent grand jury decisions in Ferguson, MO and Staten Island, NY – along with the protests which have followed nationwide – national discussions have occurred on a variety of issues, including discrimination, police procedures, personal responsibility, and the delicate relationships between prosecutors and police forces.

Looking specifically at these cases, just over half of Americans support the grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer involved in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri (52%); three in ten (30%) oppose the decision, while 10% are unsure and 8% say they have not followed the case at all.

American sentiments shift considerably when questioning turns to Staten Island. When asked about the decision not to indict the police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY, a plurality of Americans (48%) oppose the decision and fewer than three in ten (28%) support it; 11% are unsure, while 13% have not followed the case at all.

These are some of the results of The Harris Poll of 2,276 adults surveyed online between November 12 and 17, 2014.

In both cases, opinions show divisions along racial lines:

• This is especially pronounced in regards to the decision in Ferguson, with the majority of white Americans supporting the decision (58%, with 24% opposed) while nearly two-thirds of African Americans oppose it (65%, with 23% supporting it).

• While opinions are divided in relation to the Staten Island decision as well, they are at least aligned directionally, with a plurality of white Americans (42%) and the majority of African Americans (78%) opposing the decision (with 33% and 11%, respectively, supporting it).

Most police officers seen as having a positive impact

In the midst of this unrest, it is important to recognize that a vast majority of Americans report positive sentiments toward police in general, with 85% believing that most police officers have a positive impact on the communities where they work. While divisions do exist between the percentages of white Americans (88%) and African Americans (72%) agreeing with this sentiment, strong majorities of each do support this point of view.

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More divisive is the question of whether police officers should be given the benefit of the doubt in criminal proceedings. Nearly six in ten Americans agree with this sentiment overall, but white and black Americans are divided on the issue, with a majority of white Americans agreeing with this sentiment (59%) while a majority of African Americans disagree (56%).

Discrimination perceptions

When considering a list of specific areas of life in America, over half of Americans (53%) feel that blacks are discriminated against in the way they are treated by police and nearly half say they are discriminated against in getting full equality (47%) and in the way they are treated as human beings (46%).

While police procedures and conduct have been under something of a media microscope in recent weeks, it should be noted that the perception of blacks as discriminated against in the way they are treated by police has in fact declined since the beginning of the year (down 6 points from the 59% reported in January).

Strong majorities of African Americans feel blacks are discriminated against in the way they are treated by police (86%), in getting full equality (81%) and in the way they are treated as human beings (81%), among many other areas of life in America. Most notably, the perception among blacks that they are discriminated against in the way they are treated as human beings has grown considerably since January (up 10 points from the 71% observed at that time).

Prosecutorial process

Americans do recognize that vulnerabilities may exist in our justice system when it comes to criminal proceedings involving police officers. Seven in ten Americans (70% – 68% white, 83% African American) believe that state and local prosecutors involved in cases against police officers face a conflict of interest, while roughly six in ten (61% – 57% white, 82% African American) feel more specifically that prosecution of police officers should be handled at the federal level.

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