July 04, 2017
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U.S. Public Opinion of Police Improving: Surveys

By Joseph Ax (Reuters)

NEW YORK- Americans' opinion of the police has bounced back from last year's historic lows, amid continuing national debate over police treatment of minorities, two polls released this week suggested.

The polling group PRRI released a survey on Tuesday showing that a slight majority of respondents, 52 percent, believe police officers generally treat nonwhite and white Americans the same. Only 41 percent said that was the case in 2015, PRRI said.

A Gallup poll published on Monday showed 76 percent of Americans have a "great deal" of respect for their local police, up 12 points from 2015's 22-year low.

The surveys, however, showed a significant racial gap. While both white and nonwhite respondents were more likely to express respect for police in the Gallup poll, 80 percent of white Americans did so compared with only 67 percent of minorities.

Nearly 80 percent of nonwhite respondents in the PRRI disagreed that police treat all people the same, while two-thirds of white Americans said police generally do so.

Delores Jones-Brown, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who studies police-community relations, said she was surprised at the finding that public views on police had improved. The difference between white and nonwhite respondents was telling, she said.

"People may have a false sense of security about the fact that we're having open discussions," she said. Dialogue, while helpful, will not solve any problems without concrete policy changes, she added.

Michael Skolnik, a civil rights activist, said many people deserve credit for focusing attention on police brutality.

"At the same time, we all know there are persistent problems between the police and communities of color," he said.

In recent years, a string of police killings of unarmed black Americans have sparked protests and calls for accountability.

Last week, the president of a major police organization apologized for law enforcement's part in the historical mistreatment of minorities. [L1N1CN1SH]

One day later, an emotionally disturbed black woman was killed by a New York City police officer, prompting the mayor to criticize the shooting. [L1N1CP1M8]

Justin McCarthy, a Gallup analyst, wrote that the poll may reflect changes in public opinion following the killing of police officers this summer in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

"It's unclear whether the spike in respect for police will have staying power or if it reflects mostly a reaction to the retaliatory killings against police officers," he wrote.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)