In a recent poll conducted by NORC, the independent research organization at the University of Chicago, 70 percent of white people said they could imagine a situation in which they would approve of a police officer striking an adult male citizen, while just 42 percent of Black people and 38 percent of Hispanics said they could.
The results explain a great deal about the reactions in the Black and white community to some of the explosive cases of police violence that roiled the country last year, such as the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island. Whites are far more likely to give police the benefit of the doubt and to trust that the police will choose to use the level of force that’s necessary in the situation.
The Black community has a radically different history with the police, who have been seen as a hostile occupying force in most Black neighborhoods for generations. The Black distrust of police officers is so high that most Black people think a police officer striking a citizen is likely to be the manifestation of police brutality and overuse of force.
“Whites are significantly more likely to give police officers the benefit of the doubt, either because they have never had an altercation with a police officer or because they tend to see the police as allies in the fight against crime,” Ronald Weitzer, a George Washington University sociology professor who has studied race and policing in the U.S. and internationally, told the Associated Press.
But Black people and Hispanics “are more cautious on this issue because of their personal experiences and/or the historical treatment their groups have experienced at the hands of the police, which is only recapitulated in recent disputed killings,” he said.
Glenn Rogers, 64, a former longtime police officer in St. Louis County, Missouri, where Ferguson is located, told Atlanta Blackstar earlier this year that he was stunned by the obvious contempt his white police colleagues had for the Black citizens they were paid to serve and protect.
“As I began to see how Black people got talked to, treated, grabbed, arrested, how they got dealt with when being incarcerated, to me it looked like something off a slave boat when you actually saw the booking process and the handcuffing process,” Rogers said. “It was just a long lineup of Black people. I don’t think in the first year I saw more than one or two white people arrested. And those were usually for failure to appear for tickets.”
Rogers, who has served as a police advisor to six different mayors in the St. Louis area, said the white officers would purposely try to provoke Black people into a reaction.
“That is a primary tool that they use, talking to you in a way that creates strife and envy and hatred, versus talking to you in a way that reduces tension,” he said. “Grabbing you or accidentally doing something to you or embarrassing you in a way we’re not accustomed to. Instead of just shutting up, you want to say something back—and that’s all they need to start a spark and then they inflate it. Cops know how to make you respond in a way for them to do in their mind what they want to do, whether it’s peaceful or it’s violent. They know and they do it everyday.”
The General Social Survey conducted by NORC is a long-running set of questions about the public. An analysis of its findings on attitudes toward police and the criminal justice system was conducted by The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
The survey found other deep racial divides as well on law enforcement questions.
While 24 percent of Blacks could approve police striking a murder suspect who is being questioned, 18 percent of Hispanics and 12 percent of whites said they approved.
Sixty-nine percent of whites and 50 percent of Hispanics approve of police hitting suspects trying to escape from custody but only 42 percent of Blacks approve.
While 66 percent of whites say they favor the death penalty for convicted murderers, 44 percent of Blacks and 48 percent of Hispanics agree.
Nine in 10 whites approved of police hitting a person when attacked by fists, with 74 percent of Blacks and Hispanics agreeing.
Nine percent of whites, 7 percent of Blacks and 10 percent of Hispanics approved of police hitting suspects for using vulgar or obscene language toward an officer.
There was widespread agreement that there is too little spending on law enforcement: 47 percent of whites, 49 percent of Blacks and 40 percent of Hispanics.