'Major changes' - almost all Americans want police reform: poll

Poll finds most Americans support clear standards for police use of force and want officers to report peer misconduct.

    Americans are largely united behind the idea that rules that govern police and their conduct need to change [File: Jonathan Drake/Reuters]
    Americans are largely united behind the idea that rules that govern police and their conduct need to change [File: Jonathan Drake/Reuters]

    Americans overwhelmingly want clear standards on when police officers may use force and the consequences for officers who do so excessively, according to a new poll that finds nearly all Americans in favour of at least some level of change to the nation's criminal justice system.

    The new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research also finds there is strong support for penalising officers who engage in racially biased policing. Americans are more likely now than five years ago to say police violence against the public is a very serious problem and officers who cause injury or death on the job are treated too leniently.

    "For me, as a Black person, I'm like, this has been happening," said Kevin Richardson, 38, of Charlotte, North Carolina. "We should've been knowing it, we should've been seeing this and so now what's happened is, I'll be honest, white people are seeing it and saying: 'This is wrong.'"

    The survey of American adults took place after weeks of mass demonstrations against police violence and calls from some politicians and activists to "defund" departments in response to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died in custody after a white Minneapolis officer pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes.

    Americans are largely united behind the idea that action is required: Twenty-nine percent think the criminal justice system needs "a complete overhaul", 40 percent say it needs "major changes" and 25 percent say it needs "minor changes". Just 5 percent believe no changes are necessary.

    Differing views on reform

    Megan Pecknold, 33, of Spokane, Washington, said the protests have forced her to think about these issues in a way she, as a white person, had previously not done.

    "I had never really given much thought to police use of force. I'm white. I've never had a bad encounter with a police officer," she said. "The last few months have brought to light more of this for me, and now I am educating myself."

    Nearly six in 10 Black Americans think the criminal justice system needs a complete overhaul, compared with about a quarter of white Americans who said the same. About four in 10 white Americans say significant changes are needed; three in 10 prefer minor changes.

    Hate-hacking and Zoom bombing/feature
    People kneel and raise their fists in the air for eight minutes and 46 seconds - the time that George Floyd was pinned under a police officer's knee - during a march and protest to mark Juneteenth [Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP] 

    While Democrats are more likely than Republicans to think the system needs an overhaul, 44 percent to 12 percent respectively, Americans across party lines are nearly unanimous in thinking at least some change is necessary. Another 44 percent of Democrats think significant changes are necessary. Among Republicans, 34 percent call for significant changes and 47 percent for minor changes.

    The poll finds overwhelming support for changes in how police departments operate: Requiring officers to wear body cameras, establishing clear standards for use of force, prosecuting officers who use excessive force and requiring officers to report misconduct by their peers.

    Despite their popularity, body cameras have not always proved to be the fix reformers hoped for. But Kimberly Jones, 52, of New York City, said they are at the top of her list. "You need more seeing what's going on as they're pulling up on people," she said. "You need to know from the start so you can stop something bad from happening."

    Majorities of Democrats and Republicans alike strongly support establishing clear standards for use of force, requiring officers to wear video cameras and requiring officers to report misconduct by their peers. There is also bipartisan support for prosecuting officers who use excessive force and penalising officers for racially biased policing, though more Democrats than Republicans intensely favour these policies.

    Brian Bernard, 54, a Republican and retired IT worker from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, said the bystander video of Floyd's death was like watching a "nine-minute murder". But he said the problem is one of a bad cop, not a bad system. Banning chokeholds or requiring retraining will not make a bad officer better, he said.

    "Democrats and liberals seem to have a problem of only fixing symptoms," he said. "They can never see the actual problem, and the problem is just a bad cop."

    WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 22: A man is tended to after being hit with pepper spray as protesters clash with U.S. Park Police after they attempted to pull down the statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Squ
    A man is tended to after being hit with pepper spray as protesters clash with US Park Police after they attempted to pull down the statue of former President Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square near the White House on June 22 [Tasos Katopodis /Getty Images/AFP]

    While chants such as "defund the police" have become a rallying cry at some protests, the survey found that only 25 percent of Americans favour reducing law enforcement funding. Democrats are somewhat more likely to support than oppose doing so, 41 percent to 33 percent respectively, while Republicans are overwhelmingly opposed.

    Bob Haines, a 75-year-old pilot from Oklahoma City who supports US President Donald Trump, said he thinks police officers do an excellent job. "Just like in my profession, most of us do a good job, but there are a few bad pilots," Haines said. "A couple of incidents have happened, and all of a sudden the sky's falling, you know?"

    Democrats and Republicans divide on whether the justice system should reduce the focus on policing and prosecuting low-level offences, with 63 percent of Democrats and 30 percent of Republicans in favour. Overall, Americans are more likely to be in favour than opposed, 46 percent to 25 percent respectively.

    To prevent police violence, most Americans also favour requiring all officers to participate in more extensive racial bias training.

    Majority of Americans think police officers are more likely to use deadly force against a Black person and that Black Americans are generally treated less fairly by police.

    Pecknold, who favours moderate changes in the criminal justice system, said those changes should be targeted at chipping away at systemic racist behaviour. "I don't think Americans really understand how police are taught these tactics to begin with," she said. "Understanding the details more will help us make smarter changes."

    SOURCE: AP news agency