Two-thirds (66 percent) of Americans say civilians should have the power to sue police officers for misconduct and excessive force without those officers being shielded from personal liability, according to the results of a new survey from Pew Charitable Trusts.
However, while public perception of how police treat racial minority groups and use force has soured since Pew’s last policing survey in 2016, most people reported that they did not want local governments to reduce police budgets.
Pew researchers launched the survey in response to protests over police brutality and racial injustice that spread across the globe, and spurred calls for an overhaul of how “public safety” is achieved in America. So far, those calls are being answered with small but important steps toward change — through new efforts to redirect law enforcement funding toward social services, to end qualified immunity, to make space in the 911 system for non-law-enforcement response to crises, and to adopt other initiatives, policy changes, and bills.
Pew surveyed a random sample of 4,708 adults in the U.S. conducted over a week in mid-June. (The survey sample is “weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, and other categories,” according to Pew.)
Holding Police Officers Legally Accountable for Excessive Force and Misconduct
In the U.S., the controversial legal doctrine of qualified immunity protects law enforcement officers from being personally sued for actions that don’t clearly violate established constitutional or statutory rights.
Sixty-six percent of those surveyed said they believed civilians should be able to take individual officers to court for their actions — regardless of whether it made the job of policing more difficult — with support highest among Black and Hispanic residents and Democrats.
Public Less Likely to Approve of Police Performance
Between Pew’s 2016 and 2020 surveys, there were double-digit reductions in the percentage of people who believed that police used the right amount of force in each situation (from 45 percent in 2016 to 35 percent in 2020), that police treated racial and ethnic groups equally (from 47 percent to 34 percent), and that departments hold officers accountable for misconduct (from 44 to 31 percent).
However, a 58 percent majority (down from 62 percent in 2016), said they believed police provided the public with good or excellent or excellent protection from crime.
In breaking the numbers down, researchers found, perhaps not surprisingly, that Black adults were far more likely to feel that the police treated people disparately, used too much force, and failed to adequately protect people from crime.
Most Americans Say They Don’t Want to Reduce Police Budgets
Yet a 73 percent majority of respondents said they preferred keeping spending for law enforcement either the same (42 percent), or actually increasing such spending — either by a lot of money (11 percent), or a little (20 percent).
Young adults under the age of 30, Black adults, and Democrats were most likely to support reducing police funding. Still, fewer than half of these groups said they supported some form of defunding. People over the age of 50 were far less likely to support redirecting police dollars.
Instead, a majority of all the major groups surveyed said they either strongly or somewhat favored several specific reforms, including databases that track problem officers, requiring police to be trained in nonviolent alternatives to deadly force, making it a crime for police to use chokeholds, and giving civilian oversight panels the power to investigate officers’ actions and discipline those officers they find to have committed misconduct.