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The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research

The Intersection of Insight and Journalism

Crime and Law Enforcement in America: Racial and Ethnic Differences in Attitudes toward the Criminal Justice System

Issue Brief

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An analysis of the 2014 General Social Survey (GSS) reveals a complex relationship between the American public and the criminal justice system. Over the past 20 years, there has been a gradual decline in the percentage of Americans who believe there are instances in which police use of force against citizens is justified. However, when asked about specific law and order scenarios, the trend is less clear, with acceptance for the use of force increasing in some cases and decreasing in others. Other attitudes, such as support for capital punishment, have remained relatively stable in recent years.

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Even controlling for other demographic, socioeconomic, and political factors—like age, gender, income, education, and political party—the data show vast differences between the attitudes of whites and blacks when it comes to how the police and the courts should interact with citizens, as well as spending on law enforcement.

Most Americans Say Courts Are Too Lenient, And 6 In 10 Support The Death Penalty For Those Convicted Of Murder.
The percentage of Americans who believe their local courts are too lenient in dealing with criminals has been on the decline since 1994, when 85 percent of Americans said their local courts were not harsh enough in dealing with criminals. In 2014, 58 percent of Americans say the courts in their area are not harsh enough in dealing with criminals, 15 percent say the courts are too harsh, and 19 percent say their treatment of criminals is about right.

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The steady decline in those who say their local courts are not harsh enough in their treatment of criminals can also be seen across racial and ethnic groups, though significantly fewer blacks (51 percent) currently say so than whites (59 percent). Hispanics follow a similar pattern, falling from 69 percent in 2000 to 53 percent in 2014.

Those with a college education are less likely than those with less education to say their local courts are too lenient on criminals.

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While a majority of Americans continue to support the death penalty for convicted murderers, support has steadily declined over the past 20 years and has leveled out in recent years. In 2014, 62 percent of Americans say they favor the death penalty for those convicted of murder, a decline of 13 percentage points over the past 20 years.

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In the same time period, white and black Americans have diverged significantly in their views toward capital punishment. Today, fewer than half of blacks (44 percent) and Hispanics (48 percent) say they favor the death penalty for persons convicted of murder, while two-thirds of whites say they favor the death penalty.

Support for the death penalty also varies significantly by party identification, level of education, gender, and income.

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A Majority Of Americans Approve Of A Police Officer Striking A Citizen, But Support For Such Action Depends On The Situation.
A majority of Americans say there are situations in which they would approve of a police officer striking an adult male citizen, but this percentage has slowly declined over the past 20 years. Currently, 62 percent of Americans say there are situations in which they would approve of a police officer striking a male citizen, and 33 percent say there are not instances in which they would approve of a police officer striking a male citizen.

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In 2014, whites (70 percent) are significantly more likely than blacks (42 percent) or Hispanics (38 percent) to say they can imagine a situation in which they would approve of a police officer striking an adult male citizen. Approval of police use of force against a citizen also varies by party identification, educational attainment, gender, and income.

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When pressed about specific instances, approval of the use of police force varies depending on the severity of the situation. Americans are more likely to approve of police force when a citizen is attacking the officer or trying to escape than when a citizen says something vulgar or when a citizen is being questioned as a suspect in a murder case.

In 2014, just 9 percent of Americans say they would approve of a police officer striking a citizen who had said vulgar and obscene things to the officer. This percentage has remained relatively stable over the past 20 years. 

Fourteen percent say they would approve of a police officer striking a citizen who was being questioned as a suspect in a murder case. This approval has slowly but steadily trended upwards since 1996, when just 5 percent said they would approve of a police officer striking a detained murder suspect, an all-time low.  

Sixty-three percent of Americans would approve of an officer striking a citizen who was attempting to escape from custody. This represents an 8 percentage point decline in approval since 2012, the largest decline among all use of force items over a two-year period.

Twenty years ago, 94 percent of Americans would approve of an officer striking a citizen who was attacking the officer with his fists. While this near universal approval has declined 9 percentage points over the past 20 years, a large majority, 85 percent, still say they would approve of a police officer striking a citizen in this instance.

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Whites, Blacks, And Hispanics Diverge Significantly In Their Approval Of Police Use Of Force Against Citizens.
Mirroring the overall trend in recent years, approval of a police officer striking a murder suspect has steadily trended upwards for both blacks and whites, although the percentages vary significantly between the two groups. Today, twice as many blacks as whites say they approve of police use of force in this instance, but still well below majorities (24 percent vs. 12 percent). The number of Hispanics who approve of a police officer striking a citizen in this instance has doubled since 2000 to 18 percent in 2014.

Approval among whites has steadily declined for a police officer hitting a citizen attempting to escape from custody, again mirroring the overall trend, while black approval hasn’t followed a clear pattern. Today, 69 percent of whites and 42 percent of blacks say they approve of a police officer striking a citizen attempting to escape from custody.

Large majorities of whites, blacks, and Hispanics say they approve of a police officer using force against a citizen who was attacking the officer with his fists. Yet, whites (90 percent) are more likely than blacks (74 percent) or Hispanics (74 percent) to say they approve of a police officer striking a citizen in this instance.

In addition to race and ethnicity, other demographic factors, including age, gender, income, and educational attainment, are associated with approval of police use of force against citizens.

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Public Support For Spending More On Law Enforcement Has Fallen In Recent Years.
Support for spending more on law enforcement peaked in 1994, and since 2000, about half of Americans say we aren’t spending enough. In 2014, 46 percent of Americans say we are spending too little on law enforcement, 13 percent say we are spending too much, and 39 percent say we are spending about the right amount.

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Overall, there are very few demographic differences in attitudes toward national spending on law enforcement in 2014, including by race or ethnicity. While there has been some divergence in attitudes over the past decade, in 2014, relatively similar percentages of whites, blacks, and Hispanics said we are spending too little on law enforcement (47 percent of whites vs. 49 percent of blacks vs. 40 percent of Hispanics).

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About This Study
The GSS is administered by NORC at the University of Chicago, primarily using in-person interviewing. The GSS started in 1972 and completed its 30th round in 2014. For the last 40 years, the GSS has been monitoring societal change and the growing complexity of American society. The GSS is the largest project funded by the Sociology Program of the National Science Foundation. The typical sample size was 1,500 prior to 1994, but increased to 2,700-3,000 until 2008 and decreased to 2,000-2,500 for the most recent surveys. Resulting margins of error are between +/- 3.1 for the smaller sample sizes and +/- 2.2 percentage points for the larger sample sizes at the 95 percent confidence level. The GSS 1972-2014 Cumulative File was utilized to produce the statistics presented.