Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
Whether you have confidence in law enforcement largely depends on where you live and whether you're white or not, according to our State of the City Poll.
In the continued wake of the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, plenty of Americans may well be asking themselves: Do I have confidence in my local police department? Your answer, according to the new Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City poll, largely depends on what type of community you live in and what color your skin is.
The survey, which was conducted from July 23 to August 4, before Brown was killed, revealed significant differences along racial lines when it comes to confidence in local police. In cities, just 35 percent of urban minorities said they had “a lot” of confidence in the cops where they live, compared with 48 percent of urban whites. Fully 25 percent of minorities in U.S. cities—one out of four—said they had either “not much” or “no confidence” in their local law enforcement, compared to 13 percent of urban whites who expressed a similar lack of faith.
Education also clearly plays a role: urban minorities with college degrees were far less likely to express "a lot" of confidence (26 percent) in police than those without college degrees (40 percent).
Outside the cities, the picture looks even more stark when comparing whites versus minorities. Twenty-nine percent of non-urban minorities, a combination of those who live in either suburban or rural areas, said they had not much or no confidence in local police compared to just 14 percent of non-urban whites.
Overall, black Americans were quite a bit more likely (19 percent) to express "no confidence at all" in their local police than those who identified themselves as Hispanic (10 percent).
That pervasive nationwide skepticism about the effectiveness of police on the part of minorities echoes the findings of a recent poll by USA Today/Pew Research Associates, which found that nine out of every 10 African Americans think the police do an “only fair” or poor job when it comes to “equal treatment or appropriate force.”
When it comes to being comfortable walking in their neighborhoods after dark, white city-dwellers also reported feeling a lot safer than people of color.
Only 22 percent of those who identified themselves as nonwhite and live in urban settings said that they feel “very safe” on the streets near their homes at night, compared with nearly twice as many urban whites, some 43 percent. Thirty-four percent of urban minorities said they feel "not too" or "not at all" safe, compared with just 14 percent of urban whites who feel the same way.
The stark disparity in feelings of personal safety was further heightened along gender lines. A mere 10 percent of minority urban women said they felt safe in their neighborhoods after dark, compared with 34 percent of minority urban men, 37 percent of white urban women, and a full 50 percent of white men living in cities.
Overall, people who live in the suburbs reported feeling safer than those who live in the city, with 47 percent of suburban respondents saying they felt very safe, compared to 33 percent of urban respondents.
Among minority respondents, older people were far more likely to express confidence in police. Eighty-one percent of respondents over 50 said they had “a lot” or “some” trust in police, compared with 67 percent of minorities aged 18-49.
Despite the prevalence of skepticism about law enforcement among minorities everywhere in the poll, aggressive policies designed to improve safety had more overall support among nonwhites than whites. Nearly two-thirds of urban minorities in the poll, 60 percent, said they thought hiring more cops would have a “major impact” on improving safety. Among whites, that number was just 47 percent.
Urban minorities expressed more confidence in every safety solution proposed in the poll. An overwhelming majority of the urban minority respondents, some 89 percent, said they thought creating more employment and educational opportunities for young people would have a major impact on safety, compared to 70 percent of urban whites. And 56 percent of urban minorities thought longer sentences for serious crimes would help to improve safety, compared to just 36 percent of urban whites.
When it came to reducing access to guns, the difference was even more dramatic. More than two-thirds of urban minorities—68 percent—said they thought restricting gun access would have a major impact on safety. Among urban whites, only 36 percent expressed the same view, while 42 percent said they thought reducing access to guns would have no impact on improving safety.
The poll shows that concern for personal safety remains a significant problem in U.S. urban settings. It also shows that among the people most affected by that concern—members of minority groups—there is far more belief that systemic changes in education, job opportunity, policing, gun control, and the judicial system can make a difference.
The Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City Poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, surveyed 1,656 U.S. adults by telephone between July 23 and August 4. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points. For more details on the poll's methodology, go here.