A comparison of views in Louisville, Kentucky, and Oklahoma City helps explain why changing the way law enforcement works has proved to be so difficult even in the wake of last year's nationwide protests.
Louisville has been riven by scrutiny and protests since Breonna Taylor was killed in March 2020 by police officers who used a no-knock warrant to break into her apartment while she slept. In contrast, Oklahoma City continues to register wide public approval of the police even though the state has the highest mortality rate from police violence in the country.
But while the two cities have different assessments about whether there's a problem that needs fixing, residents in both worry more about rising crime than police misconduct. In new USA TODAY/Suffolk University CityView polls, they place public safety as a priority well above law enforcement reform.
In Louisville, residents were more than twice as likely to cite public safety, not police reform, as the biggest problem facing the city. In Oklahoma City, police reform ranked last on a list of nine community concerns. In neither place did more than a fraction support the progressives' slogan to "defund the police."
"I just would hate to think what our world would actually be like if we were left to fend for ourselves," said Carol Davenport, 65, a nurse from Oklahoma City who was among those surveyed. "It's very easy to stand back with a camera or a phone or whatever it is and judge what someone else is doing when you're not the one that is accountable."
In Louisville, though, Tyrone Weaver, 52, who works for a defense manufacturer, saw his faith in the police shaken by what happened to Taylor. "There are some officers that do the right thing," he said in a follow-up interview, but after her death, "it's hard to trust police."
He has seen little change since she was killed. "It's hard to see baby steps," he said.
Do police use force only when necessary? Does race affect their actions? And where do Americans draw the line between concern about crime and demands for police accountability?
Those questions were asked in the two new CityView polls, sponsored by USA TODAY and Suffolk University's Political Research Center in conjunction with the Louisville Courier Journal and The Oklahoman. Throughout 2021, the series of surveys in major American cities – including Milwaukee, Detroit and Los Angeles – has explored attitudes toward policing and community.
The polls of 500 residents in each city, taken by landline and cellphone Nov. 10-Nov. 15, have a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
The surveys were done before juries returned verdicts in two trials that attracted national attention. Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted last month of homicide and other charges for killing two men and wounding a third during unrest that followed Black Lives Matter protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin. In Brunswick, Georgia, three white men were convicted of murder in the shooting death of a Black man, Ahmaud Arbery.
Since massive nationwide protests after George Floyd's murder in Minneapolis last year brought calls for action, legislation on criminal justice reform has languished in Congress. The House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in March, largely along party lines, but months of bipartisan negotiations in the Senate collapsed in September. Last month, Minneapolis voters rejected a proposal to replace the police department with a new Department of Public Safety.
Marked by sharp partisan and racial divides, the issues are likely to be powerful in next year's midterm elections and the 2024 presidential race. The findings also signal a clear opening for Republicans among Latinos, a growing demographic group that has leaned Democratic but is increasingly wooed by the GOP.
Faith in Louisville police eroded
The death of Taylor and the way police handled the shooting's aftermath have eroded confidence in local law enforcement in Louisville. Forty-five percent of the residents surveyed said they had lost faith in the police as a result, including 4 in 10 white Americans and 6 in 10 Black Americans. Overall, just 7% gained trust.
"I always knew that there were, obviously, racial disparities, but, yes, it did change more after Breonna Taylor," said Josie Timmons, 38, a graduate student who was called in the poll. She said she was frustrated that a chronic pain condition meant she couldn't join the protests that followed, so she tried to help in other ways, including providing water and snacks for the marchers.
But the protests also drew a negative reaction from most of the city's residents. By 53%-31%, they said the marches had hurt the community, not helped it.
"I just feel like it got blown out of proportion, you know?" said Jean Petri, who added her faith in the police had been strengthened. "I wasn't there, so who knows what the truth ended up being?" Since then, she said, "I feel a lot of the crime that's been happening since Ms. Breonna's death is a reflection of that circumstance."
In Louisville, there was a significant divide by race in assessing police tactics. By an overwhelming 62%-23%, Black residents said the police used force when it wasn't necessary. But whites by 49%-38% said the police used force only when necessary.
Oklahoma City reflected a similar division. Whites by 2-1, 61%-29%, said police used force only when necessary. But Black residents by 51%-34% said police used force when it wasn't necessary.
Trevour Webb, now 27 and the father of two, has never forgotten a frightening episode when he was 12 and playing a game of cops-and-robbers outside with his stepfather. A disgruntled neighbor "ended up calling the police saying 'there's a Black man with a gun and a white man with a baseball bat,'" he said. A dozen or more officers descended on the neighborhood.
"I was too afraid to put my hands down, but everything in me wanted to put my hands down and reach for the gun as fast as I could just to show them 'Hey, look, it's a fake gun,'" said Webb, an industrial painter. Later, he asked one of the officers what would have happened if he had. "I remember him specifically looking down, and it still gives me chills to this day: He said it wouldn't have been pretty."
Some of those surveyed in Oklahoma City said they were surprised to hear that the state had the highest rate of police violence against Black people in the country, both in the period 2000-2009 and 2010-2019. The study by The Lancet, released in September, found that the age-standardized mortality rate per 100,000 population for non-Hispanic Black Americans was three times the rate in Kentucky, for instance.
"It's sad because, you know, I'm a 72-year-old Caucasian; I'm not going to be treated the way other people are," said Candice Tracy, a retired mortgage banker. "And I guess I'm fortunate, but I was really surprised by that."
Six in 10 of those in Oklahoma City said neither the news media nor the public had paid enough attention to the issue. But there was also skepticism about what has been reported. By double digits, 57%-36%, they said the news media exaggerates stories of police brutality and racism.
For Latinos, public safety dominates
On assessments of the police, Latinos are more likely to align with the views of white people than Black people, a finding that could carry political repercussions. They rated the police more favorably and public safety as a more dominant concern than African-Americans did.
In Louisville, Latinos had an even more positive view of the police than whites did. By nearly 2-1, 61%-32%, they said police used force only when necessary. In Oklahoma City, where nearly 1 in 5 residents are Hispanic, they said by 57%-25% that police officers' use of force was appropriate.
"I'm satisfied" with the job the Oklahoma City police do, said Jamie Crowe, 42, who works for the local Chamber of Commerce and was called in the poll. She has become more concerned about rising incidents of crime and violence, sometimes tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. "When I go running along the river, I have to be eyes-wide-open," she said. "I have to pay attention."
Latinos in Louisville expressed more concerned about public safety than Black or white people. In Oklahoma City, only 1% of Hispanics and 1% of whites said police reform was the biggest problem facing the city, compared with 9% of Black people. Another 20% of Black respondents cited race relations as the top issue. Education was the top issue for whites and Hispanics.
In both cities, the idea of "defund the police" was rejected overwhelmingly across racial and ethnic lines. There was more support – by 47% in Louisville and 41% in Oklahoma City – for cutting some police funding to use the money for social services.
The questions are complicated, said Angela Novey, 50, a partner in a pharmaceutical research company in Oklahoma City. She opposes "the vernacular" of "defund the police" but says it makes sense to cut some police funding in favor of social service programs that might be better suited to handle some situations.
"I'm a white woman, and I never had an unpleasant run-in with the police, you know, in my adult life," Novey said. "I don't have to worry about being mistaken for someone else, or something happening where I am not treated fairly. I don't. I don't exist in a world that that happens for me. But I know it's out there, and I know it's there for other people."
Contributing: Kala Kachmar and Morgan Watkins in Louisville; Hogan Gore and Jana Hayes in Oklahoma City.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Police reform progress complicated by crime, public safety concerns