• Faith in Law Enforcement Increases, But Racial Differences Persist in Views
  • Use of Body Cameras Strongly Approved

ST. LEO, FL – While anger over the deaths of citizens during police encounters spawned protests over the summer in several U.S. cities, and while individual officers have been charged in some instances, a new Saint Leo University poll shows a higher percentage of people expressing trust in police officers compared to two years ago. The university last polled on confidence and trust in police matters in 2018. The percentage of people reporting trust in police departments—rather than individual officers—remains about the same as in 2018.

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute (http://polls.saintleo.edu) first surveyed about trust in law enforcement in 2015, and has returned to the topic several times. The 2020 poll was conducted from September 27 through October 2, among 1,000 total respondents nationally, using the same online method as in all prior years. Saint Leo’s newest poll shows a higher majority of people reporting trust in officers since the last time the university polled on the issue in 2018, with 52.4 percent then and 59.6 percent in the recent poll. As for those with trust in police departments, that remained relatively the same with 50.8 percent in 2018 and 51.9 percent in 2020 saying they trust the departments.

To arrive at these findings, the polling institute asked people to quantify their feelings of trust in various types of professionals, departments, and civilian participants in the law and justice system.

Respondents were specifically asked to think for a moment about their own trust and confidence in police officers, police departments, and the judicial system. They then rated each, based on their own trust and confidence that they would be treated in a fair, impartial and objective manner if involved with law enforcement.

Respondents used a scale of one to 10, where one meant strong trust and confidence and 10 meant no trust and confidence. The following table shows the cumulative totals for ratings of one through four (strong trust).

Trust and Confidence in… 2015 – % 2016 – % 2017 – % 2018 – % 2020 – %
Trust in police officers 54.7 60.5 56.5 52.4 59.6
Trust in police departments 53.1 59.6 55.5 50.8 51.9
Trust in the judicial system including courts, prosecutors, and judges 40.3 45.1 48.6 44.5 51.7
Trust in juries to do the right thing 46.1 47.2 45.4 49.8

Note: No results from 2019 as respondents were polled on a different topic that year.

Looking at the demographics of those who say they have strong trust in police officers, 65.6 percent of white respondents express trust, followed by 61.3 percent of Hispanics, and 27.8 percent of Blacks. Trust in police departments followed in the same vein with 64.1 percent of white respondents, 58.9 percent of Hispanic respondents, and 26.2 of Black respondents saying they have strong trust in the agencies.

Among poll respondents who say they are Republican, 73.3 percent say they have strong trust in police officers while among Democrats, it is 49.4 percent. Of those who say there are independent voters, 60.2 percent express strong trust of officers.

While 66.5 percent of those ages 45 to 64 express strong trust of law enforcement officers, 49.2 percent of ages 18 to 44 do so, and 35.9 percent of those 65 and older say they have strong trust in officers.

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute also examined other opinions concerning law enforcement. Support for police officers wearing body cameras is high at 90.1 percent in 2020, up from 86.9 percent in 2018.

Those responding to the following questions indicated if they strongly agreed, somewhat agreed, somewhat disagreed, or strongly disagreed. The following table shows the cumulative totals for those strongly and somewhat agreeing as polled during the years 2015 – 2020.

Statements 2015 – % 2016 – % 2017 – % 2018 -% 2020 -%
Police officers should be required to wear body cameras to better assist in reviewing difficult incidents 86.8 89.0 90.5 86.9 90.1
I personally know a police officer in my community 50.6 68.3 54.2 53.7 51.5
I have positive interactions or conversations with community police officers unrelated to law enforcement issues 59.7 58.0 63.9 60.9 64.5
Gun violence would decrease with more controls and restrictions 46.0 46.9 51.9 58.8 55.5
I have, or I know someone who has experienced abuse by police officers 35.7 32.0 38.7 40.7 35.7
Law enforcement officers treat everyone, regardless of race, fairly and evenly    _     _ 45.8 45.6 46.0
The transfer of donated, used military hardware, ammunition, and equipment to community police department 60.4 63.6 61.7    _ 48.4
Most law enforcement officers racially profile when deciding to stop motorists      _      _ _ 55.9 45.0

While nearly 60 percent of respondents say they have trust in police officers, just over half say they trust the department. Dr. Phillip Neely, chair of Saint Leo’s undergraduate criminal justice program said from his collaboration with others in the law enforcement field, they think that trust has decreased. Because the university criminal justice faculty members are current or prior practitioners in the field, they are working with their students to increase that trust.

“We stress being a part of the community, being fair, and being just,” Neely said. “De-escalation is the first step to solving problem in the community as a law enforcement official.”

The poll also surveyed about demonstrations and protests. While most respondents are not in favor of violence and damage to property, the 2020 poll does show some increases since 2019 polling among the percentages of those who agree on two issues:

  • At times, physical violence during demonstrations is justified—up to 22.0 percent from 15.0 percent.
  • At times, property damage during demonstrations is justified—up to 19 percent from 13.2 percent in 2019.

Dr. Christopher Wolfe, associate professor of psychology at Saint Leo, said that he looked at the demographics of those polled to see if there was any one group that seemed more likely to justify property damage or violence. It comes down to age and generations, he said.

“Respondents within the 18-to-44 age range were just over 2.5 times more likely (38.6 percent) to endorse that physical violence was justified than respondents in the 45-to-64 (14.8 percent) range or 65 and older (13.8 percent) range.  Similarly, respondents 18-to-44 were more likely to endorse that property damage was justified (36.3 percent) three times more often than respondents 45-to-64 (11.7 percent) and four times more likely than 65 and older respondents (9.6 percent),” Wolfe reported.

Wolfe acknowledged that it is impossible to tell for certain why violence and destruction would be tolerated as options among the younger age group, but he has wondered about some factors that he said could be influences. There have been various examples in countries around the world where, during the lifespans of the younger groups, “force is often the avenue to change,” he noted. Violence is often a focus in media, he added, whereas peace is not, and social media is subject to incursion by trolls looking for attention with aggressive messages.

“As the demonstrations and acts of violence have tended to involve members of the younger generations,” Wolfe said, “it fits that members of these younger generations would find reason to believe that sometimes the use of physical violence and property damage are a necessary part of creating change.”

Neely said in his personal opinion, “as a former law enforcement officer and current professor of criminal justice, violence and property damage is never justified. Continue peaceful protest.”

Funding of Police

Many of this summer’s protests have included calls to “de-fund the police.” While there are several meanings for the phrase, most call for funding to be redirected from policing activities.

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute asked respondents their views in terms of local police departments. Each respondent was offered several policy options and was asked which one best reflected their own view.  Results are displayed in the following table.

A large majority, 75.8 percent, rejected cutting police budgets, and suggested funding should be increased (28.9 percent) or maintained (46.9 percent). The percentage who say funding should be decreased is 13.7 percent, while 2.3 percent say funding should be eliminated.

A look at the results by demographic groups shows that 93.3 percent of Republicans and 74.3 percent of independents supported maintaining or increasing support for police departments, compared to 64.8 percent of Democrats. The demographic statistics also revealed that 34.1 percent of African-Americans surveyed said police funding should be decreased or eliminated—the largest single group reflecting that view. At the same time, however, 49.2 percent of African-Americans polled were in the group that said police funding should be maintained or increased.

Those who suggested funding should be decreased or eliminated were asked what they would do, instead, with those funds. Multiple responses were accepted.

Characteristic National – %
Returned to taxpayers as a tax cut 21.9
Moved to mental and behavioral health services for those in need 54.4
Moved over to expand other general services, such as mental and physical health and social, and economic services 55.0
Unsure 3.8

“I believe that the citizens understand that police are needed and necessary to keep our communities safe,” Neely said. “The system must weed out the bad actors, have more training, and focus on higher education to restore the trust in law enforcement officials.”

About the Poll

METHODOLOGY: This national survey was conducted from September 27 through October 2, among a base of 1,000 respondents nationally, using an online instrument. The national sample has an associated margin of error of +/- 3.0 percent at a 95 percent confidence for questions asked of all 1,000 respondents.

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute conducts its surveys using cutting-edge online methodology, which is rapidly transforming the field of survey research. The sample is drawn from large online panels, which allow for random selections that reflect accurate cross sections of all demographic groups. Online methodology has the additional advantage of allowing participants to respond to the survey at a time, place, and speed that is convenient to them, which may result in more thoughtful answers. The Saint Leo University Polling Institute develops the questionnaires, administers the surveys, and conducts analysis of the results. Panel participants typically receive a token incentive—usually $1 deposited into an iTunes or Amazon account—for their participation.

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute survey results about national and Florida politics, public policy issues, Pope Francis’ popularity, and other topics, can also be found here: http://polls.saintleo.edu. You can also follow the institute on Twitter @saintleopolls.

Media contacts:

Mary McCoy, Saint Leo University, University Writer & Media Relations, mary.mccoy02@saintleo.edu, (352) 588-7118 or cell (813) 610-8416.

Jo-Ann Johnston, Saint Leo University, University Communications jo-ann.johnston@saintleo.edu or (352) 467-0843 (cell/text).   

About Saint Leo University

Saint Leo University is one of the largest Catholic universities in the nation, offering 57 undergraduate and graduate-level degree programs to more than 18,200 students each year. Founded in 1889 by Benedictine monks, the private, nonprofit university is known for providing a values-based education to learners of all backgrounds and ages in the liberal arts tradition. Saint Leo is regionally accredited and offers a residential campus in the Tampa Bay region of Florida, 16 education centers in five states, and an online program for students anywhere. The university is home to more than 98,000 alumni. Learn more at saintleo.edu.