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Don’t confuse respect for police with confidence in them

by Wendy Sawyer, October 26, 2016

Good news from Gallup this week that “surging” numbers of Americans respect the police needs a gentle reminder that this is only a small part of the picture.

Gallup asks Americans two similar-sounding questions about attitudes towards police every year that get very different responses. In the fall, Gallup’s poll asks about respect specifically for local police; in the summer, another question asks about confidence in the police as an institution in American society.

The positive responses reported this week were for the question “How much respect do you have for the police in your area?” Americans’ respect for local police is apparently much higher than their confidence in the police in general.

Last year, the Prison Policy Initiative’s Rachel Gandy charted confidence in the police, which showed that in 2015, just 52% of Americans had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police as an institution in American society. This June, Gallup reported that confidence went up only 4% from last year’s 22-year low, and just “a slim majority of Americans have confidence in the police as an institution.”

Jesse Walker on Reason.com offers a quick analysis of cultural conditions in 2016 that may account for the increase in respect for police, and points out the important differences between the measures of respect and confidence.

Most obviously, when Gallup asks about respect for police, it asks about local police, who may be familiar faces to many Americans – even neighbors and relatives on the force. This question also comes at a time when the memories of the shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge are still fresh. Respect for police is a given. It dominates presidential debates and is a common refrain used to denounce critics of police brutality.

Of course Americans respect the police. But do they trust them? That is the question of confidence.

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