How Views On Black Lives Matter Have Changed — And Why That Makes Police Reform So Hard

How Views On Black Lives Matter Have Changed — And Why That Makes Police Reform So HardApril 13, 2021

Daunte Wright was driving in his car through Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, two days ago when police officers pulled him over and later fatally shot him. This isn’t the first time cops have used excessive or fatal force against a Black person. In fact, just 10 miles away from where Wright died, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was on trial for murder after kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes last summer.

Floyd’s death sparked a massive movement against police brutality and a sweeping shift in public opinion. And while it’s possible that in the wake of the latest tragedy, public support for reforming policing might increase again, new calls for change face a significant obstacle in public opinion. Gains in support for reform, especially among white Americans, tend to be fleeting, and there’s no consensus on what type of reforms the public wants.

Eleven months after Floyd’s death, support for the Black Lives Matter movement has fallen, while America’s trust in law enforcement has risen. Sixty-nine percent of Americans, according to a USA Today/Ipsos survey from March, now trust local police and law enforcement to promote justice and equal treatment of all races versus 56 percent who felt the same way last June.  

Meanwhile, in the almost four years Civiqs has been asking about support for the Black Lives Matter movement, a majority of white people have never supported the movement.1 Support peaked at 43 percent last June, just days after Floyd’s death. Since then, white Americans’ support for the movement has dipped back down to roughly where it was before Floyd’s death and is currently at 37 percent. 

Some of the biggest drops in support among white Americans occurred among older people (between the ages of 50 and 64), Republicans and men. Black Americans, meanwhile, have remained steady in their support of the movement. Overall, 85 percent of Black Americans say they support Black Lives Matter, compared to 88 percent last year. And that cuts across age, education and gender.

The reasons for the decline in support among white Americans are myriad. Some experts have chalked it up to a decline in protests and less media coverage of ongoing calls for police reform, making it easier for white people to tune out issues of police brutality. It’s also worth noting, of course, that many protests for Black and civil rights start off unpopular, and people’s perception of the current movement might change over time; white Americans have gradually become more liberal on issues of race, for instance. (Public opinion tends to ebb and flow with tragedy, too, a trend we’ve seen in recent years with the debate over gun control.)

It’s a stark reminder, though, that despite the heavy media coverage the Chauvin trial has received in its first three weeks, its outcome is anything but certain. As we’ve written before, it’s uncommon for police officers to face legal consequences for excessive force. While a majority of Americans (57 percent) think Chauvin should be found guilty, according to a recent Economist/YouGov poll, many Americans appear to be skeptical. Of the respondents who told Morning Consult that they had not heard a lot about the trial, 45 percent said they’re not watching more closely because they don’t think anything will change.

But even if Chauvin is convicted, it’s unlikely policing will fundamentally change in the U.S. Not only is public opinion variable, leading lawmakers to back off reform, law enforcement is often reluctant to admit wrongdoing toward Black people.

Police officers have long disputed that they treat people of color differently based on race despite available historical, statistical and anecdotal evidence showing the opposite, as my colleague Perry Bacon Jr. reported last year. While we don’t have a ton of data on the political views of police officers, a 2016 survey from the Pew Research Center of 8,000 police officers nationwide found that 67 percent believed the deaths of Black people during police encounters were isolated incidents, compared with only 31 percent who saw it as signs of a broader problem. This was the exact opposite of how the general public felt: Thirty-nine percent of U.S. adults said they thought the killings were isolated incidents versus 60 percent who felt it was indicative of a broader problem. And Black Americans were even more likely than white Americans to say police killings were a sign of a broader problem, 79 percent to 54 percent. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found last year that nearly half of Black Americans — 48 percent — have very little to no confidence at all that local police treat Black and white people the same; just 12 percent of white Americans had the same view. 

The pressure on local lawmakers to enact lasting change is fleeting, depending on the news cycle and current events. Even at the height of calls for police reform, getting bills turned into laws takes time, said Rashawn Ray, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, who studies police-civilian relation. Ray told me there was an uptick in calls for police-related reforms at both the local, state and federal levels after Floyd’s death since the Black Lives Matter movement became mainstream. “[Black Lives Matter] wasn’t a global movement in 2014,” he said, referring to the year Michael Brown was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. “People have become more aware of what’s happening. … The movement for Black lives and the attention to mistreatment by police has led to this moment.”

But even with more protesters calling for changes in policing, cities’ and states’ proposals will not automatically get passed. While some places, like Los Angeles and Baltimore, were successful in reallocating money away from police departments, others have struggled. In Minneapolis, where Floyd died, promises to “end policing as we know it” fell apart in late June after lawmakers failed to compromise. And in New York City, mayoral candidates who once advocated for defunding the New York Police Department have already begun to distance themselves from the proposal during the competitive race. “The fear of ‘defunding’ messages, lack of understanding or awareness around them and lack of political and community will to change the status quo have certainly caused a considerable amount of retrenchment from those ideas,” said Keon Gilbert, a professor of behavioral science and health education at Saint Louis University. As we get further from last year, he added, cities may be more inclined to either pause reform efforts or back away from them completely. 

Another part of the reason police reform is so tricky to navigate is because public opinion is all over the place. Just over half of Americans, according to USA Today/Ipsos, oppose redirecting police funds to social services (57 percent) while 43 percent supported the idea — a slight decline from last August. The only thing most people can seem to agree on — even at the height of the protests after Floyd’s death — is that they’re against the idea of defunding the police. And this remains true today, even among Black Americans and Democrats. 

Because many Americans are so split on what they want, police reform is often politicized — leading many Democrats to tread cautiously about saying they support “defunding the police.” President Biden, for instance, was careful ahead of Election Day to say he was in favor of a law enforcement overhaul and maintained that “most cops are good.” (Of course, these more measured stances likely helped him in November since voters didn’t appear to link his views to the Black Lives Matter movement, which was already seeing decreased support at the time of the election.) 

But even with a Democratic majority in both congressional chambers, Biden hasn’t changed his messaging. He’s encouraged congressional Democrats to pass a sweeping police reform bill, which would ban chokeholds and create national standards for policing to bolster accountability, but he hasn’t broached legislation that would radically transform policing that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is calling for. 

Some Republican leaders, meanwhile, have encouraged their party to find common ground on reform issues, though their voters appear less sympathetic to drastic changes in policing. The Democrat-led police reform bill has received the bulk of media attention, but Sen. Tim Scott, the lone Black GOP U.S. senator, also introduced a police reform bill shortly after Floyd’s death. Democrats largely rebuffed that bill because they don’t think it goes far enough, but the lack of compromise among lawmakers isn’t necessarily due to the contents of the two bills (Scott once argued there’s a 70-75 percent overlap with his bill and what Democrats want, though some Democrats have debated this). Rather, the Black Lives Matter movement has increasingly become a partisan issue as the movement has expanded into political races and policy issues like voter suppression. 

That said, Americans — both Democrats and Republicans — want some sort of reform. A poll released last week from Vox/Data For Progress found that nearly three-fourths of Americans (71 percent) either support or strongly support a federal ban on police chokeholds. Seventy-one percent of respondents also want to end police racial profiling, while 84 percent are in favor of mandating body camera use. (Republicans were less likely than Democrats to support all three reforms, but they supported mandating body cameras at nearly the same rate as Democratic respondents, 80 percent and 88 percent, respectively.)

At this point, it’s unclear what’s next in both the Chauvin murder trial (closing arguments may start Monday) and what will happen to the officer who shot and killed Wright, but what happens next is likely to have an impact on both policing and reform in years to come.

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