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Why Liberals and Conservatives Disagree on Police

Emily Ekins and Matthew Feeney

“We have to give power back to the police,” Donald Trump

during his campaign, and earlier this year he
delivered … or so he thinks. The early weeks of Trump’s
presidency indeed match his campaign rhetoric, replete with an

executive order
seeking to make assault against police officers
a federal crime.

Americans are understandably divided by Trump’s “law and order”
approach to policing reform. Research suggests Americans’ reactions
to Trump’s policies will be shaped both by their own experiences
with police and by their moral predispositions.

It starts with race. Anyone discussing policing in the U.S.
needs to grapple with the fact that there is a wide racial divide
in perception of police performance.

A Cato Institute surveyfound
a strikingly high number — 73% — of African Americans
and 54% of Hispanics believe that police are “too quick” to resort
to deadly force with citizens. Only 35% of whites agree. Similarly,
African Americans and Hispanics are also 20 to 30 points less
likely than whites to believe that their local police treat all
racial groups equally or are held accountable for misconduct.

Different personal and vicarious experiences with the police
undergird this divide.

Anyone discussing
policing in the U.S. needs to grapple with the fact that there is a
wide racial divide in perception of police performance.

that African Americans are nearly twice as likely as
white Americans to report police swearing at them or to know
someone physically mistreated by police.

Interestingly enough, the study alsofound
that African Americans report being stopped by police
disproportionately more than whites as their incomes rise.
This suggests that police are disproportionately scrutinizing black
drivers in nice cars or in nice neighborhoods. Overall,
higher-income African Americans report being stopped about 1.5
times more frequently than higher-income white Americans (and
lower-income black and white Americans as well).

But what explains how the majority of Americans evaluate the
police, given that most Americans haven’t had negative interactions
with them? For instance, despite Republicans and Democrats having
access to the same video footage of police shootings in previous
years, survey data show that they’ve reached dramatically different

Starting Points

Strong majorities of Republicans believe that police only use
deadly force when necessary (80%), are impartial (78%) and
courteous (74%), and are held accountable for their actions (76%).
This stands in contrast to Democrats, among whom a majority believe
police are too quick to use lethal force (63%), fail to be
impartial (60%), and aren’t held accountable (59%). Race can’t
explain this pattern: It persists among white Republicans and white
Democrats as well.

So why do Democrats tend to believe that policing suffers from
systemic problems, while Republicans think problems are isolated or
confined to “bad apples”? Social psychology may offer some

Social psychologists have
that moral judgments strongly affect evaluations of
controversial facts. Before we’ve even had a chance to sort through
the empirical evidence, our minds tend to
make rapid effortless moral judgments
. We then engage in

post-hoc reasoning
to defend our conclusions.

In sum, people often engage in what scientists call “motivated
reasoning,” where moral judgments come first and the justifications
come later.

The Morality of the Issue

While each of us
shares the same moral instincts
to one degree or another, some
moral commitments are
more salient
than others to liberals or conservatives.

Data show conservatives place
greater emphasis on societal order
and thus tend to be more

deferential toward authority figures
like the police.
for authority
figures may significantly drive positive
attitudes toward the police, irrespective of the circumstances,
particularly among conservatives.

In contrast, liberals are inclined to be more skeptical of
authority figures and
to empathize more
with vulnerable groups
who report disparate treatment from the
police, such as African Americans. This generalpropensity
to empathize
is a significant predictor of white Democrats’
belief that the justice system is racially biased.

Naturally, there are exceptions. Not every Democrat is skeptical
of the police, and not every Republican is deferential to
authority. Nevertheless, data clearly show us a clear divide when
it comes to how partisans think about authority.

With that in mind, policing reform is possible, but it’s hard.
The U.S. is a vast and diverse country with about 18,000 law
enforcement agencies. Widespread and comprehensive reform in such
an environment is difficult. Yet there are areas of emerging
consensus, with clear majorities across partisan and racial groups
supporting body cameras and independent agencies investigating
police misconduct.

When tackling policing reform, Trump should put himself in other
people’s shoes. There are many law-abiding Americans who shudder
when they hear about giving “power back to the police,” and Trump
would be well served to understand why.

Emily Ekins is a political scientist and director of polling at the Cato Institute. Matthew Feeney is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute.