When it comes to covering law enforcement issues, the American media should, in the words of fictional TV detective Joe Friday, stick to “just the facts, ma’am.” A new poll shows that the American public now believes a series of verifiable untruths propagated by some members of the media and activists.
The findings of the May 2021 TIPP Poll survey of 1300 American adults should dismay us all as to how misinformed about policing the public has become.
Gauging what the public “knows” to be true, TIPP Poll asked respondents about some basic provable statements.
When posed the question, "of all police-citizen encounters, how often do police use any type of force on a suspect?” While 24% responded “not sure,” another 24% thought it was 20% of the time or more and another 22% believed cops use force 10% of the time. Liberal respondents were most convinced that police use force frequently with 64% believing one out of ten or more police encounters ends in police using force. The truth is that law enforcement resorts to force in one out of 50 encounters – or 2% according to both the Department of Justice and peer-reviewed studies.
Media coverage of police shootings from Michael Brown to Breonna Taylor has also contributed to the warped perception of the frequency of law enforcement shootings. Asked if police shootings had increased or decreased since 2000, 53% of all respondents believed they had increased with only 11% believing they had declined. Seven out of ten Democrats and liberals were convinced that police shootings are on the rise.
Fact-check: Police shootings are down significantly over the past few decades. NYPD, the largest police agency in the US, saw a 60% decline in “adversarial conflict” firearms discharges from 2000 to 2019. Read here, here, and here. In Los Angeles, police shootings dropped to a 30-year low in 2019 – and 42% fewer than in 2000. And the trend is consistent across the nation with Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston, and Chicago logging significantly fewer police shootings year-on-year over the past two decades. Read here and here.
Meanwhile, The New York Times headlined its April 17, 2021 story, “Throughout Trial Over George Floyd’s Death, Killings by Police Mount.” [NB: They aren’t.]
Americans also believe in pernicious and false claims about race and policing.
Forty-six (46%) percent of Americans think that the police kill more blacks than whites each year with 65% of 18-24 years confident of that fact (only 11% of young adults were unsure). Black Americans (79%) and liberals (68%) were most sure that police killed more blacks than whites.
But it’s not true either. In fact, since 2015, twice as many whites (51%) were killed by police as blacks (26%) – where the victim’s race was known – according to the Washington Post’s police shootings database.
Critically, the vast majority of those shot were wielding a dangerous weapon (60% had firearms, 18% knives and another 15% had other weapons).
Still, many sincerely believe the myth that police are shooting down unarmed Americans in the streets. According to the TIPP Poll, 29% of US adults, 40% of Democrats, 47% of liberals, and 51% of those aged 18-24 contend that police kill 500 or more “unarmed” persons annually.
Across nearly every demographic only 30% of respondents knew the actual figure is about 50 according to the Washington Post’s database. And that figure likely overstates the “unarmed” category since it often uses unreliable local media reports to track cases.
Although these dangerous and false narratives continue to permeate the public’s consciousness, there is some good news: most Americans aren’t buying the “all cops are racist” myth. The majority (53%) of respondents agreed that “racism in policing is not widespread” and “only shows up in isolated cases” with only 36% disagreeing.
Across almost every demographic group (age, race, gender, and education), including Black Americans – who were split – agree that American policing is not systematically racist – except liberals, 58% of whom think it is.
Sadly, the damage done by these pernicious myths won't be undone as easily as it took hold.
The British satirist Jonathan Swift observed three centuries ago, "if a lie be believed only for an hour, it has done its work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it; so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale has had its effect."
Jason Johnson is president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund (LELDF). He served for 20 years in law enforcement, most recently as deputy commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department.
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