Californians favor police reform, support Black Lives Matter, poll finds

August 12, 2020
By: Edward Lempinen
A phalanx of police officers prepared for a night-time demonstration
A strong majority of Californians now favor reforms to stem police violence, particularly against Black and Latinx communities, says a new poll from the UC Berkeley Institute for Governmental Studies. (Photo by Thomas Hawk via Flickr | CC BY-NC 2.0)

With tensions continuing to flare across the U.S. after the police killing of George Floyd, California voters are broadly worried about race relations and support reforms to reduce police violence, says a new poll from UC Berkeley’s Institute for Governmental Studies (IGS).

Berkeley IGS reports released this week show that 70% of voters are satisfied with the performance of their local police departments. At the same time, large majorities say that Black and Latinx communities are more likely to experience police violence, and they favor a range of measures to change police operations — including reduced police budgets and a shift of funds to social and mental health services.

“The findings show that Californians are concerned about racial disparities in the state, especially as they relate to policing and law enforcement in Black and Latino communities,” said IGS co-Director Cristina Mora. “Voters’ opinions are complex, but they recognize that there are deeply ingrained problems with the nature of policing and law enforcement today, and they broadly support systemic change.”

Added IGS co-Director Eric Schickler: “While elected officials have, in the past, resisted calls for police reform, the wide margins now in favor that extend across racial and geographic lines suggest that the politics of this issue have shifted substantially.”

Still, IGS Poll reports issued Aug. 11 and Aug. 12 found deep divisions. Republicans and self-described conservatives expressed less worry about race relations, less support for police reforms and strong opposition to Black Lives Matter. Overall, however, voters in every region of the state report rising concern about race relations and a willingness to address law enforcement issues that have been the focus of critics for decades.

Half of Californians are ‘extremely’ concerned

Protests have continued nationwide this summer after the killing of Floyd on May 25 and other incidents of police brutality, including the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor last March and the use of force to quell demonstrations in support of Black Lives Matter.

In the new Berkeley IGS Poll, 83% of respondents reported that they are concerned about race relations in California. Just under half say they are “extremely” concerned, compared to 14% of voters asked the same question in a 2010 Field Poll. Among Black respondents to the new poll, 70% said they are extremely concerned.

Nearly two-thirds of the registered voters expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement, which is focused on police killings of Black people and the failure to hold officers accountable. But 30% expressed an unfavorable opinion of the movement.

Those strong concerns translate into substantial support for police reform. Nearly three-quarters of the voters expressed support for policies advanced by some “defund the police” advocates: reducing law enforcement responsibilities related to mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness and shifting a portion of police funds to agencies that provide such services.

In addition, the Berkeley IGS Poll found “large and broad-based support” for four specific proposals aimed at reducing police violence:

• 80% favor laws making it easier to prosecute police officers who use excessive force;
• 78% would ban police use of chokeholds and strangleholds;
• 70% say people should have the right to sue officers for gross misconduct and excessive use of force, even if that makes police work more difficult;
• 61% would reduce the bargaining rights of police unions, which have been seen as opposing past police reform efforts.

Among Republicans, strong dissent

The poll found that concern about race relations and support for reforms was shared across nearly all major demographic and regional subgroups, even in such traditionally conservative areas as Orange Country and the Central Valley.

But on most of the poll’s questions about race and policing, Republicans and conservatives registered sharp disagreement with the majority, their opinions more aligned with those of President Donald Trump or opinion leaders in the right-wing media.

Among Republicans, just 25% expressed extreme concern about the state of race relations in California; 41% said they were not too concerned or not concerned at all. Among Democrats, 64% expressed extreme concern, joined by 48% of those with no party preference.

Regarding Black Lives Matter, only 15% of Republicans had a favorable view. Among Democrats, 86% had a positive view, joined by 68% of those with no party preference. Two-thirds of Black respondents have a very favorable view, more than 20 points higher than views among white, Latinx and Asian American/Pacific Island respondents.

Republicans were also far more likely to be satisfied with their local police departments, and far less likely to support police reform. For example, only half of Republicans favor policies to ban chokeholds and to make it easier to prosecute officers for excessive force. Support is nearly double among Democrats and those who express no party preference.

The Berkeley IGS Poll was conducted online, in English and Spanish, from July 21 to July 27, 2020, with responses from 8,328 California registered voters. The approximate margin of error is 2%.