Americans continue to rate the police as among the nation’s most-trusted institutions, a new survey shows, with a little more than half of respondents saying they have considerable confidence in law enforcement.
Despite ranking among the top three institutions, however, police agencies saw the level of public confidence in their work drop to its lowest level since 1993.
The Gallup poll, which was published in June 2015, found 25% of U.S. adults have “a great deal” of confidence in police and 27% have “quite a lot.” About 30% have “some” confidence, 16% have “very little” and 2% have “none.”
While the majority of Americans remain confident in law enforcement, the level of support was down from 57% in 2013 and a high of 64% about a decade ago. According to Gallup, several high-profile shootings involving police officers in recent months were probably factors in the decline.
But pollsters noted that “Americans’ trust in police has not been fundamentally shaken – it remains high in an absolute sense, despite being at a historical low.”
The law enforcement profession benefited from a “dividend of respect” for about a decade after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when public safety personnel were viewed as heroes, said Jim Reynolds, Academic Program Chair for Criminal Justice and Homeland Security at Florida Institute of Technology. But, in recent years, public confidence in police has trended down toward pre-9/11 levels.
Reynolds, who retired from the Melbourne (Florida) Police Department as deputy chief after a nearly 30-year career, said recent police-involved shootings are contributing factors in that decline.
“But I think the larger driver has been the explosion of social media in the last five years,” he said. “I teach a course in Criminal Justice and the Media in our program, and we discuss this phenomenon.
“Social media is heavily weighted in negativity, with the expression and sharing of negative impressions of law enforcement vastly surpassing any positive sentiments,” Reynolds explained. “This does not mean that police necessarily deserve all the negativity, but it puts police leaders on notice to acknowledge and respond to public concerns.”
Gallup pollsters measured Americans’ confidence in 15 institutions, including public schools, banks, the U.S. Supreme Court, television news and the medical system. The military (72%) and small business (67%) took the top two spots. In last place was Congress, with just 8% of respondents expressing “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Capitol Hill.
As of 2013, there were almost 630,000 law enforcement officers employed nationwide, with women accounting for more than 11% of that total, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
The past two decades have seen falling crime rates in the United States. From 1994 to 2013, the rate of violent crimes such as murder, assault and robbery declined from about 714 offenses per 100,000 residents to 368 offenses per 100,000, the FBI reported.
During the same period, the property crime rate plummeted from 4,660 offenses per 100,000 to 2,730 per 100,000.
The Gallup findings come in the wake of recommendations issued by a presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing that seek to strengthen relationships between police and the communities they serve.
The task force, which cited Gallup research on public confidence in the police, listed building trust and legitimacy as the “foundational principle” supporting those relationships.