Police (Mis)Conduct

NEW YORK, N.Y. – The media love to cover police conduct, sometimes looking at cops as our saviors and other times as our oppressors. New Harris Poll data shed light on how Americans feel about the police in their communities, both their successes and their shortcomings. Nearly 9 in 10 adults (88%) say most police officers have a positive impact on the communities where they work, including 45% who strongly agree; at the same time, however, many adults believe police misconduct happens in their community against various minorities.

These are some of the results of The Harris Poll® of 2,236 general population U.S. adults, along with representative oversamples of 510 Hispanic Americans (interviewed in English and Spanish) and 179 Asian Americans (interviewed in English), surveyed online between March 16 and 21, 2016.

Performance reviews

Across six dimensions of law enforcement responsibility, majorities of Americans rate the performance of police in their communities as excellent or pretty good, though adults living in urban areas are, in some cases, less likely to feel as positively as their rural and suburban counterparts:

  • 68% of the general adult population feels the police in their community are excellent/pretty good at being helpful and friendly
    • Including 72% who reside in rural communities and 70% in suburban communities vs. 60% in urban locales
  • Responding quickly to calls for help and assistance (64%)
  • Treating people fairly (62%)
    • 69% rural and 65% suburban vs. 51% urban
  • Not using excessive force (62%)
    • 70% rural and 63% suburban vs. 53% urban
  • Preventing crime (58%)
  • Solving crime (57%)

Racial relations

When asked about treatment of specific race groups, nearly half of Americans (49%) say the police in their community treat all races fairly, while over a quarter feel one or more groups tend to be treated unfairly (26%).

But not all races are in agreement. Whites are the only group in which a majority believes all races are treated fairly by the police in their communities; on the other hand, a majority of Blacks/African Americans believe that one or more groups tend to be treated unfairly, while Hispanics and Asians are split almost evenly on the issue.

Community conduct

Many adults acknowledge that misconduct does occur against various groups within their communities, including:

  • Blacks/African Americans (49%);
  • Hispanics (45%);
  • People of Middle Eastern descent (39%);
  • Whites/Caucasians (35%);
  • Asians (29%); and
  • LGBT individuals (29%).

Compared to each race interviewed, whites are consistently less likely to believe misconduct ever happens. 




This Harris Poll was conducted online within the United States between March 16 and 21, 2016 among 2,236 adults (aged 18 and over). Additionally, oversamples were collected in English and Spanish among 510 Hispanic respondents (representing Spanish-dominant, English-dominant and Bilingual profiles), and in English among 179 Asian respondents. Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online. 

All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, The Harris Poll avoids the words “margin of error” as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Poll surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in our panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

The results of this Harris Poll may not be used in advertising, marketing or promotion without the prior written permission of The Harris Poll.

Product and brand names are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective owners.

The Harris Poll® #28, April 28, 2016

By Hannah Pollack, Research Analyst, The Harris Poll