Thursday, June 30, 2016

Cops Hitting Citizens

It's not a hot topic at the moment, but we've had lots of controversy about how police deal with citizens, particularly African-American citizens. I was messing with General Social Survey data today on something else entirely and came across this question asked from 1973 to 2014. It asks:
Are there any situations you can imagine in which you would approve of a policeman striking an adult male citizen?
Two-thirds of American adults are OK with this. Still, there's been a slight decrease in the percent who say "yes" to this question (see graphic below). The high was 79.3 percent in 1983 and the low is 2014, at 66.1 percent. The trend, ever so gently, is down.

But this fails to capture the obvious question -- in what situations would this be OK? Luckily those data are available as well. When we get specific, the numbers drop.

  • Far fewer believe someone using vulgar or abuse language is reason enough for an officer to strike a citizen. The percent who say "yes" to this is about one-in five in the early years but down to 8.9 percent by 2014. That's a significant drop.
  • A murder suspect isn't much of a reason either, according to the data. Only 8.5 percent said it was OK back in 1973, but it's climbed in later years to about 14 percent saying "yes."
  • Attempting to escape appears to be perfectly acceptable, however, with three fourths saying it was OK in early years and two-thirds saying so by 2014.
  • Finally, the survey asked what if the citizen attacked the cop first with his fists, OK then to strike them? Seems obvious and over nine-out-of-10 respondents agreed. Still, 97 percent said so back in 1973 and only 88 percent said so by 2014, so even that reason has gone down.

Race makes a difference (duh). While over time about three-quarters of whites say there are situations where an officer should strike a citizen, rarely is the number above half for black respondents.

Where's the media angle? I don't have much of one as GSS asks crappy media questions. Watching television is slightly, but statistically, more likely to make you say no, as does reading the news. It's not a huge relationship and would probably disappear if I controlled for other factors like race, education, and the like.

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