A majority of Los Angeles residents say the relationship between their community and L.A. police has not improved in the 30 years since the police beating of Rodney King that ultimately sparked riots in that city, according to a new Suffolk University/USA TODAY CityView poll.
Among those residents who lived through the event or had read about it since, an overwhelming 85% of poll respondents said that the King incident had a major impact on Los Angeles. Four L.A.P.D. officers charged with using excessive force in the 1991 arrest and beating of King were acquitted in 1992, sparking days of rioting in Los Angeles County.
Nearly a third (32%) of Los Angeles residents polled said the relationship between the community and L.A. police has gotten worse since the King beating 30 years ago, while 26% said the relationship has not changed. Twenty-nine percent said it has improved.
"Are you treated better or worse because of your race?"
The poll is part of Suffolk University and USA TODAY’s CityView series examining attitudes toward policing, public safety, race relations, and other issues in cities across the United States.
Fifty-eight percent of Los Angeles residents say L.A. police are doing a fair (38%) or poor (20%) job, while 39 percent rate police performance as excellent (10%) or good (29%).
This is overall a more negative picture than painted in the two previous cities polled this year by Suffolk and USA TODAY in the CityView series; both Detroit and Milwaukee residents had more generally positive positions when it came to policing, although police in those cities, too, were perceived negatively by significant percentages of the population. The Los Angeles poll was conducted by telephone from Sept. 28 through Oct. 1.
The impact of age and race
The critical views on police appear to be driven by younger residents. Of those ages 18-24, just 27% rated the police as excellent or good and 73% graded them as fair or poor. (Among those residents 65 years of age or older, 64% rated the police as excellent or good, and 32% as fair or poor.) Younger residents were also far more likely to say that some police are “racist in the way they treat people,” while only 16% of older residents felt that was true.
“The children and grandchildren of those who witnessed the Rodney King beating in 1991 have made a powerful statement about the nature of policing, use of force, and defunding the police,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center. “Younger Angelenos are far more likely to see evidence of systemic racism in how their city is policed.”
Perceptions of racism citywide among different ethnic groups were also split. Of the 50% of L.A. residents who felt they were treated differently because of their race, far more Black (87%), Hispanic (63%), and Asian (44%) residents said they received worse treatment than other races. By contrast, 83% of white respondents who saw a difference in treatment said they were treated better because of their race.
Concerns for public safety
Despite those numbers, a significant majority (63%) of Los Angeles residents say they would feel safer with more police in their neighborhoods rather than fewer. And 80% say they generally feel safe in their neighborhood, despite concerns about rising violent crime over the past 30 years and increases in homicides and shootings in the last year or two.
More than 68% of those polled of all ages said they were “very likely” to report a crime and cooperate with police if they were to witness a crime.
While just 29% of those surveyed thought community-police relationships had improved over the past three decades, a majority of those polled were optimistic that racist behavior by law enforcement was now more likely to be punished. The survey showed that 63% of respondents believe that the officers who attacked King would be more likely to be convicted today.
The majority of city residents (57%) oppose the “defund the police” slogan espoused by some activists, but more than 60% said they would support redirecting funding to social services to help the mentally ill and homeless.
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