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A majority of voters see an urgent need for police reform following the Chauvin verdict

A new poll suggests the public is looking to Congress to act on police reform.

A participant holds an End Police Brutality sign at a protest in August 2020.
Erik McGregor/LightRocket/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

A majority of American voters think the need for police reform is even more urgent in the wake of former police officer Derek Chauvin’s conviction for the murder of George Floyd, according to a new Vox/Data For Progress poll.

In a survey fielded in the week after his conviction, 55 percent of likely voters said they felt this way, compared to 30 percent who said they believe there was no change in urgency, and 9 percent who said there was less urgency following the trial. The results differed significantly along partisan lines, with 77 percent of Democrats saying police reform was more urgent, and 50 percent of independents and 34 percent of Republicans saying the same.

Previously, Axios has reported that congressional aides felt the verdict helped alleviate pressure on lawmakers to take more action in the near term, because it was the result that many activists and voters supported. “An acquittal or mistrial involving the former police officer would have unleashed violence and days more of protests — and added bipartisan pressure to act on criminal and police reform,” Axios’s Alayna Treene and Kadia Goba reported. Large-scale demonstrations along those lines might have ramped up the public outcry even more. But as this poll indicates, even absent that, most people still view police reform as a vital issue that lawmakers need to address.

The poll was conducted as lawmakers in Congress continue negotiations on police reform, and was fielded in two parts, between April 21 and 23, with 1,438 likely voters, and April 23 and 25, with 1,189 likely voters. Both surveys have a 3 percentage point margin of error.

As Gabby Birenbaum wrote for Vox, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), the lead Republican negotiator on police reform, signaled renewed optimism about a potential deal on the issue this Sunday. The main question now if a deal is reached, is how ambitious — or not — it actually is.

Police reform has floundered in Congress for a year

Congress has been here before. Just last year, Senate Democrats had rejected Republicans’ proposal for being too narrow, while GOP leaders argued that House Democrats’ legislation would unnecessarily curb police officers’ legal protections.

This year, Scott, along with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), are spearheading efforts to find a bipartisan agreement. President Joe Biden has urged Congress to “find a consensus” on police reform by May 25, the anniversary of Floyd’s death, a date Bass has cited as a loose deadline as well.

Although the existing Democratic and Republican proposals have a lot of differences, Scott has said that he hopes a potential compromise on qualified immunity, a legal shield that makes it tougher to sue police officers for wrongdoing, could lead to a deal. In his proposal, police departments, rather than individual officers, would bear the legal liability in incidents of wrongdoing, an attempt to deter such behavior that wouldn’t put all the risk on the individual.

“How do we change the culture of policing?” Scott said during a Face the Nation appearance on Sunday. “I think we do that by making the employer responsible for the actions of the employee. We do that with doctors. We do that with lawyers. We do that in most all of our industries. If we do that in law enforcement, the employer will change the culture. As opposed to having one officer change or not change, we’ll have all officers transforming because the departments are taking on more of that burden.”

That idea has already prompted some backlash from progressives, including Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), though Scott is hoping he can eventually get both Democrats and Republicans on board.

As an earlier Vox/DFP poll found in April, a majority of likely voters back police reforms including bans on chokeholds and no-knock warrants, grants for body cameras, and changes to qualified immunity, in some cases by large margins.

In the latest survey, the support for curbing qualified immunity has stayed consistent, though far from overwhelming: 51 percent of those polled think people should be able to more easily sue police officers for actions they’ve taken while on duty.

The survey also found that 72 percent of people believed the Chauvin verdict was rightly decided, including 91 percent of Democrats, 72 percent of independents and 51 percent of Republicans. Polling conducted by other outlets following the trial also found strong support for some type of reform effort, though the questions were broader in scope: In an ABC News/Washington Post survey, 60 percent of people said lawmakers should hold the police accountable for the mistreatment of Black people, and in a CNN survey, 53 percent of people said policing needs major changes.

Ultimately, as these polls revealed, most people are looking to lawmakers to do more, after Congress has stalled on the issue in the past.