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2 new polls suggest Americans are regaining faith in the police

Public opinion may be shifting, but the racial disparities in policing are still real.

After a year in which pollsters found trust in police was historically low, it appears that Americans’ faith in law enforcement is rebounding.

On Monday, Gallup released the results of a survey that found Americans’ respect for police in their area had surged: 76 percent of Americans said they had a great deal of respect for police in their area in 2016, compared with 64 percent a year before. White Americans were more likely to report a great deal of respect — 80 percent, compared with 67 percent of nonwhite Americans.

But both white and nonwhite respondents were more likely to report a great deal of respect for police in their area in 2016 than they were in 2015.

A Gallup survey found rising respect for police among different racial groups.

On Tuesday, PRRI published another survey suggesting this reflects a real trend: 52 percent of Americans now agree that police officers generally treat nonwhite and white Americans the same, up from 41 percent in 2015.

Similarly to Gallup’s question, there was a racial divide in PRRI’s findings. About 79 percent of black Americans and 62 percent of Hispanic Americans rejected the idea that police officers treat everyone the same. But 64 percent of white Americans said the opposite, concluding that police officers do treat people of all races the same.

The racial divide is nothing new, showing the stark divides in how white and minority Americans have long viewed policing in America.

But the trend toward renewed faith in police seems to be real. So what’s going on?

It’s impossible to say without a more thorough study into this data, but there are a few possibilities. The trend could reflect the reduced attention going to policing in 2016, particularly as the presidential election gets much more of the media spotlight. The trend could also reflect a backlash to the past couple of years of Black Lives Matter protests, especially after the mass shooting of several police officers in Dallas and riots in Milwaukee and Charlotte, North Carolina, over the past year. Or maybe the findings are some sort of weird statistical anomaly in this year’s surveys, and we’ll see different results in years to come.

Whatever the reason, the reported shift in public opinion doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality of the situation: The evidence does suggest there are racial disparities in policing, and they aren’t fully explained by higher crime rates in minority communities.

Black people are more likely to be shot and killed by police

Police killings by race. Alvin Chang/Vox

An analysis of the available FBI data by Vox’s Dara Lind shows that US police kill black people at disproportionate rates: They accounted for 31 percent of police killing victims in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population. Although the data is incomplete, since it’s based on voluntary reports from police agencies around the country, it highlights the vast disparities in how police use force.

Defenders of law enforcement argue that this merely reflects higher crime rates in minority communities. The argument goes something like this: If police have to be more active in higher-crime areas, and those areas happen to have more minority residents, it’s only natural that cops would end up using force more often on black victims. (The FBI data shows that black people are disproportionately likely to be the victims and perpetrators of crime. There are all sorts of explanations for why, such as poverty, unemployment, segregation, and neglect by police when it comes to serious crimes.)

But recent studies suggest that crime rates do not fully explain the racial disparities in police use of force.

One 2015 study by researcher Cody Ross concluded, “There is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates.”

A more recent study — of the Austin Police Department in Texas — reached similar conclusions after accounting for several socioeconomic factors, including crime:

According to the model of use-of-force incidents, a one-point rise in the percentage of black residents increased the expected number of use-of-force incidents by 2.6 percent, holding all other variables constant. The percentage of Hispanic residents had a smaller effect: a one-point rise in the percentage of Hispanic residents increased the expected number of use-of-force incidents by 1.1 percent.

So no matter the percentage of college-educated residents, homeownership rates, median household income, or crime rates, for every increase in people of color in an area, the rate and severity of use of force also went up. Race is closely tied to use and levels of force.

This isn’t necessarily driven by explicit racism but perhaps something more subtle: subconscious racial biases. Studies show, for example, that officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, said it's possible the bias could lead to more skewed outcomes in the field. “In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training,” he told me, “we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them.”

That’s why some police departments, with the help of the federal government, have begun taking on implicit bias training to help officers become aware of and control their racial biases. A majority of the public may not agree that these initiatives are necessary, but the research increasingly shows otherwise.