When it comes to public opinion, wording matters.
People of varying racial backgrounds tend to express a positive view of their local law enforcement agencies, according to many polls. And Americans usually balk at proposals to cut basic funding from the police. In an Associated Press/NORC poll last month, when asked simply whether they supported reducing funding for police departments, just 25 percent of Americans said yes, 53 percent said no, and 21 percent said neither, suggesting they hadn’t made their minds up yet.
A Fox News poll taken around the same time asked the question a little differently: Would people support taking money away from police departments and putting it toward “mental health, housing, and other social services?” In that case, 41 percent of voters expressed support, while 46 percent opposed it. Significantly, even though “neither” wasn’t an option, 12 percent of respondents refused to say either way.
With such a large share of the country still figuring out where it stands on the issue, there is the potential for either side to seize control of the narrative. President Trump has demonstrated that he sees an opportunity to win some ground here, tweeting frequently of his opposition to “defund the police.”
In mid-June, sounding assured that he had the political upper hand, he wrote on Twitter: “Many Democrats want to Defund and Abolish Police Departments. HOW CRAZY!”
Still, as protests have led to legislative results in some cities, they have also helped shift attitudes. A Siena College poll of New York late last month found that a slim majority of the city’s residents would support a reduction in funding for the police. (The question did not mention anything about redirecting funding toward social services.) When asked directly about “defund the police,” New Yorkers were more split: Forty-one percent supportive, 47 percent opposed.
But when asked if mental health professionals should come along when police officers respond to calls dealing with homelessness, drug addiction or mental illness, almost nine in 10 New York City residents said yes.
In its recent research, the PerryUndem team was struck by how relatively unformed — and therefore influenceable — opinions remained on the meaning, as well as the validity, of calls to “defund the police.”