Everything Is Partisan, Including How Americans View Policing

What should your first step be in evaluating how your jury pool will view an officer’s use of force?  Here’s a hint – look at the 2016 election results.

In preparing for any jury trial, a public entity should assess information about the likely jury pool.  Fortunately for public entities preparing to try civil rights cases, there is a wealth of public opinion data available that allows for predictions on which jurisdictions will be the strongest or weakest for defending civil rights cases.  Unfortunately for public entities preparing to try civil rights cases, there is a significant partisan split in how Americans view police officers and policing issues, and the partisan math is not in the public entities’ favor.

A YouGov / Economist poll conducted from April 1-3, 2018 questioned 1500 Americans on a variety of issues including policing in general and the Sacramento officer-involved shooting of Stephon Clark.  The results provided further evidence of a trend that has been dominant since the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2015 – chiefly, that an American’s partisan affiliation is the strongest demographic predictor of how he or she views policing in America.

In response to the question, “Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of police officers in the United States?”, 86% of Trump voters held a very favorable or somewhat favorable view of police, with only 11% of Trump voters holding a somewhat unfavorable or very unfavorable of police, for a net favorability rating of plus 75.  In contrast, Clinton voters were almost evenly divided in their assessment of the police in America.  47% of Clinton voters held a favorable view of the police, with 46% of Clinton voters holding an unfavorable view, for a net favorability rating of plus 1.

Respondents in the YouGov / Economist poll were also asked whether the officer-involved shooting of Stephon Clark was justified or not justified.  Most Trump voters (63%) had no opinion, with a nearly even split between those who found the shooting justified (20%) and those who did not (17%).  In contrast, Clinton voters were unified in their opinions about the officer-involved shooting with 73% finding the shooting to be unjustified and a mere 4% opining that the shooting was justified.

An earlier poll in September 2017 by the Pew Research Group asked Americans to rank how they viewed four professions – police, military, teacher, and professor – by rating each profession on a scale of 0 to 100.  Again, the partisan divide was striking.  Republicans ranked the four professions in the following order – military 92, police 84, teachers 72, and professors 46.  Democrats ranked the four professions quite differently – teachers 86, military 82, professors 71, and police 62.  Put differently, Republicans rated the police 22 points higher than Democrats did.

For public entities in southern California defending civil rights cases, the partisan divide comes at a time when the electorate in southern California has moved significantly to the left.  Election results can play a role in evaluating the jury pool that your public entity may face in federal court.  The Central District of California is divided into three divisions – Los Angeles, Riverside, and Santa Ana – with each division pulling jurors from various counties within the region.  The 2016 Presidential vote count within those divisions varies widely.  Jurors at the Los Angeles courthouse are pulled from counties that had an aggregate vote that resulted in a 74% share of the two-party vote for the Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.  In contrast, the jury pool at the Santa Ana courthouse (Orange County residents) had a 55% share of the two-party vote for Clinton, while the jury pool at the Riverside courthouse (San Bernardino and Riverside County residents) had a 54% share of the two-party vote for Clinton.

As long as policing remains a partisan issue on a national level and southern Californian residents remain on the left, public entities will continue to face an uphill battle from jurors on policing issues.

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