Blacks and whites differ widely on their perceptions of police shootings, study finds

Protesters lock arms in front of a police line in El Cajon after the police shooting of Alfred Olango.
(Bill Wechter / AFP/Getty Images)

When a black person is shot and killed by police, blacks tend to see it as a sign of a deeper problem between law enforcement and their community.

By contrast, whites are much more likely than blacks to view the fatal shooting as an isolated incident.

These are among the findings of a new survey by the Pew Research Center that found large gaps in how whites and blacks perceive police treatment of racial and ethnic minorities.


Blacks were half as likely as whites to say that police in their communities do an excellent or good job in using appropriate force on suspects, treating all racial and ethnic minorities equally and holding officers accountable when misconduct occurs, the study found.

Only 14% of black respondents said they have a lot of confidence in their local police department, while 42% of whites felt that way, according to the report.

The survey comes during a week of protests in El Cajon surrounding the death of Alfred Olango, 38, an unarmed black man who was shot and killed Tuesday by police there.

Police say Olango was behaving erratically and took a “shooting stance” immediately before he was shot and killed by one of the officers. Authorities later said Olango was holding an electronic cigarette when he was shot.

Three days of demonstrations turned violent Thursday night as more than 50 protesters stopped vehicles and broke car windows, according to the El Cajon Police Department.

The Pew study found that 79% of black respondents said protests that follow fatal police shootings are motivated by the desire to hold officers accountable.


“While many blacks and whites see anti-police prejudice as a significant reason for the protests, blacks are significantly less likely than whites to hold this view (56% of blacks vs. 85% of whites),” study authors wrote.

Kim Parker, Pew’s director of social trends research, said the survey suggests there is a combination of emotions at play when people participate in protests.

“Some of them might feel that they really want to hold police accountable for that specific incident, but it’s hard to separate that from other broader feelings about police or even how blacks are treated in society more generally,” Parker said.

“And these types of incidents can be flash points that bring these feelings to the surface.”

The survey was conducted online and via mail from Aug. 16 to Sept. 12 and included 4,538 U.S. adults. It was completed before the officer-involved shootings in Tulsa, Okla., and Charlotte, N.C., that also have sparked protests and unrest.

The survey found overwhelming support from all racial groups for the use of body cameras by police to record encounters with citizens.


Whites (67%), blacks (60%) and Hispanics (75%) said they believe the use of the cameras would prompt officers to act more appropriately when dealing with the public.

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