As Michael Brown was laid to rest in Missouri, a USA TODAY/Pew Research Center Poll finds Americans by 2-to-1 say police departments nationwide don't do a good job in holding officers accountable for misconduct, treating racial groups equally and using the right amount of force.
While most whites give police low marks on those measures, blacks are overwhelmingly negative in their assessment of police tactics. More than nine of 10 African Americans say the police do an "only fair" or poor job when it comes to equal treatment and appropriate force.
The shooting of the unarmed black teenager by a white police officer two weeks ago in a St. Louis suburb has sparked protests across the country and spotlighted a federal program that sends military equipment to local law enforcement agencies.
More than four in 10 of those surveyed say they have little confidence in police departments to use the military equipment and weapons appropriately. President Obama has ordered a review of the program that disperses the gear not only to big cities such as New York and Washington but also to small towns.
Obama himself gets a lukewarm approval rating when it comes to handling race relations: 48% approve, 42% disapprove. Though that's higher than his overall job approval rating, it is significantly lower than predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton received on race relations during their tenure.
African Americans approve of Obama's handling of race relations by 73%-22%; whites disapprove by 48%-42%.
The poll of 1,501 adults, taken Wednesday through Sunday by landline and cellphone, has a margin of error of +/-3 percentage points. The margin of error for the sample of 996 whites is +/-4 points. For the sample of 153 blacks, it is 9 points.
Loretta Moore, 36, a former teacher from Lodi, Calif., says her views of police soured after a student in her class was killed by an off-duty sheriff's deputy who was driving while drunk. "They get the lesser charges; he got (to use) the side door to the courtroom, the whole nine yards," Moore, who was called in the poll, said in a follow-up interview. She was dismayed when the officer was sentenced to only six months' probation.
"They say he robbed somebody," she says of Michael Brown, "but I personally don't think he had to die over it."
In the poll:
• 65% overall say police departments nationwide do an "only fair" or a poor job in holding officers accountable when misconduct occurs, compared with 30% who say they do an excellent or good job.
• By 65%-32%, respondents say police do a fair/poor job, not an excellent/good one, in treating racial and ethnic groups equally.
• By 61%-35%, they say police do a fair/poor job, not an excellent/good one, in using the right amount of force in each situation.
Americans split evenly when asked if police departments nationwide do a good job in protecting people from crime.
Tom Brent, 58, of Houston, who was among those polled, has had a positive experience working with his local police department in his role as president of a civic association. "They do a lot of community outreach, the best they can with the resources they have," he says. But he's not sure if that's true of other law-enforcement departments across the country, and he expresses concern about the dramatic photos of police in Ferguson, Mo., using armored vehicles and automatic weapons during protests.
"It seems to be a lot of firepower in the hands of a few people, and I don't know how well they're trained to utilize it," he says. "That's not the U.S. That's a Third World country."
Still, Duff Watrous, 62, a real estate agent from Long Beach, Calif., calls the use of military gear "a tough question." He says, "I think the police department has to be equipped for most eventualities."
In the poll, 18% had "a great deal" of confidence in police departments to use military equipment appropriately and 36% had "a fair amount." But 27% say they have "not too much" confidence and 17% had "none at all."
However, when it comes to police in their own community, whites overwhelmingly have a great deal or a fair amount of trust in them not to use excessive force (74%), to treat blacks and whites equally (72%) and to gain the trust of local residents (77%).
But most African Americans disagree: 62% have very "just some" or "very little" confidence in their community's police to treat blacks and whites equally; 59% lack confidence that they won't use excessive force. A 53% majority of blacks doubt the police do a good job in gaining the trust of local residents.
When it comes to race relations generally, the disparity between whites and blacks is less stark than it is on assessing police tactics. Among whites, 75% say whites and blacks get along very well or pretty well; 64% of blacks agree.