Americans support police reform, even in the reddest states

From California to West Virginia, voters want to get rid of police contracts that protect officers who do wrong

By Emily Bello-Pardo, Monika Nayak, and John Ray

Across the country, protests against police violence have challenged the contracts and laws that protect officers under even the most extreme circumstances. A series of recent YouGov polls asked voters how they felt about police unions, their contracts with cities, and the protections those contracts afford. We found that voters are overwhelmingly ready for change. This includes the notorious “Law Enforcement Officers’ Bills of Rights” agreements that often delay or dismiss investigations into police misconduct, which even conservative voters in the “reddest” states support repealing.

Large majorities of voters support ending Law Enforcement Officers’ Bills of Rights

Regardless of party affiliation, voters generally support letting investigations into police misconduct proceed as would investigations into other public servants suspected of wrongdoing. This often is not the case in cities where police union contracts set the terms for when and how officers can be interviewed by investigators. In a June survey, we found 77 percent of respondents strongly or somewhat support repealing the contract provision that disallows independent reviews of officer misconduct and often delays those reviews

Eighty-three percent of Democrats support repealing this policy, with 9 percent in opposition. Independents in the sample showed support at 79 percent with 13 percent in opposition. And, with 68 percent of Republicans in the survey in support and only 22 percent of Republicans in opposition, we found that a majority of voters across party lines support repealing agreements that delay or dismiss investigations into police misconduct.

Support for ending protections granted by these Law Officers’ Bills of Rights (LEOBRs) remains high across different geographies. We surveyed a total of 7,700 registered voters in seventeen states with between June 24 and July 2, 2020, with an additional survey fielding August 5–15, 2020 and asked them the exact same question as above. The graphic below shows the overall level of support in each of these 17 states for repealing the protections encoded in these Bills of Rights. Each state was sampled and weighted independently, so that the results are statistically representative for each state.

Across the country, effective supermajorities in the states that have them support ending LEOBRs. Fully 75 percent of voters in Arizona, for example, support ending the LEOBRs that exist in their state, as do 71 percent of voters in West Virginia. In the most supportive state, Rhode Island, 80 percent of voters support eliminating LEOBRs. In Georgia the least supportive of the states, fully 63 percent agree. Across the states in the sample, large majorities support reforming or eliminating LEOBRs.

Notably, these results do not correlate with factors like partisanship. Kentucky and West Virginia, which each gave Donald Trump over sixty percent of their votes in 2016, support eliminating LEOBRs at statistically identical levels to California and Maryland, which supported Hillary Clinton at similarly high levels in 2016. Next, we explore individual elements of LEOBRs and show that voters support reforming a range of protections afforded to police officers, even controlling for partisan differences.

Strong support for eliminating individual LEOBR and police union protections

Voters support several reforms meant to balance police union power with the groups and individuals tasked with oversight of law enforcement. In a national survey, we asked voters about reforms that would balance police union protections with increased access to information about officers accused of misconduct, and additional avenues of recourse against those officers.

For example, 71 percent of voters support preventing the destruction of disciplinary records, which is currently allowed in many police union contracts.¹ Just 20 percent oppose the idea. Fully 78 percent of Democrats, 64 percent of Independents, and 66 percent of Republicans agree that disciplinary records should not be destroyed.

Similarly, 69 percent of voters support reforming police union contracts to ensure that independent investigators have the same level of access to officers accused of misconduct as their departments do.² In many places this is not the case, as some LEOBRs shield access to information about incidents that the officers involved naturally have, but that investigators do not. This includes 76 percent of Democrats, 62 percent of Independents, and 63 percent of Republicans.

In addition to supporting a better balance between oversight bodies and police unions, voters support allowing the public to have more access to oversight and disciplinary records. We find, for example, that 66 percent of voters support lifting restrictions on disciplinary oversight so that journalists and the public have access to officer discipline records — again, including large majorities of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans.³

While some of these contracts have clauses that prevent oversight bodies from interviewing officers for up to several days after an incident, voters think oversight should be prompt.⁴ Sixty-four percent of voters somewhat or strongly support eliminating these restrictions, including majorities of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans. Democrats overwhelmingly reported they “strongly” supported changing this policy. Republicans were more tepid, with 19 percent “strongly” supporting changing this policy and 32 percent only “somewhat” supporting a change.

Moreover, some of these police union contracts allow police departments to waive misconduct complaints if the complaint is submitted too many days after an incident or if the investigation takes too long to complete. Sixty percent of all voters would support eliminating the statute of limitations on filing misconduct allegations against an officer. Sixty nine percent of Democrats, and 53 percent of Independents, and 53 percent of Republicans support this position as well.⁵

In another survey conducted shortly after our first national survey, we found that voters supported even more dramatic changes to police union contracts in favor of transparency and openness.⁶ Fully 72 percent of voters supported making all misconduct allegations against officers accessible to the public, which many police union contracts currently prohibit.

Voters clearly prioritize having access to, and information about, the conduct of their cities’ police forces.

Voters want more transparency in police union negotiations

In another national survey, we pressed voters on their priorities when it came to empowering police unions versus holding officers responsible. Voters across the partisan spectrum prioritized making it easier to remove officers over protecting the power of police unions. We asked,

Even if it isn’t exactly right, which of the following is closer to your view?
1. When it comes to the police, it is more important to be able to easily remove officers who engage in misconduct, even if it means weakening some of their union protections
2. When it comes to the police, it is more important to ensure they have strong union protections, even if it means weakening the ability to remove officers who engage in misconduct
3. Not sure

When asked explicitly, voters report they prioritize being able to hold police accountable over protecting the powers of police unions. About 76 percent of voters said it was more important to be able to remove officers who engage in misconduct, and just 13 percent said it was more important to protect police officer unions. When asked whether they thought the power of police unions should be strengthened or reduced, about 57 percent said they should be reduced.

This high level of support persists even controlling for other factors like partisanship. Large majorities of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans prioritize holding police officers accountable over strengthening their unions.

Overall, US voters report they are strongly supportive of reforming the power of police unions. Voters in states with LEOBRs report they are ready to reform or eliminate them. Voters want investigative authorities and oversight bodies to have the power to hold police accountable, and believe the police should follow the same laws as the rest of us.

Methods

Campaign Zero and YouGov Blue fielded questions over several surveys with varying sampling frames. Here, we briefly summarize the surveys included here.

From June 18–19, 2020 we sampled 1,031 self-identified registered voters at the national level. The sample was weighted to be representative of the population of US voters by age, race/ethnicity, sex, education, US Census region, and 2016 Presidential vote choice. The weights ranged from 0.00 to 6.16 with a mean of 1, standard deviation of 0.89, and a margin of error of +/-4.09 percent.

Second, we surveyed 1,058 registered voters between June 23 and 29, 2020, with weights ranging from 0.05 to 6.20 with a mean of 1, standard deviation of 0.81, and a margin of error of +/- 3.88 percent. The sample was weighted to be representative of the population of US voters by age, race/ethnicity, sex, education, US Census region, and 2016 Presidential vote choice.

Third, we fielded a survey of 1,023 registered voters from July 23 to 27, 2020, with weights ranging from 0.02 to 6.01 with a mean of 1, standard deviation of 0.59, and margin of error of +/- 3.57 percent. The sample was weighted to be representative of the population of US voters by age, race/ethnicity, sex, education, US Census region, and 2016 Presidential vote choice.

Fourth, we surveyed a total of 6,707 registered voters in fifteen states between June 24 and July 2, 2020 with the following sample sizes: N=534 in Arizona, N=658 in California, N=306 in Delaware, N=621 in Florida, N=607 in Illinois, N=417 in Kentucky, N=410 in Louisiana, N=414 in Maryland, N=427 in Minnesota, N=406 in Nevada, N=308 in New Mexico, N=429 in Oregon, N=302 in Rhode Island, N=519 in Virginia, and N=349 in West Virginia. Each state sample had a mean weight of 1, with an overall minimum of 0.1 and an overall maximum of 6.3. The sample was weighted to be representative of the population of US voters by age, race/ethnicity, sex, education, and 2016 Presidential vote choice.

Fifth, we fielded a survey of 1,046 registered voters from August 8-August 10. The weights ranged from 0.2 to 5.3, with a mean of 1. margin of error was +/-3.5 percent. The sample was weighted to be representative of the population of US voters by age, race/ethnicity, sex, education, US Census region, and 2016 Presidential vote choice.

Sixth, we fielded a survey of 993 voters in the states of Georgia and Tennessee from August 5–15, 2020. The survey included 537 registered voters in Georgia and 456 registered voters in Tennessee. The weights ranged from 0.1 to 6.2. The sample was weighted to be representative of the population of voters in these states by age, race/ethnicity, sex, education, and 2016 Presidential vote choice.

Please contact the authors at yougov.blue@yougov.com with any inquiries about sampling, weighting, or methodology.

Additional Survey Wording
1. We asked, “Some police union contracts allow police departments to destroy or purge discipline records in police officer personnel files whether or not the officer is convicted of a crime. Would you [support or oppose] a policy that would prevent departments from destroying discipline records for a long period of time or indefinitely?”

2. We asked, “Some police union contracts allow police departments to destroy or purge discipline records in police officer personnel files whether or not the officer is convicted of a crime. Would you [support or oppose] a policy that would prevent departments from destroying discipline records for a long period of time or indefinitely?”

3. We asked, “Some police union contracts limit disciplinary consequences for officers and limit the capacity of civilian oversight structures to hold police accountable, including by forbidding journalists and investigators from accessing prior reports of police misconduct. Would you [support or oppose] a policy lifting these restrictions on disciplinary consequences for police officers and keeping them accountable?”

4. We asked, “Some police union contracts prevent police officers from being interrogated immediately after being involved in an incident, such as when a weapon is fired or someone is killed, and sometimes restrict how, when, or where officers can be interrogated. Would you [support or oppose] eliminating restrictions on the conditions for police officers to be interviewed after an incident of misconduct?”

5. We asked, “Some police union contracts allow police departments to disqualify complaints of misconduct against officers, which include for abuses of power, excessive force, or other bad behavior, if the complaint is submitted too many days after an incident occurs or if the investigation takes too long to complete. Would you [support or oppose] a policy that greatly raises or eliminates these statutes of limitations?”

6. We asked, “And even if police departments are not allowed to destroy or purge discipline records, many departments are allowed to keep the public from seeing some or all of those files, including civilian oversight groups. Would you [support or oppose] a policy requiring all allegations of police misconduct to be made public, so that departments cannot prevent them from being seen?”