Poll shows trust and tensions over Arizona law enforcement

PHOENIX – Jarvis Johnson admits he was driving too fast in his rented Dodge Charger on Labor Day when a police officer signaled him to pull over.

Johnson thought, “This could go one of two ways. He could be a good officer. He could be a bad officer.”

The officer calmly asked him to slow down. Johnson respectfully complied, and both safely went their separate ways.

“It was a good encounter, but what could the next encounter be like?” Johnson said. “You just really never know.”

An Arizona Republic/Morrison/Cronkite News poll reflects differing views – of trust and tensions – in respondents’ opinions of whether law enforcement agencies in Arizona treat residents fairly.

The poll, conducted in August, shows 83 percent of respondents believe law enforcement officers would treat them fairly and respectfully if they were stopped or arrested. Twelve percent do not believe they would be treated fairly and respectfully and 4.5 percent are uncertain.

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The poll shows Arizonans’ trust in law enforcement remains steady overall. When respondents were asked if recent incidents of police violence have made them trust the police less than in the past, 71 percent reported “no change” in their level of trust. Twenty percent said they trust police “a little less” than before, and 7 percent said their trust is “much less” than it used to be.

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But the respondents were split on a question about ethnicity and law enforcement.

The poll asked registered voters Arizona Republic/Morrison/Cronkite News poll whether law enforcement agencies in Arizona treat everyone the same or have a different set of behaviors and rules depending on the ethnicity of the person encountered.

About 46 percent think agencies treat people differently depending on ethnicity, 38 percent of respondents believe Arizona law enforcement agencies treat everyone the same, and 16 percent are uncertain.

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At a National Day of Nonviolence event hosted by One Phoenix on Saturday, board president Nakia Walker said she has never felt like a police officer treated her differently because she is black. But she said family friends had rough encounters with police, including one who ended up dead.

The incidents motivate her work with One Phoenix, an organization seeking to promote “peace, love and unity in the face of violence.” Walker values building relationships between police officers and residents.

“We’re actually also working on some programs where we can start going to police departments, giving them flowers, giving them candy, and encouraging them to be more involved with the community on a level that doesn’t have to be involved with a 911 call,” Walker said.

Phoenix police Sgt. Keith Doherty, of the South Mountain Precinct, works with other Phoenix police officers to build relationships with community groups like One Phoenix. He and another community action colleague, Officer Chad Sullivan, set up a booth at the nonviolence event simply to talk to residents. Doherty said it’s one of the best ways to build trust.

“I will walk up to anybody and have a sit-down conversation with them,” Doherty said. “Not as an officer, just as a person.”

Walker said she doesn’t believe police “were put here to be militant or to harm us. I just think that sometimes things can go wrong with people.”

Walker says she has felt a shift in her level of trust toward law enforcement in the face of widely-reported cases of shootings of black people by police, such as the most recent shootings of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa and Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, N.C.

However, she thinks events like the nonviolence day, which took place in 40 U.S. cities, are a step toward restoring that trust.

“It’s a start,” Walker said. “It’s a start.”

The Morrison Institute contracted with Behavior Research Center to conduct the poll from Aug. 17-31. Using up-to-date voter registration lists, almost 1,700 live land line and cellphone calls were used to obtain an average of 800 valid responses from likely voters per question. The interviews were performed in English or Spanish. The margin of error fluctuates by question between plus or minus 0.8 and plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.

Reporter Alicia Gonzales contributed to this story.