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Poll Shows Broad Divisions Amid Missouri Turmoil

Patty Canter, left, defended Darren Wilson, the police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black teenage.CreditJoe Raedle/Getty Images

A poll taken since a white police officer in Missouri shot dead an unarmed black teenager shows blacks and whites sharply divided on how fairly the police deal with each group, along with a rising feeling, especially among whites, that race relations in the country are troubled. But when asked about their own communities, members of each race say their relations with the other are good.

The latest New York Times/CBS News nationwide poll shows most whites reserving judgment on whether the fatal shooting of the teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo., was justified. Most blacks say it was not.

“Whether they robbed a store, pushed a man or whatever the case may be, there are other strategies and tactics the police officer should use before excessive force and brutally killing someone in cold blood,” Felicia Irving, 28, a high-school English teacher in Hampton, Ga., who is black, said in a follow-up interview.

Jean Smith, 75, a retiree in Hartford, Ala., who is white, said she could not determine “with just two or three facts” whether the officer, Darren Wilson, had been justified in shooting and killing Mr. Brown. “To know whether it was justified, I’d have to know the whole thing from beginning to end and look at it as objectively as possible,” Ms. Smith said.

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Reactions to the Shooting in Ferguson, Mo., Have Sharp Racial Divides

The New York Times and CBS News interviewed adults nationwide about their views on race relations, their relationships with law enforcement and their reactions to the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo.

The poll also shows significant differences in how blacks and whites viewthe unrest that has gripped Ferguson since Mr. Brown’s killing. Most whites say they think the actions of the protesters have gone too far, while blacks are more evenly divided. Thirty-eight percent of blacks think the protesters’ actions have been about right, compared with 15 percent of whites. A vast majority of the protesters in Ferguson have been black.

Since Aug. 9, when Officer Wilson shot and killed Mr. Brown, protesters have marched just blocks away, sometimes peacefully, other times with acts of violence. The police have dressed in riot gear, driven armored vehicles, and used tear gas and rubber bullets.

The public is split over the police response, with equal numbers saying that the police have gone too far and that their efforts have been about right. But black Americans are nearly twice as likely as whites to fault the police.

The issue at the heart of the unrest in Ferguson — the suspicion among some that a white policeman was trigger-happy when faced with a young black man — is also at the heart of what divides black and white Americans. An overwhelming majority of blacks say they think that, generally, the police are more likely to use deadly force against a black person; a majority of whites say race is not a factor in a police officer’s decision to use force. Forty-five percent of blacks say they have experienced racial discrimination by the police at some point in their lives; virtually no whites say they have.

When asked whether police forces should reflect the racial makeup of the communities they serve, nearly six in 10 blacks say yes; whites are about evenly divided. In Ferguson, which is two-thirds black, the police force of 53 officers includes three blacks.

About six in 10 blacks polled say they have little to no confidence that the investigation being conducted by the local authorities into Mr. Brown’s shooting will be handled fairly, while about the same share of whites say they are confident the investigation will be fair.

The poll does show consensus that the military-style equipment used by the police in Ferguson should not be in officers’ hands. Two-thirds of all Americans said assault rifles and tanks should be reserved for the military and the National Guard.

“There are too many people on the police force who act without thinking,” said Lisa Scenk, 60, a retiree from Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., who is white. “And they shouldn’t have access to assault weapons.”


The activist Anthony Shahid with supporters of the teenager, Michael Brown.

CreditLarry W. Smith/European Pressphoto Agency

Simone Grant, 36, a saleswoman from Corum, N.Y., who is black, agreed. “I think some of the local police forces do things they are not supposed to do,” she said, “and if they had these kinds of weapons, they would use them to their advantage.”

Questions about race relations posed in Times/CBS polls have shown a seesaw effect, often apparently related to events. In the summer of 2008, for example, 59 percent of blacks and 34 percent of whites said race relations were generally bad. Nine months later, after the election of President Obama, that number had dropped to 30 percent among blacks and 21 percent among whites. Likewise, in the last four months, the percentage of whites who consider race relations to be bad has risen to 41 percent from 27 percent, possibly influenced by events such as those in Ferguson.

Similarly, a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed that after the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager in Florida, 60 percent of whites thought the issue of race was getting too much attention. After Mr. Brown’s killing, Pew asked the same question, and 47 percent of whites agreed.

At the same time, when asked in the Times/CBS poll about race relations in their own communities, Americans paint a positive picture. About three-quarters of both blacks and whites say the situation is generally good. A majority of whites, however, say they interact regularly with only a few blacks.

Half of black and white Americans say that most people are generally uncomfortable talking about race with a person of another race. However, most say they themselves are comfortable having such conversations.

The nationwide poll of 1,025 adults was conducted Aug. 19 and 20 on landlines and cellphones, and for purposes of analysis, blacks were oversampled. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus four percentage points for all adults, five percentage points for whites and eight percentage points for blacks.

Dalia Sussman and Marina Stefan contributed reporting.

A version of this article appears in print on August 22, 2014, on page A14 of the New York edition with the headline: Poll Shows Broad Divisions Amid Missouri Turmoil.

DMU Timestamp: August 12, 2014 17:47

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