Poll: 1 in 5 blacks report ‘unfair’ dealings with police in last month

Updated 8:29 AM EST, Mon November 30, 2015
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(CNN) —  

A black journalism professor in Texas is walking through her neighborhood when she’s stopped and quizzed by police. A black jogger gets questioned while on a run through his Alabama neighborhood. Police pull a black man over in Rhode Island for air refresheners in his car.

Videos of these and similar incidents are appearing online with increasing frequency, underscoring what many African-Americans say is unfair treatment they face by police.

Opinion: Black police officer: I live in two worlds

Terms such as “driving while black” and “walking while black” have been coined, with studies showing that blacks are pulled over, questioned or arrested by police at a disproportionately higher rate than white Americans.

A new poll by CNN and the Kaiser Family Foundation gets to the heart of how prevalent these types of experiences are: 1 out of 5 African-Americans said they were treated unfairly because of their race in dealings with the police in the past 30 days. By comparison, only 3% of whites said they’d been treated unfairly, according to the poll.

That’s 19% of African Americans nationwide.

“That is one of the single most disturbing statistics I think I’ve heard,” said Jerald Podair, a professor of history and American studies at Lawrence University in Wisconsin.

Podair said the finding suggests many encounters between African-Americans and police have “the potential to end very badly – with either an unfair arrest or a violent assault or even death.”

He pointed to the deaths of Freddie Gray and Eric Garner in Baltimore and New York while in police custody. And then there’s Walter Scott, who was shot and killed by an officer in North Charleston, South Carolina.

Controversial police encounters

Making the 1-in-5 statistic even more complicated, Podair said, is the fact that there are more African-American police officers than ever before. “You would think that relations would be getting better,” he said.

“There is some sort of huge perceptual chasm between the police and the policed in most American cities,” Podair said.

“When you get that kind of perceptual gulf – when you’re looking at the same incident and you’re interpreting it in different ways – that’s a recipe for total division and complete disunity in our society.”

Andra Gillespie, a political scientist and associate professor at Emory University, agreed. She said the poll result “reflects the fact that we’re in a moment right now where police and minority communities, particularly African-American communities, are tense.”

Is racism on the rise? More in U.S. say it’s a ‘big problem,’ CNN/KFF poll finds

“As a society, we’re going to have to figure out a way to bridge the divide and have a dialogue between these two groups, so that people can get along and so that, honestly, our institutions work.”

Black communities understand the vital role police play in society, Gillespie said, but something has to be done to address the long-standing discrimination blacks have faced.

“What people want is they want to think the police are looking at them primarily as people to protect and not as enemies to corral,” Gillespie said.

Gillespie also said Americans need to understand that the grievances expressed within the black community are real. The events over the past two years, from Ferguson to Baltimore to North Charleston, have begun to change that dialogue, she said, with an increasingly number of whites acknowledging that blacks are treated unfairly by the criminal justice system.

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In the CNN/KFF poll, 56% of Americans – including 48% of whites – said they think the system favors whites over blacks. That number is much higher – 86% – among African-Americans. The poll showed similar percentages when participants were asked whether the criminal justice system favors whites over Hispanics.

The poll also offered insight into incidents in which unarmed blacks have been hurt or killed by police – and the protests that have followed.

A large majority of blacks – 70% – said the race of the officer involved would play a major role in whether the officer is charged with a crime. Only 35% of whites said the officer’s race would play a major role.

A similar disparity was found when it came to the race of the prosecutor handling the case: 58% of blacks said it would play a major role compared with 25% of whites.

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However, large majorities of blacks (72%) and whites (80%) said having a dashcam, body camera or cell phone video of the incident would play a major role in whether the officer was charged.

When asked what fueled protests following such incidents, blacks (84%) and whites (67%) both pointed to anger over the treatment of blacks by police as the leading major reason.

Somewhat smaller percentages said other factors were major reasons:

– A desire for blacks to feel like they are being treated fairly (81% of blacks and 63% of whites)

– The way government officials handled those incidents (73% of blacks and 59% of whites)

– Poverty and lack of opportunities in some neighborhoods (61% of blacks and 51% of whites)

A majority of blacks (89%) and whites (66%) also agreed that the federal government has a responsibility to make sure police and courts treat whites and minorities equally.

Overall, 49% of Americans said racism is a big problem in our society today, up from 28% in 2011 and somewhat higher than the 41% in a 1995 survey conducted on the heels of the Million Man March.

Opinion: Racism is so deeply embedded in our psyche

The percentage is significantly higher among African-Americans: 66% said racism is a big problem today, up from 50% four years ago but about the same compared with 68% in 1995.

But the most glaring result from the poll, experts said, was the 1 in 5 blacks who said they were treated unfairly by police in the last month.

Graham Holt is a criminal defense attorney in Greensboro, North Carolina. He said the results don’t surprise him.

“I’m in the courthouse and criminal courtrooms Monday through Friday. Every single day, there are thousands of black people in those courtrooms and a handful of white people,” he said.

“One reason the system allows this to happen to black people is because people don’t listen when a black person complains about the police.”

“This is the story, man. I can’t think of anything more important in America right now,” he said. “It’s genocide. They’ve already taken out an entire generation of black men [through incarceration].”

Holt represented Rufus Scales, whose encounters with police were featured in a recent New York Times report on “driving while black.”

Scales and his younger brother Devin were pulled over by police in May 2013 for minor infractions; Scales said he was Tased by an officer. The following summer, the brothers were stopped and questioned as they walked to the store to buy groceries for their grandmother.

“Get out of the street, you morons,” the officer said, according to Scales.

Scales soon was face first on the ground getting handcuffed. Unlike their first encounter, this time his brother had a video camera. Devin recorded the incident on his cell phone. It provided proof that what might seem like an outlandish tale of a black man being arrested for walking down the street really happened.

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“He asked for my ID; I gave him my ID,” Rufus Scales said in the video while on the ground, the officer next to him.

“I don’t know where you live. All I know is you’re out in the middle of the road,” the officer responded. “You cannot sit here and run your mouth and start cursing out in the middle of the street.”

The two brothers were arrested on charges of impeding traffic. Rufus Scales also was charged with resisting arrest and public intoxication. He admitted cursing but denies being intoxicated.

The charges were eventually dropped after the brothers filed a complaint – the video serving as a smoking gun. The city apologized.

Holt said the incident, unfortunately, is all too common for African-Americans.

“I see black people getting pulled over and searched all the time,” he said. “You hardly ever see the cops searching white people.

“If that happened to two white young men, heads would roll.”

The CNN/Kaiser Family Foundation poll was conducted August 25-October 3 among a random national sample of 1,951 adults, including 501 black respondents and 500 Hispanic respondents. Results for all groups have been adjusted to reflect their actual national distribution. Interviews were conducted on conventional telephones and cell phones, in English and Spanish, by SSRS of Media, Pennsylvania. This poll was jointly developed and analyzed by CNN and staff at the Kaiser Family Foundation. Results for the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points; for results based on African Americans or Hispanics it is plus or minus 6 percentage points.