In Police/Community Controversies, Vast Majorities Back Special Prosecutors, Body Cams

Large majorities across racial and political groups agree on two proposals to address police-community relations in the United States: The use of an outside prosecutor when police kill an unarmed civilian, and requiring all patrol officers to wear body cameras when on duty.

Eighty-seven percent of Americans in an ABC News/Washington Post poll support calling in an outside prosecutor to investigate such cases, and 86 percent back the mandatory use of so-called body cams. That includes 85 percent or more of blacks, whites and Hispanics alike, and seven in 10 or more across ideological, political and generational lines.

See PDF with full results here.

The issue has been a highly charged one recently. This survey was conducted during the second week of December, before the murder of two police officers in New York City by a gunman said to have been angered by a pair of controversial police killings of unarmed civilians last summer.

Whatever the influence of recent events, concerns about racial fairness are not new. Fifty-four percent in this survey expressed doubt that blacks and other minorities receive equal treatment as whites in the criminal justice system - 44 percent of whites, rising to 60 percent of Hispanics and 89 percent of blacks. It's been as high in some previous ABC/Post polls back to the early 1990s.

Other results of this survey, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, also show a gulf of differing perspectives. Fifty-two percent overall were very or somewhat confident that the police in this country treat whites and blacks equally; 63 percent of whites said so, dropping to four in 10 Hispanics and just 21 percent of African-Americans.

Similarly narrow majorities overall - 54 and 52 percent, respectively - said they feel confident that the police are adequately trained to avoid using excessive force and are held accountable for any misconduct. More, 66 percent, said the police "try hard enough to maintain good relations with different groups in the community" - a view held by three-quarters of whites and nearly six in 10 Hispanics, declining to just 35 percent of blacks.

There were similar differences on whether the fatalities that ignited the controversy - in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York - reflected isolated incidents or broader problems in the treatment of African-Americans by the police. Three-quarters of blacks and half of Hispanics called it a broader problem, compared with only 35 percent of whites.

Differences on these issues are not solely racial or ethnic, but also political, ideological and generational. For example, just among whites, the view that the Ferguson and Staten Island cases reflect a broader problem in police treatment of blacks ranged from 62 percent of Democrats to 30 percent of independents and 17 percent of Republicans. And 70 percent of white Democrats said minorities don't receive equal treatment in the criminal justice system overall; 41 percent of white independents and 29 percent of white Republicans agreed.

There's also an age effect, with concerns about racial inequities generally higher among young adults and lowest among seniors.

Individual circumstances also make a difference. Overall just 31 percent in this poll approved of the grand jury's decision not to charge the police officer in the Staten Island case, while 57 percent disapproved. There was a much closer 48-45 percent division last month on the lack of an indictment in Ferguson.

METHODOLOGY - This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Dec. 11-15, 2014, in English and Spanish, among a random national sample of 1,012 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points, including design effect.

The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y., with sampling, data collection and tabulation by Abt-SRBI of New York, N.Y.