Following months of sustained calls for structural changes at the scandal-battered Boston Police Department, a new poll shows that city voters have a complicated and nuanced view of the city’s force, with just over half of respondents agreeing that its officers generally do a good job.
The poll of 500 Boston voters by Suffolk University and the Globe indicates many likely voters appear to harbor more moderate views on issues of policing than some local progressive political candidates and advocates who are calling for a continued overhaul of the department.
The survey found 53 percent of likely Boston voters endorse the general sentiment that Boston police treat people of different races fairly, even if there are some officers on the force who do not. Meanwhile, 35 percent generally agreed that Boston police are often racist in the way they treat people, even if some try to be even-handed. Nine percent were undecided.
There was a racial divide in the answers to that question: 57 percent of white residents polled thought police did a good job, while 32 percent thought BPD officers were often racist. For Black Bostonians, 45 percent of those polled thought police generally did a good job while 42 percent polled thought BPD was racist.
Jamie King, a 34-year-old Black woman from Dorchester, said her trust in BPD has diminished significantly in the past year.
“One bad apple spoils the bunch. And if you don’t want your bunch spoiled,” she said, then every officer “needs to do what they’re supposed to do.”
A mother of two Black boys, King said she fears for herself and the safety of her sons, adding she finds it heartbreaking that her family hesitates to call the police in an emergency.
“You call for help, and the next thing you know, something bad might happen,” she said. “They don’t know how to deescalate situations — they’re trained to kill and think about the consequences after. But these are people’s lives we’re talking about, they’re never going to come back.”
King isn’t alone; more than a third of those polled said their trust in Boston police had diminished during the last year. Ken Fisher, a 51-year-old South End resident, was among that group. Fisher, who is white, said there is no reason to believe Boston is immune to the policing problems seen elsewhere in the country.
“Ever since George Floyd’s murder we have all [borne] a responsibility to open our eyes and take a closer look and assume that this problem is prevalent and pervasive until we start to see some changes,” he said.
Still, more than half — 53 percent — said their trust in the department remained unchanged during the last year, while fewer than one in eight respondents said their trust had increased in that time.
Blair Toland, a 45-year-old white Dorchester resident, said his trust in Boston police has not changed during the past year, adding that he was “skeptical to begin with” regarding the police. He did feel there were times when Boston police were “a little heavy-handed” with demonstrators in recent months, but added that local officers have also displayed restraint.
“My feeling is that it’s better than most places,” he said of policing in Boston.
He said while there is “some crime” in his neighborhood, “it does feel like it is a safe place.”
The department has been riven by controversy in recent months. Most notably, Acting Mayor Kim Janey fired commissioner Dennis White earlier this month, following the resurfacing of decades-old domestic violence allegations against him. White has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
A majority of likely voters agree with Janey’s action, the poll found: 52 percent thought White’s firing was justified, and just 14 percent thought White was unfairly fired.
Henry Key, a 75-year-old Black man who lives in Hyde Park, said he has been impressed with Janey, specifically with her handling of the White situation.
“I think she did the right thing,” he said.
Following White’s firing, Janey announced she would launch a nationwide search for a new commissioner. Gregory Long remains acting commissioner, as he has since White was placed on administrative leave in February.
Janey is one of six top candidates vying in this year’s mayoral race, a field that includes City Councilors Andrea Campbell, Annissa Essaibi George, and Michelle Wu; former economic development chief for the city John Barros; and state Representative Jon Santiago.
In the poll, 37 percent of residents thought Boston should hire an outsider to lead the department, while 43 percent favored promoting from within, and 18 percent were undecided. The last three permanent commissioners — White, William Gross, and William Evans — have come from within BPD’s ranks.
Former mayor Martin J. Walsh, who was roundly criticized for failing to properly vet White before appointing him to commissioner, continues to enjoy broad popularity despite the recent events. About 72 percent of voters said they approve of the job he did as mayor, while roughly 21 percent gave him bad marks.
White’s firing was not the only scandal to rock Boston police in recent months.
A recent Globe investigation revealed the department determined in 1995 that Patrick M. Rose Sr., the onetime president of the city’s powerful patrolmen’s union, had more than likely molested a 12-year-old child. The department had repeatedly refused to release the case files or discuss why Rose, who is now charged with sexually abusing five additional children, continued as a patrolman and had access to children.
Rose has maintained his innocence and pleaded not guilty to related charges.
Meanwhile, 14 officers have so far been charged in an ongoing scandal involving fraudulent overtime pay among employees of the department’s evidence warehouse.
Despite those controversies, only 6 percent of respondents said police reform was the most important issue that would affect their mayoral vote. Eleven percent said crime is their top issue. Housing topped the list, with 20 percent of respondents saying it was the most important issue. That was followed closely by “racism/justice/equality” at 19 percent.
Kevin Wozniak, a sociology professor at UMass Boston, thought the last category could be interpreted broadly and include issues such as policing. He said the survey respondents skewed middle-aged and older and college-educated. Younger Bostonians, he said, were underrepresented.
“The perspectives of young Bostonians who actually participated in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations — very few of them were included in this poll,” he said.
Pollster David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, said the poll required respondents to opt in by indicating they were likely to vote in the Sept. 14 preliminary election, including by naming the month of the preliminary election. The top two finishers in the preliminary will face off in the Nov. 2 general election.
“This is not a census exercise, this is: ‘Who votes in a preliminary election?’ ” said Paleologos, who indicated those elections tend to draw older voters.
Questions that probe people’s opinions of police typically tap into their feelings of law and order in society, said Wozniak.
“Does society feel OK, or does society feel chaotic?” he said. “There’s not much that can happen in American society that would change people’s opinions of police.”
Taking funding from police and putting it toward social services received strong support in the poll; 60 percent said they would support such a change. About 31 percent were opposed, while slightly fewer than 8 percent were undecided. Funding for the police is a hotly debated issue in the city, most recently over the department’s overtime spending and overall budget.
The poll, conducted from last Wednesday through Saturday, featured live callers who surveyed respondents likely to vote in Boston’s September preliminary election by cellphone and landline, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
Globe correspondents Kate Lusignan, Ivy Scott, and Jasper Goodman contributed to this report.