Lincoln Park candlelight vigil

People began to gather June 6 in Lincoln Park for a candlelight vigil to remember black lives lost to police brutality.

ALBANY (TNS) — An overwhelming majority of New Yorkers back federal police reforms — including banning chokeholds and creating a national database of officer misconduct — but are hesitant to support widespread calls to defund the police, according to a Siena College Research Institute poll.

The calls for change — heightened in recent weeks after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery — gained momentum as thousands took to the streets to protest police brutality and racial injustice.

A majority of New Yorkers support efforts to reduce police violence, such as demilitarizing the police; requiring mental health professionals to respond with police on some 911 calls; and ending qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that shields officers from liability if they violate someone’s civil rights while on duty.

Respondents to the poll, the results of which were released Tuersday, were less inclined to reduce funding to police departments or defund them entirely, with about 60% of those surveyed opposing those suggestions overall.

There was a visible split in support for those notions by race, with a majority of black New Yorkers supporting both ideas.

But New Yorkers are overall in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement and overwhelmingly agreed with the anti-police brutality protests that engulfed much of the nation at the beginning of the month. Support was strongest among Democrats, New York City voters and black residents. Republicans, meanwhile, opposed the demonstrations, associating them with rioting.

About 20% of New Yorkers said that they or a member of their household participated in at least one protest over the past several weeks.

New Yorkers also back the state’s efforts to combat police brutality, with 80% of respondents throwing support behind the 10-bill criminal justice reform package passed by the state Legislature at the beginning of June. The measures included a requirement for state troopers to wear body cameras; a mandate that courts document race, ethnicity and sex data for arrests and court proceedings involving low-level offenses; and the repeal of 50-a, the statute that has long shielded the release of police disciplinary records.

“By an overwhelming 80-13% margin, voters say the recently passed legislation — including a ban on chokeholds by police, making disciplinary measures public and having a special unit in the State Attorney General’s office to investigate and prosecute civilian killings by police officers — will be good for New York,” Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg said. “At least two-thirds of voters from every race, party, region and age agree.”

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the bills earlier this month in a New York City ceremony, where he was joined by the mothers of black men killed by police. Survey respondents, by a margin of 57-24%, said they approved of the governor’s response to Floyd’s killing. Floyd died May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer — later charged with murder — kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Tuesday’s poll also surveyed overall sentiments about racism, police brutality and the criminal justice system. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said the police killings of Floyd and Rayshard Brooks are representative of longstanding police violence toward black people, and roughly the same number said racism is a “very” or “somewhat” serious problem.

Sixty percent of those surveyed also said people of color are treated unfairly within New York’s criminal justice system. New Yorkers overall hold favorable views of their local police departments — by a 70-22% margin — though that number is down from the 81% of voters that approved of their local police forces in January 2015.

Meanwhile, Cuomo has maintained a roughly 65% favorability rating since last month’s Siena survey, and 76% of voters approve of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Voters continue to give Cuomo high grades — strong favorability and job performance ratings — and continue to strongly approve of his overall handling of the pandemic,” Greenberg said. “While voters still give Cuomo a slightly negative rating for his handling of nursing homes, they give him exceptionally positive ratings for his communicating with New Yorkers about the pandemic and for his reopening plans.”

Siena polled 806 registered voters between June 23 and 25. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.

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