Sophie Sonnenfeld, Contributing Photographer

New research published by Yale affiliates suggests that, despite popular demand for change following the murder of George Floyd, proposals to defund or abolish the police are unlikely to succeed on a national scale

Three Yale experts published the special issue article in the journal “Criminology and Public Policy. The article, titled “Mass support for proposals to reshape policing depends on the implications for crime and safety,” was co-authored by political science professor Gregory Huber and two former postdoctoral fellows in law and social science at the Yale Law School Justice Collaboratory, Kyle Peyton GRD ’17 ’19 and Paige Vaughn. Their research considered public perception of police reform, defunding and abolition and its implications for the viability of respective policy proposals. 

“The motivating question here: Given the unprecedented dissatisfaction with policing and widespread public demands for change that emerged after Floyd’s murder, why were the more politically salient proposals to abolish and defund the police so unpopular among the general public?” Peyton, a current research fellow in political science at Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences, wrote to the News.

Huber, Peyton and Vaughn began this line of research in the summer of 2020, conducting two surveys in June and July concerning the public perception of protests, police spending and the services provided by police. They published an article in the Washington Post in August 2020. 

The researchers then conducted two additional studies that would form the basis of their article in Criminology and Public Policy. They sought to determine whether one of the three major movements to reshape policing could succeed. 

“Answering this question, in part, requires an understanding of how the general voting public interpreted these different proposals, and what they believed each sought to accomplish,” Peyton wrote.

In order to examine public interpretation of said proposals, the researchers considered the potential mechanisms that could explain the lack of support for defunding or abolishing the police. Beginning with the question, “Do unpopular slogans obscure public support for substantive policy goals?” they compared public support for the slogans “abolishing 

the police,” “defunding the police” and “reforming the police,” to support for the substantive policy descriptions associated with said slogans.

“It does not appear that public opinion on efforts to change American policing is substantially different depending on whether one uses short slogans or deeper discussions of policy goals to assess those opinions,” Huber wrote in an email to the News. “Rather, Americans seem, on average, to understand the core goals of different groups of policy advocates.”

Huber, Peyton and Vaughn then considered whether opposition to the proposals reflects different beliefs about the activists associated with the proposals themselves. They used various questions to understand the respondents’ beliefs about supporters of abolishing, defunding and reforming the police in various categories including their race, participation in the 2020 election and support for actions such as the destruction of government property.

“These differences across the different slogans are modest in size and none are statistically distinguishable,” their article concludes, “suggesting that the large gaps in public support among proposals are not explained by large differences in respondents’ beliefs about the protest tactics of supporters.”

The final mechanism that the researchers addressed was investigated using the question,“Does opposition reflect different beliefs about the policies associated with these proposals?”

Huber, Peyton and Vaughn divided the analysis further into two components: perceived support of specific policy changes across each proposal for change and respondents’ beliefs about each groups’ preferences regarding the public service roles of police officers and reductions to the number of police officers on the street. 

“We found consistent evidence that both abolition and defunding were associated with reduced spending on police services and fewer police on the street,” Peyton wrote to the News. “Although some elements of the abolition and defunding proposals were popular (e.g., increased social services), the mass public still preferred police involvement in a wide variety of activities. There was clear opposition to reduced spending on police services, and most believed that cuts to police budgets would increase crime and decrease public safety.”

Despite widespread calls for changes to police practices, the researchers found that proposals to abolish or defund the police are strongly associated with a reduction in active police officers and spending on police services. These associations reduce the level of popular support for such proposals at the national level, indicating that policymakers should clearly articulate their desired proposals, while emphasizing reform that does not propose a reduction in police budgets or the number of officers on the street. 

The study indicates that policies which propose operational changes for police departments and their officers may be more viable options.

“The value of this research is figuring out why people don’t support the defunding and abolition movements,” said Vaughn, who is currently an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Spring Hill College. “The big policy implication is that policymakers and police departments should call for reform and not defunding or abolition.”

While the article focuses on aggregate public opinion, Huber, Peyton and Vaughn acknowledged that their work can be supplemented by future avenues of research including the relationship between public opinion and public policy changes at the local level, the variation of opinion across subgroups and the institutional conditions that prevent popular local and national police reform.

“We need to look at localities because that is where policing is happening and where reforms will occur,” Vaughn said. “We also need to look at subgroups and fair treatment versus punishment — that is our next big step.”

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act did not pass in the United States Senate.

Gavin Guerrette is a junior Humanities major in Branford College. He is Co-Editor in Chief of the Yale Daily News Magazine and a Photography Desk editor. Gavin previously covered faculty scholarship and breakthroughs for the University Desk.