The widescale protests about racism and defunding police has barely put a dent in overall trust in police in Canada. That’s because concern about crime was a much bigger deal than racism, treatment of minorities, and police funding. But things are changing.
A national public opinion poll by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies (June 12th to June 14th, 2020) shows that as of June 15, 2020, 70% of Canadians agreed that they had trust in their police services, a 16% percentage drop from a high of 81% on May 4, 2020 but pretty well in keeping with the 70% recorded on April 27, a percentage that has remained about the same for years (https://leger360.com/surveys/legers-weekly-survey-june-16-2020/).
Many thought that public trust in Canadian police (it’s way lower in the U.S.) basically cratered since May 25, 2020 when George Floyd was callously killed by a Minneapolis police officer who has given a whole new ugly meaning to “take a knee.” That incident ignited global protests against police, racism, and associated misdeeds throughout history.
So what’s going on here? How can we Canadians possibly trust police as continually rotating news cycles present legions of protesters pouring through streets criticizing police and we keep seeing cops doing dumb things like pulling a prone, emotionally disturbed older woman across the floor by her hair?
The answer to this cognitive dissonance is found by analyzing two things: What people say when they are surveyed versus what information they search for on Google. Sometimes people might lie on a poll, agreeing to something just to fit into what they think is the norm despite it being an anonymous survey. But searching Google is a voluntary thing. No pressure of conforming. A Google search is a private hunt for information about what the person thinks is important, not what is being asked of them.
Data from the Leger public opinion survey: What people were asked
- Trust in police is not absolute. The Leger poll tells us that while 72% of Caucasians in Canada trust police, overall 61% of visible minorities share that trust. In addition barely a majority of visible minorities (57%) felt safe in past interactions with police compared to 78% of Caucasians.
- On a provincial level those who agreed they felt the most safe when interacting with police were in the Atlantic provinces and Quebec (81%) while those who felt the least safe were in Manitoba and Saskatchewan (67%).
- Or maybe people are guessing. In June 2020, in a special report and survey on the reputation of Local Police Services (LPS), Leger analysts wrote “Interestingly, it isn’t bad opinion hampering LPS’s scores, but rather growing unfamiliarity: this year, four-in-ten (40%), are unfamiliar with their LPS (particularly women [46%]), with most admitting they simply don’t know their LPS enough to have an opinion. In previous years, unfamiliarity was closer to 30% (https://leger360.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Police-Reputation-Special-Report.pdf).
Data from public searches on Google for information they think is important
My analysis of various sets of data from the Google Trends search engine tells us the following about the interconnectivity of Canadians and policing issues.
- The national Google search for the topic “police racism” barely moved the needle from April 27 until May 26, one day after the death of George Floyd when it spiked dramatically, dropping again by June 15. What this means is that the protests certainly raised awareness and interest in Canada but the peak has not held. The most dramatic spike in interest came from Manitoba and Ontario.
- Prior to May 26 the issue of far greater concern to Canadians searching Google was the crime rate. In fact it was ofen up to three times the search intensity of police racism. As to public searches for the topic “racism” there was barely a measurable result from April 27 until May 26. And then all hell broke loose. The needle of public interest jumped dramatically, hitting the peak on June 2 and 3 and then declining to today’s current mid-level of interest.
- What the above shows is that the post George Floyd protests dramatically increased public interest where general interest was minimal. But the data also shows that as of June 23 interest is also declining for the topic of racism and especially for “defund police” while public concerns about crime is holding steady.
Where it’s all headed
Sifting through the public opinion polling by Leger and others and especially analyzing Google search patterns provides a number of simmering issues.
- While interest in the topic of “police racism” is much lower it is also stable and wavering upward. This is very likely driven by the continuing news stories and outrageous video of violent police behaviour towards citizens. Issues magnify and grow when there are patterns and parallels seen by the news media and public. There are too many of those now and the most sensational and dramatic is remembered best.
- The search topic “racism” by itself, while peaking, dropping and flattening, is also showing upward life. “Racism” as a search topic is especially very high in British Columbia, the Yukon, NWT, Ontario and Alberta. This is fertile ground for continued protests.
- Remember that Leger tells us that minority groups have far less positive encounters with police than Caucasians and that all overall positive encounters by all residents were lower in BC, Alberta, and Ontario Yukon, NWT, and Nunavut not reported).
- Statistics Canada (2019 projections) shows that the highest populations of minority groups are in BC (32%), Ontario (32%) and Alberta (27%). The highest population of Aboriginal groups are in Nunavut (83%), NWT (52%), and the Yukon (22%). Again, fertile ground for more protests.
Yes, overall trust in Canadian police appears to have slid only somewhat considering the explosive events and ongoing protests. But when we dig deeper into the details we discover the devilish issues that are keeping the flame burning.