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Town Hall Examines Public Opinion on Local Police Reform, Criminal Justice


Last fall, the College-Community Partnership for Racial Justice, sponsored by Hamilton’s Levitt Center Law and Justice Lab, held a series of eight webinars focused on racial equity and police reform. Since then, the partnership has collected and organized data from multiple surveys aimed at gauging public opinion on these issues. The results were discussed by Patrick Johnson of Save our Streets, Utica College Professor Bernard Hyman, SUNY Polytechnic Institute Professor Veronica Tichenor, and Hamilton Professors Frank Anechiarico and Gbemende Johnson in a virtual town hall on Feb. 11.

The three surveys were created to “ask questions about community wellness, interactions with police, and thoughts on alternative forms of policing,” as described by Professor Johnson. One survey of Oneida and Herkimer county residents was conducted by Zogby Strategies, another was conducted via text, and the third was collected on the streets of Utica’s Cornhill neighborhood. 

“There are many good police officers,” Patrick Johnson stated at the event’s opening. The other panelists echoed this sentiment and framed their constructive criticism with sincere hope for change. “However,” he added, “when people feel that they are not respected by [those] who were hired to protect and serve, they lose trust.” 

This sentiment was reflected by some data presented and analyzed during the town hall. In the survey conducted around Cornhill, respondents — two-thirds of whom were African American — indicated relatively low levels of trust in their local police department, especially when compared to respondents in the other surveys, the vast majority of whom were white. Other questions followed a similar pattern, with opinion largely divided along lines of race and class. 

Anechiarico addressed an audience suggestion that a higher crime rate might contribute to such discrepancies by citing research done by Hamilton and Utica College students and professors on the best practices for policing. “One of the things we did discover ... is that there’s a proclivity to arrest people in minority neighborhoods,” he explained. “There’s an assumption of criminality in these neighborhoods.   It’s not that there’s more crime — there’s more arrests, there’s more police presence.” 

Some questions asked in the surveys, Tichenor noted, did elicit agreement across demographics. Respondents mostly indicated that racism and ethnic bias in the police and court systems is a problem, that alternative interventions for domestic violence or mental health calls would be welcomed, and that police officers should live where they work. This final point, she said, “suggests a desire for an improved relationship between residents of a neighborhood and the police who serve them.”

Broadening the scope of the discussion, Hyman stressed that future racial equity-oriented reforms should target far more than criminal justice, turning the viewers’ attention to education. “Having been a prosecutor, listening to defendants who are about to be sent off to prison being asked the question ‘how far did you go in school’ ... a number of them [would] say eighth grade, seventh grade,” he recalled. “This problem is beyond the criminal justice system.”

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