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2017 Public Policy Poll: Public Safety, Substance Use and Mental Health

In recent months, opioid use and its impact on the criminal justice system has taken center stage in policy debates around the country and the commonwealth has been no different. In November 2016, the Virginia State Health Commissioner declared a public health emergency and stated, “The consequences of opioid addiction in Virginia have risen to unprecedented levels and can now be classified as epidemic.”


The recent 2017 Public Policy Poll: Public Safety, Substance Use and Mental Health—conducted by the Center for Public Policy at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University—found strong support for providing treatment to opioid users. More than six out of 10 (61%) respondents felt heroin users and seven out of 10 (72%) said prescription drug abusers should be offered treatment instead of arrested and criminally charged. Similarly, citizens surveyed were also supportive of treatment programs for non-violent offenders who suffer from mental illness instead of incarceration.


Though a majority of all respondents were supportive of treatment for both opioid abusers and those suffering mental illness, those identified as Democrat or Independent (38%) were more supportive of treatment for opioid users than those identified as Republican (24%). However, there was overwhelming support for those suffering mental illness by both Republicans (81%) and Democrats (92%).


As with issues of substance abuse and mental illness, police community relations are also at the forefront of public debate. The events in Baltimore, Tulsa and Charlotte have linked use of force and poor race relations to unfavorable views about the police. Current public opinion in the commonwealth does not show similar results in Virginia. Over three-quarters of poll respondents believe police in their community treat people fairly (78%), do a good job handling race relations in their community (75%), and use the appropriate amount of force in dealing with suspects (73%).


“Public perceptions of police in our community are key to the maintenance of public safety,” said Robyn McDougle, Ph.D., faculty director of the Office of Public Policy Outreach and associate professor of Criminal Justice at the Wilder School.


“As many communities around the country are addressing dismal community police relations, Virginians’ perceptions of police are very favorable, which is a testament to the continual training and outreach that our police departments have done and continue to do around the commonwealth,” she said.


The poll was conducted in partnership with the office of the Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security. It also addressed issues on national security. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of respondents are concerned about terrorist attacks in Virginia, with a majority stating they would be conducted by U.S.-based hate groups.


“The partnership we have with VCU on this poll presents a tremendous opportunity to check the pulse on a variety of public safety and security issues across the commonwealth,” said Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran.


“After surveying the results, I am pleased to see that support for our law enforcement officials is trending positively, and the job they are doing in communities is viewed favorably. The poll also demonstrates support for the governor’s initiatives with regard to mental health and combating the opioid epidemic,” Moran said. “Virginians view opioid abusers and those experiencing lack of treatment for mental illness as an increasingly difficult issue plaguing communities and that treatment options should be available for these users.”


Citizens were not, however, as confident in public safety agencies’ abilities to respond to acts of terrorism in the commonwealth. Slightly less than three-quarters of respondents (71%) indicated they were concerned about public safety agencies being unable to protect residents from such attacks.


“Terrorist attacks around the world are becoming regularly reported news events and the commonwealth's proximity to the nation’s capital has kept concerns regarding personal safety at the forefront of our citizens' thoughts. Recent poll responses highlight the need for continual community conversations and preparations,” McDougle said.


The 2017 Public Policy Poll: Public Safety, Substance Use and Mental Health, conducted by the Office of Public Policy Outreach in the Center for Public Policy at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, obtained telephone interviews with a representative sample of 1,000 adults living in Virginia. The survey was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. The interviews were administered from December 1 to 20, 2016. Statistical results are weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies. The margin of sampling error for the complete set of weighted data is ±4.1 percentage points.

2017 Public Policy Poll: Public Safety, Substance Use and Mental Health