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On Police Treatment, Asian-Americans Show Ethnic, Generational Splits

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Protesters attend a rally in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2016, in support of former NYPD Officer Peter Liang, who was convicted of manslaughter and official misconduct for the shooting death of Akai Gurley in a housing development stairwell.
Craig Ruttle, AP
Protesters attend a rally in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2016, in support of former NYPD Officer Peter Liang, who was convicted of manslaughter and official misconduct for the shooting death of Akai Gurley in a housing development stairwell.

Last November, exit pollsters asked almost 14,000 Asian-American voters for the first time, "Do you think that police departments treat racial and ethnic groups equally?"

It was one of four questions the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund was tracking among voters in the fastest-growing racial group in the U.S. Other topics included gun control, LGBT discrimination and immigration, but the issue of police accountability resulted in the most divisive answers.

Overall, half of the Asian-American voters who participated said they did not think that racial and ethnic groups are treated equally, according to poll results. That sentiment was strongest among majorities of multi-ethnic Asian-Americans and those of Korean or Indo-Caribbean descent.

At 32 percent, Cambodian-Americans and Vietnamese-Americans, however, showed the highest levels of responses saying that police treatment is equal. These groups also had the highest share of voters who said they "don't know."

The divisions continued between generations. A strong majority of the youngest Asian-American voters, ages 18 to 29, cited unequal treatment by police, while that view dropped to 32 percent among Asian-Americans age 70 and older.

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Jerry Vattamala, who manages AALDEF's exit polling, says the generational divide may reflect differences in how police encounters are depicted on ethnic media outlets.

"Things sometimes may be covered differently depending on who's involved – whether it's somebody from the community, whether it's the police officer or the person who had the interaction with the police officer," he says.

Before 2016, AALDEF had not asked questions about policing in its exit polls, which started in 1988.

But Vattamala says the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and high-profile cases involving Asians and policing – such as the cases of former NYPD Officer Peter Liang and Sureshbhai Patel, a grandfather from India who was injured by a Alabama police officer — made the topic especially relevant last November.

The relationship between Asian-Americans and law enforcement most recently came to the forefront when cell phone video surfaced of security officers dragging David Dao, a Vietnamese-American doctor, off a United Airlines flight in Chicago.

"Asian-Americans, as they become a growing part of this country, they will inevitably become involved in these interactions," says Vattamala, who adds that AALDEF may ask more questions about policing in exit polls of Asian-American voters this November.

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