Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Researchers and law enforcement officials say cops are afraid to do their jobs due to their portrayal on social media. Recent events suggest otherwise.
During the Republican presidential debate Wednesday night, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie waded into the tiff between FBI director James Comey and President Obama over whether there’s been a “Ferguson Effect” on crime. There hasn’t, but Christie said at the debates:
“The FBI director, the President’s appointed FBI director, has said this week that because of a lack of support from politicians like the President of the United States, that police officers are afraid to get out of their cars, that they’re afraid to enforce the law … and … that crime is going up because of this.”
Tragically and ironically, Christie made these comments at the same time that police in Ferguson, Missouri, and neighboring city Normandy were scrambling to explain how 18-year-old Amonderez P. Green allegedly shot himself in the face after chasing him. According to the St. Louis Dispatch, Green’s family members had initially called the police out of concerns that he needed “police and medical intervention.” When police approached him, according to news reports, the teen flashed a firearm and then exchanged gunshots with police, which led to the chase.
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Whether police shot the young man or not, the incident goes against Christie’s theory. Officers in this situation were neither afraid to get out of their cars nor to give chase, and in an area just miles from where the so-called “Ferguson Effect” took root.
The victim, Green, is far from being the only African American to get injured or die under questionable or disputed circumstances involving police since protests against police-involved deaths in Ferguson and across the country have happened. And police have not been shy about pursuing, shooting, and even killing African Americans since the Ferguson protests and riots—not even in the region where the police killing of the unarmed teen Michael Brown took place.
Which is why it’s somewhat confusing that many insist on cementing the “Ferguson Effect” as a legitimate phenomenon, when so many variables prove otherwise. Yes, violent crime has risen in some cities, but mostly in cities where violence was on an uptick before police killed Brown in Ferguson.
University of South Carolina researcher Scott Wolfe and University of Louisville researcher Justin Nix acknowledge as much in a new study they published for the American Psychological Association. For the study, Wolfe and Nix posit that while a supposed “Ferguson Effect” likely can’t be measured in terms of elevated violence, it could still register due to negative press on police—and how that affects police willingness to work with communities.
Meaning that they believe a “Ferguson Effect” exists, if only potentially, but that we need a metric other than violent crime rates to find it. In search of said “effect,” Wolfe and Nix surveyed 567 sheriff’s deputies from a station in an undisclosed location in the Southeast United States. The best “way to determine whether such a Ferguson Effect exists is to ask officers themselves,” write the researchers.
This is the question they put to the deputies: Does the “Ferguson Effect”—as indicated by reduced motivation stemming from negative publicity—influence deputies’ willingness to engage in community partnership?
What they heard back was that police were feeling bogged down by all the bad press, to the point that many weren’t so hype about doing the kind of community engagement increasingly called for in police reform efforts. However, the researchers found, optimistically, that such discouragement could be counterbalanced by an instilled sense of “organizational justice” and “self-legitimacy” among law enforcement officials.
In other words, if police believe they are being treated fairly and justly by their supervisors, then they would be more willing to productively engage with civilians. Same for “self-legitimacy,” which the study’s authors define as “officers who have greater confidence in their own authority.” Both President Obama and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch have expressed similar sentiments about the need to boost police morale so that they’ll better engage with communities.
“We are often quick to ask how events such as Ferguson affect citizens,” write the study’s authors, “but rarely do we consider whether these events are harmful to the police. This is perhaps an equally important question.”
By this logic, we should be as concerned about the harm done by bad press to Columbia, South Carolina, police officer Sam Fields—based on outcries against the way he animal-handled a young, orphaned, female student—as we are concerned about the actual harm Fields delivered to the student. This thinking ignores the fact that if police didn’t rough and shoot up African Americans with such regularity, then getting captured on camera would not be a problem. Based off the study, police apparently desire sensitivity that many officers do not afford to the citizens they’re sworn to protect—black citizens in particular.
There are two other major problems with the study. For one, the original concept of the “Ferguson Effect” has been taken well out of context, if not completely perverted. The authors define it as the escalation of crime as a direct result of police feeling muzzled by camera phones and media scrutiny. They reference articles in The New York Post and from the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald written after the Baltimore riots this past May, which embrace this definition. Christie’s theory of rising crime due to a lack of White House support represents the fullest perversion of the “Ferguson Effect” meme.
But none of these are in alignment with the definition espoused by St. Louis police chief Sam Dotson, who was one of the first, if not the first, to reference it back in November 2014. Speaking to The St. Louis-Dispatch, Dotson explained the “Ferguson Effect” as having to do with a “criminal element [that] is feeling empowered by the environment,” and worried that his force did not have the manpower or resources to always deal with that. This sentiment was echoed by St. Louis County police chief Jon Belmar.
University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist Rick Rosenfeld explained in that article that:
“Arrests have declined substantially … and it’s not necessarily that individual officers are giving up, it’s because normal officers are being taken off their normal beat activities for training and protest events, so arrests go down.”
The only person to mention bad police publicity as a possible cause of rising crime in that article was St. Louis police union president Gabe Crocker, who said: “With all the criticism of police departments, that could signify weakness and could encourage them to engage in additional criminal behavior.”
Blaming the media is only a convenient foil for a tough discussion about the lack of resources needed for public safety.
The study also uses the wrong starting point, as do its references, when describing this supposed effect. Well before police killed Brown and riots broke out, the city of Ferguson was already having an effect on African-American lives through shakedown tactics employed by police and courts for years. As the U.S. Justice Department investigation found, cities around St. Louis County were arresting and fining black residents to death for meager offenses like traffic tickets and walking in the streets.
The study’s conclusion is as flawed as its premise. If the idea is that the Ferguson Effect is the result of officers’ “reduced motivation stemming from negative publicity,” that doesn’t seem to square with instances of police reform initiatives launched in recent months.
Police chiefs met this week in Chicago, where violent crime has escalated tremendously, to discuss better community engagement; FBI director Comey even spoke there on what the police could learn from Black Lives Matter. The convening coincided with a declaration from law enforcement officials that they would be working to reverse mass incarceration trends. Ferguson police aren’t involved in that effort, but they’ve been involved in internal reform processes that would bring uniform policing standards across St. Louis County.
This, of course, could all be window dressing. But on its face, it seems to negate the idea that poor police press leads to rising crime and less police willingness to engage with communities. Nor is Christie’s theory about lack of federal support correct, given that the U.S. Justice Department has been making it rain with funding for local police efforts, especially since Ferguson.
The best course here is probably to stop looking for ways to make the “Ferguson Effect” phrase stick, and focus more on how to sustain efforts to hold police accountable to the communities that need the most protection.