The Ferguson Effect: A Critical Perspective from Police Officers in Local Police Departments

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The Ferguson Effect suggests that police officers are aware of the negative media coverage surrounding their occupation and know that the public might record their conduct, which then leads to police officers being unwilling to perform their work to avoid accusations of excessive force or racial profiling (Rushin & Edwards, 2017; Wolfe & Nix, 2016). This is a controversial concept that implies police officers across the United States, particularly in major cities, have become less proactive in public safety efforts since the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, in August of 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri (Martinez, 2015; Sutton, 2015).

Some scholars and commentators have supported the existence of the Ferguson Effect (H. Mac Donald, 2015; see also Nix &Wolfe, 2015, 2016; Pyrooz et al., 2016; Ross, 2015; Wolfe & Nix, 2016), while Wolfe & Nix (2015) have argued that increased public scrutiny has led to de-policing where police officers are afraid to engage criminals or suspects in certain situations for fear of public scrutiny. However, very few of these scholars and commentators have been able to provide conclusive proof of the existence of the phenomenon through the conduct of credible empirical research.

As a result, researchers have sought to understand the Ferguson Effect phenomenon and its impact on police officers’ behavior, distrust, and willingness to engage with minority populations due to increased media scrutiny. To date, scant empirical attention has been directed on how events might negatively affect police officers. Utilizing survey data from 567 officers, Nix and Wolfe (2017) examined whether perceptions of negative publicity had an adverse impact on the officer’s feelings of self-legitimacy. The findings showed that officers who were de-motivated due to negative publicity reported less self-legitimacy. However, the level to which officers felt their occupation had become riskier due to negative media coverage had no significant impact on one’s self-legitimacy. More so, these findings expand the understanding of self-legitimacy as a concept and show that negative coverage surrounding law enforcement poses a challenge to the confidence of officers within their authority which may have essential implications to the community.

As such, to better understand the impact of the Ferguson Effect and how it influences police officers, I recruited seven police officers of varying ranks across three police departments in the Midwest and Southeastern United States. All seven participants were aware of the critical lens surrounding their occupation and were willing to participate in an interview that focused on the broader question of “How has the Ferguson Effect influenced the culture and perceptions of police officers in local departments?” All seven participants acknowledged awareness of the Ferguson Effect.  In fact, participants 3 and 4 shared with me that “the Ferguson Effect has been present during their entire law enforcement career.” This research study suggests, despite the awareness of the Ferguson Effect, the majority of the participants do not believe it affects how they discharge their mandates and how they respond to events. However, the research findings for how the Ferguson Effect impacts the culture of the department is divided with officer’s reacting differently based on their own life experiences.

Participant 3 intimated:

From my experience, the Ferguson Effect means to me is, basically, officers having to second guess themselves, when they only have seconds to make decisions in the first place. It is creating an environment of hesitancy in doing your job and taking action.

Participant 4 recalled:

I remember when I was on patrol, especially towards the end, we were told we had some burglaries in the area. Like in our more residential areas, we were having a lot of auto burglaries and the information was passed from the investigation division, that they were being done by young black males. So, it was put out, when you see a black male, get out and talk to him. Because of personal experience, I cannot classify every black male as somebody that is going out and robbing people. So, when I heard that we needed to get out and interview any young black male that we saw walking or whatever, I could not do it. It had nothing to do with me fearing them, it had everything to do with, you cannot do that because it is totally unfair to the person. It is like, I am going to get out with you because you are black, you cannot do that, that is how you make people feel like they are less than human. Sorry, you cannot walk out here because your skin is the wrong color, if you are white, I would not bother you. But, since you are black, let me see what is inside of your backpack, like you cannot do that.

The Ferguson Effect is a concept that law enforcement as well as the American public is aware of due to the negative media coverage scrutinizing policing tactics such as racial profiling and excessive force incidents between police officers and Black/Latino males. For this reason, prior research on this topic has suggested that it has become difficult for police officers to carry out their sworn duties with certain segments of the population, resulting in the police becoming less proactive in public safety efforts due to the fear of negative media scrutiny. The current study concluded that police officers are definitely aware of the Ferguson Effect, but they don’t believe it has an impact on how they conduct their duties.  Although there were differences between officers regarding how they reacted to the culture within their departments.  Given these points, it is important that researchers continue to build off of these previous studies to continue to understand the impact of the Ferguson Effect on how police officers complete their required duties as well as the impact it has on the culture within the department.

Rarkimm K. Fields, Ph.D.

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