Film the Police Anyway: Questioning the “Ferguson Effect”

photo of protester holding a sign that states, "film the police anyway"
Photo by Ashley K. Farmer in Washington, D.C., December 2014
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photo of protester holding a sign that states, "film the police anyway"
Photo by Ashley K. Farmer in Washington, D.C., December 2014

It is no secret that police officers are dealing with changes and increased media attention to their profession, especially since the expanded use of technology that has prompted citizens to record them more often. Current FBI Director James Comey suggested these changes have occurred due to police-citizen encounters being caught on film with increasing frequency, which has led to a vocal backlash and intense scrutiny against officers, making them reluctant to do their job and combat crime. He called this the “Ferguson Effect”.

The suggestion that citizens filming police is the reason police are hesitant to do their job is not only unfounded but lacks reasoning. The real issue is that if police are fearful their tactics are going to be scrutinized, perhaps those are questionable tactics that do not align with the letter of the law. The implication, as some have pointed out, is that the police cannot do their job without using excessive force or racial profiling. It is unfortunately unsurprising how Comey described police scrutiny. Throughout interviews conducted with police officers, many referred to the “Post-Ferguson Era” – a time when citizens are expressing their discontent with police more often and as part of a movement that challenges the legitimacy of the police institution.

Surely public scrutiny has always been a part of policing, and the filming of police has perhaps only raised awareness about police-citizen interactions. The public, of course, could argue that excessive use of force has been around since long before Ferguson, and bringing injustices to light is an important way to push reform and change tactics in policing. Being videotaped should not make an officer question how they do their job. As one police chief told me, officers should act as if they are always being recorded even if they think no one is watching. This was repeated many times by other law enforcement officers who noted that if you are doing your job the way you are supposed to be doing it, there should be nothing to worry about. Yet while many officers seem agreeable to being filmed by the public and wearing uniform body cameras, there remains some uneasiness about letting the public film their everyday activities.

While numerous police departments are beginning to implement body worn cameras in an effort to promote transparency, this differs significantly from videos captured by the public, as in most cases officers are in control of turning uniform body cameras on/off. Indeed, this is one of the primary concerns citizens have about body cameras – the question of who is in control of creating and disseminating video evidence and facts. The issue of legitimacy is crucial here. Citizens still feel the need to videotape the police, even when uniform body cameras are in use.

Several high-profile incidents have become a matter of public discourse, although officers seem hesitant to denounce the questionable tactics used in these videos (for example, with Eric Garner and Walter Scott). Officers routinely noted that they would not “Monday morning quarterback” the officer involved because videos only show one point of view, and oftentimes this one-sided view does not include what lead up to the incident. As one officer said regarding Eric Garner: “…[W]hat was actually placed wasn’t a full, what they would consider an actual chokehold…But when you wanna sit there and argue, you wanna not comply with what you’re told…You see how one little incident of selling loose cigarettes just turned into a huge incident now because you…just cooperate!” Comments like this align with the notion that police are ‘outsiders’; they are different from other citizens and the public does not understand police work.

Ultimately, being videotaped should not make officers question their job or how to do it. Following the law, respecting the rights of citizens, and adhering to policies of the department would mean there is no reason to question how they perform their public duties. However, as one officer stated, poor tactics can unfortunately lead to justifiable actions. Perhaps this is the real change we should be paying attention to – not necessarily how the police departments attempt to justify their actions, but the poor tactics that led up to those actions in the first place. Regardless of how the police perceive what is happening, the public should film the police anyway, as it remains an important part of the dialogue on police legitimacy.

Ashley K. Farmer
Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice
University of Delaware

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