The liberal vs. conservative debate over this topic illustrates the tenacity of those advocating for their point-of-view over and above the welfare of those most directly impacted by this issue. Here we find those stuck in the middle of this debate, the police officers who are now frustrated and possibly demoralized by recent events and the decent, honest, law-abiding citizens who rely on the police for the wellbeing of themselves and their families.
Police officers in larger departments, like those in Chicago, Baltimore, and St. Louis, are often nothing more than pawns in a political chess game. The everyday police officer on the street has no direct control over departmental policy or procedure, they can’t influence legislation any more so than a typical citizen, and are restricted from speaking for themselves when asked by the media. Their mission is to enforce the law and maintain order in a now hyper-sensitive political environment where their actions are scrutinized, criticized and second-guessed at every opportunity.
Police officers are without a doubt the best source of actual data on the Ferguson effect but are generally prohibited from cooperating with researchers. Some news outlets have attempted to reach out to designated “Public Information Officers” who are allowed to speak with the media. In one recent article posted by the American Conservative, officers stated that they weren’t afraid of doing their jobs, or being recorded while they do their jobs. They instead stated that “what we’re worried about is being thrown to the wolves by our superiors if we wind up in the spotlight.”
A study conducted in 1999 by Dr. Robert Ankony, showed that when police officers feel alienated and that they’ve been hung out to dry, they will retreat from their duties as a matter of self-preservation. A second, more recent, study showed that officers who are confident in their skills and authority, and who perceive that their agency is, at a minimum, fair when evaluating their performance, are often the most productive officers on the street, regardless of any potential negative press coverage their actions may generate.
There are no nationwide police satisfaction surveys which could identify the concerns that citizens have about the police services they are receiving. The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which is an annual survey of approximately 90,000 homes across the country, only deals with victimization by others and doesn’t ask any law enforcement services related questions. Again, the only potential source of data is the media, which can clearly be skewed whichever the editor or publisher would like it to go.
One such report, published by Vox, identified that while the poorest black communities are the most susceptible to over-policing, they are also the communities that need the police the most and feel the greatest strain from under-policing. Some members of the black community decry the fact that blacks are overrepresented when it comes to police contacts (stops, arrests, etc.). Unfortunately, they are also the most overrepresented when it comes to being victims of crime.
So who is right and who is…less right? Two questions are worth asking here. First, what are the relative strengths and weaknesses of the supporting studies and documents? Both sides promote their studies as being scientific and infallible but each must be examined more thoroughly before those claims can be confirmed.
Secondly, we must examine the motivations of each side, understanding the position upon which an argument is based gives us the ability to judge credibility. Are they supporting the issue to keep the media buzz alive and sell more newspapers or do they support the premise in hopes of seeking meaningful change? Do the detractors rally against the ‘Ferguson Effect’ because admitting it would highlight the failure of current and historic social policies? Are those who support it motivated by a desire to return to the no nonsense crime control policies of the past? Undoubtedly, the truth lies somewhere in between.
If we are to conclude that the data, on both sides, appears to be far from conclusive at this point, then why does this issue persist? In order to fully evaluate this question, we must determine who has the most to gain, and lose, in this debate. If there were nothing to profit from continuing this argument, it would die on the vine like any other stale news story. Perhaps, in the end, it is the news media who wins. The “pro-Ferguson Effect” seemingly has a small contingent of authors, while the “anti-Ferguson Effect” crowd has a plethora of journalists waiting to publish stories.
Of course the Brennen Center and the “anti-Ferguson” folks aren’t the only ones that profit from this argument. FBI Director James Comey is a public employee, however he does command a $9.5 billion dollar budget, which, in 2017, calls for cutting almost 700 positions. If there was a major uptick in the crime trend, as the pro-Ferguson Effect supporters indicate, Comey may have a better chance at saving some of those positions.
Unfortunately, while journalists and organization leaders battle it out over the Internet and airwaves, the citizens and the police in these impoverished neighborhoods live the reality every day. The fact is that everyone seems to agree that crime is on the rise, especially crimes of violence and homicide. Citizens are under attack, and while every indication given by major police leaders is that officers continue to do their jobs, officers are under attack as well, as evidenced by recent events in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Do incidents like that have an effect on the willingness of police to go the extra mile? Undoubtedly yes. The name of this trend is irrelevant now, one could just as easily call this the “Chicago Effect” or the “Dallas Effect.” So, does the ‘Ferguson Effect” exist? One only has to look in the faces of the citizens and the police on the streets to know that it does.
Dr. Patrick Solar is an Assistant Professor for the online criminal justice master’s degree program at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville with nearly 30 years of service as a police officer. He currently serves on the governing board for the Law Enforcement Accreditation Program (ILEAP), setting the standards for professional law enforcement in Illinois.