About a year ago, Charles Ramsey, the chief of police in Philadelphia, was at the bedside of a fallen officer who told him a chilling story. The cop had interrupted a robbery and stopped the suspects, but got shot in the process—a bullet grazed his temple. When Ramsey asked the officer exactly what happened, the cop said he saw the suspect’s gun and, for a split second, thought of Ferguson and the unrest over police killings of people of color. He hesitated, and that’s when he got shot.
Last month, FBI director James Coney argued in a speech at the University of Chicago Law School that criticism of police has led to a change in how cops perform their jobs, and he said that has contributed to a spike in crime. Comey said, “So the suggestion, the question that has been asked of me, is whether these kinds of things are changing police behavior all over the country. And the answer is, I don’t know. I don’t know whether this explains it entirely, but I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year. And that wind is surely changing behavior.”
At first blush, that struck me as bullshit. I refused to believe either part of Comey’s assertion: that officers are policing differently and that that has led to a rise in crime. In reality, crime fluctuates in much more complex ways than that. The idea that the Black Lives Matter’s critiques have made cops more, let’s say, reticent to do their jobs seems to contradict thetough and unrelenting mentality I’ve always associated with police. Even Chief Ramsey questions whether the so-called ” Ferguson effect” is real. “There’s no data to support it, one way or another,” the chief has said.
So I called two officers I know in two major cities who spoke to me anonymously. At first, both said that yes, in fact, the protests and the criticism of policing and the general media firestorm around it has had a significant impact on how officers feel and how they behave.
State of Emergency: Ferguson, Missouri
One of the officers I spoke with is a veteran in a major city and a leader in his department. I asked him if the Ferguson effect was real and right away he said, “Absolutely. It’s in the back of their head,” he added, referring to the protests and the consequences some cops have had to face. “Real cops who are used to doing the right thing and arresting the right people are now mindful of being caught on video doing something that they’re supposed to be doing, but doesn’t look good. That split second of should he do this or not, that could get him hurt.” The officer added that he could see where some cops might view their job as too risky, and police less aggressively as a result. “If you were in a job where you’re being crucified no matter what you do, why would you do it?” the officer said. “We’re going to get paid the same, whether I put my hands on this guy or not. If I put my hands on this guy, I risk my career, I risk all kinda punishments, what’s the point?”
I’m told many officers feel like they’re constantly at risk of being virtually crucified because, they say, they just aren’t supported in this current political environment. To them, cops have to do ugly-looking police work that makes sense in context, but a video that excludes said context is often what goes viral. And then the local mayor and police chief usually side with the victim because that makes good political sense. The officer might then get fired, embarrassed, and maybe even jailed—left out to dry so that #BlackLivesMatter can collect a scalp and a politician can look good by giving it to them.
I spoke with another veteran officer, one who’s working in a mid-sized city and used to be in the military. “In law enforcement,” he said, “when cops feel like the command has their back and they’re supported, they tend to do more. But I think some cops feel like they may be thrown under the bus. They’re waiting to be the one on channel five. They’re like, ‘What do you want me to do? I’m coming to work, I’m trying to do what’s right, if I stop somebody, I automatically got 20 cameras on me, I’m being accused of being racist, especially if I’m white. So you’re asking me to put my life on the line every day and if I make one mistake, I’m going to be all over the news and I’m gonna be fired and my family, my livelihood, everything could be taken away from me in a split second, all over a mistake? Cuz of a mistake I could lose everything.’ I think that does stop people. It makes people pause. When I don’t have support from my command staff, how can I go out and do my job to the fullest of my capacity? I might be the next one on the chopping block! I don’t get paid enough to be bait. I don’t get paid enough to worry about getting indicted. That’s scary. The stronger Black Lives Matter gets as a unit, the more power they take away from the police.”
Still, both officers insisted they have not seen officers shying away from duty. “The guys I work, with we go out and we do what we gotta do,” one of the officers said. I keep hearing this over and over from officers and from people who work with them:
Officers are upset with the lack of political support they’re getting and they feel under assault, but in spite of a very hostile climate, they continue to do their jobs. “It hasn’t slowed us down and I think there are a lot of people like us.”
Photo via Wikimedia Commons user Ciar
The Ferguson effect isn’t real. Phillip Atiba Goff, a UCLA professor who studies policing, echoed that finding in his research. “I was in Chicago recently talking to officers,” Goff told me. “One said, ‘A lot of us are worried that we’re not gonna get union support or department support and we’re going to get fired in order to respond to public criticism.’ I said, ‘OK, but are you not doing your job?’ ‘Oh no, I’m doing my job.’ ‘So you still respond to calls?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘And you’re being proactive in the community?’ ‘Of course, I do that. Oh yeah. It’s harder. We signed up for a really difficult job and I’m not a little boy. I go and do my job and I do it well, but I have to say all the media makes it harder.'”
Goff says the idea that cops are de-policing, or having a work slowdown, is an old one. “This is not the first time a claim like this has been levied against law enforcement. Whenever law enforcement gets criticized in a national lens, this argument comes up. Studies have found no relationship between the concern that law enforcement feels and them not doing their job and that police behavior did not contribute to any uptick in violent crime. This is not a new argument and it’s never been right ever before.”
We need to police the police and the only ones who can truly do that are the people.
Goff pointed to a Harvard study that followed the LAPD as it was monitored by the Department of Justice while under a consent decree.
Officers told researchers that they were afraid to make stops for fear of being punished and that the changes instituted because of the consent decree were impeding their ability to do their job. Some suggested that de-policing might occur. The report found the opposite. “We must ask if the fear of punishment—whether or not connected to the consent decree—is holding the LAPD back from enforcing the law? The answer appears to be an emphatic no. When we turn to the actual use of police powers, we see that the LAPD has been increasing both the quantity and the quality of its enforcement activity. De-policing, in short, does not appear to be a problem in Los Angeles under the consent decree.” Stops per officer increased 39 percent and there was little change in the racial distribution of stops, showing again that even though officers were reacting emotionally to being criticized and asked to change, they still went out and did their jobs.
The officers I spoke with said a lot of cops are stressed and anxious and feeling like they’re trapped in a game they can’t win. The ubiquity of cameras and the strength of Black Lives Matter has increased police accountability and raised the pressure on their already-difficult jobs. Citizens nowadays are more emboldened, they say, more disdainful and more disrespectful. “You have to look at the community and the police as being in a marriage,” one of the officers told me. “But she cheats. I cheat. She doesn’t support me. I come to work and put my life on the line, but i don’t trust her and she don’t trust me. Most of the time we’re around each other it’s on bad terms. And then my parents, the politicians, are takin’ her side and not supporting me.
“So i’m in a marriage where my wife and my parents don’t support me, and my wife is more boisterous than ever because she sees my parents don’t support me,” he continued. “So when I ask her for a meal, she throws food at me! And I can’t leave this marriage. That’s kinda what it feels like to a lot of cops.”
Photo via Flickr user Blind Nomad
It seems natural and understandable that American police officers could be emotionally hurt by the critiques being thrown at them and could be stressed by the extra pressures being put on them. I buy that. But the police cannot be so sensitive that they are beyond criticism. And we see that the men and women who patrol the streets are not as hurt by the criticism as their leaders suggest. In spite of everything, the police are still vigorously policing. They tend to have a deep sense of duty and they know they signed up for a difficult and dangerous job, so making it more challenging does not phase them. But we also need to police the police and the only ones who can truly do that are the people. That is what Black Lives Matter is attempting to do. But if BLM has increased the sense of accountability that’s laid on the police and thus shaved away a bit of their power, then you know power must fight back. And I can’t help but wonder if the FBI director’s comments were meant to make people believe that BLM, not police brutality, is the real problem; that they’re the ones raising the temperature so much that cops are at risk, which puts citizens at risk. In reality, the Ferguson effect appears to be nothing more than ploy to delegitimize BLM and poison their message.