Nearly half of patrol officers surveyed nationally say they have cut back on traffic and pedestrian stops, confirming that a suspected “Ferguson Effect” is significantly affecting proactive policing. The recent poll was designed and conducted by certified Force Science Analyst David Blake, a retired 16-year police veteran with a master’s degree in psychology who heads an independent law enforcement consulting and training firm. Through an online Survey Monkey questionnaire, he gathered responses from a cross-section of nearly 500 front-line sworn personnel, many of them encouraged to participate by their departments. . . .
The anonymous respondents, ranging in age from 21 to 65, have “between less than five to 30-plus years” on the job, Blake reports, and work for “small suburban (25 officers) to large metropolitan departments (3,000+) across the nation.”
HIGHLIGHTS. Blake intends to submit a full report of his findings for publication in a professional journal, but here are the highlights.
Over 97% of participants said they believe that proactive policing decreases crime. But amidst the highly charged atmosphere surrounding American law enforcement of late, 49% said they have cut proactive traffic stops by “between 5 and 10 a month,” and 47% said they have reduced proactive pedestrian stops by the same amount, reflecting a significant diminishment in “the things cops do proactively more than anything else,” Blake says.
Why the change?
• Nearly 60% of those surveyed said they have “slowed down/stopped proactive policing due to media influence.” The vast majority (94%) believe the media are “somewhat or completely biased toward a negative representation of law enforcement.
• 36% blamed their retreat on “low citizen support.” Some 46% reported having a “negative” or “increasingly negative” relationship with their community.
• Large numbers cited perceived shortcomings in departmental leadership: 47% cited “negative executive-level influence” for their slow down; half felt their leadership’s “response to current trends has left them feeling unsupported”; nearly 40% said management had “increased discipline against officers”; nearly 63% said management had “created more restrictive policies.”
• Without offering specifics, about one-quarter said that “new training” was responsible for their change in patrolling style. About 20% thought this training was “not evidence-based (proven to be successful)” and nearly 75% of the total sample thought that new training they had received was “not beneficial,” even if it didn’t directly impact their street practices.
(Overall, responses add up to more than 100% because many officers noted more than one cause for their change in performance.)
CAUSE FOR CONCERN. More than 60% of the officers responding “believe criminal activity has increased in their jurisdiction” in the last year, Blake reports. Most believe this spike is “due to less proactive enforcement.”
The question of whether a Ferguson Effect exists “is now less ambiguous,” Blake asserts. The survey data “should be concerning to police executives as well as society, based on the potential long-term effects of decreasing proactive policing.”
In analyzing his poll responses, he writes, “I have found there is a consistent theme within law enforcement patrol-level officers. That theme is one of anxiety and fear: An officer-level perception that doing their job may ultimately lead to discipline, termination, or criminal prosecution.”
It is not surprising, he notes, that “[t]he subsequent behavior associated with this perception [is] an aversion to proactivity based upon personal risk assessment, [a] concept within Psychology termed, ‘negative conditioning.’ ”
In an interview with Force Science News, Blake urged that the IACP and other large law enforcement organizations springboard from his “exploratory” survey into a deeper investigation of the Ferguson Effect and its potential remedies.
In addition, he says, “individual agencies should survey their own officers anonymously” to see the extent, if any, that the phenomenon is having in their jurisdiction. “Once they have the data, they can drill down and find where the greatest concerns lie and what to do about it.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions, but agencies have the ability to answer them if they’re interested. If we let things go, the situation will just get worse and worse.”
OTHER VOICES. At about the time Blake’s survey results became available, two other pertinent items crossed our desk.
One was an article in the Chicago Tribune, reporting an “alarming” jump in the city’s street violence: a 25% year-to-date increase in homicides and a 73% leap in people shot, following “two consecutive years in which shootings rose by double digits.”
On Jan. 1, the paper noted, the Chicago PD “began requiring that cops fill out detailed reports every time they make a street stop” as part of a “landmark agreement” with the American Civil Liberties Union in concern over “racial profiling.”
The change, the Trib says, “has not only kept officers busy with paperwork longer than before…but also increased their anxiety about being second-guessed on whom they’ve stopped.”
The result: A plummet from more than 61,000 street stops in January 2015 to roughly 9,000 in January 2016–and a 32% drop in arrests.
“[C]rime experts and the ACLU have contended that no empirical evidence exists that would suggest the low police activity has led to a rise in violence,” the newspaper said. But a CJ and psychology professor from a local university says it is “foolish” not to draw a connection.
The other item of interest is an entry in a blog maintained by an officer in southern California under the pseudonym Jack Dunphy. The author invites his readers to “accompany” him and his partner on patrol in a crime-ridden section of Los Angeles where the murder toll so far this year has doubled over last and arrests for violent offenses are down by 19%.
Gathered near the entrance to an alleyway, the two officers spot “a few members of the local street gang,” one of whom is “perhaps responsible” for the recent killing of a teenage rival.
“What do we do? We drive on, for we are not police officers in an ideal world. We are police officers…in the year 2016, and we know there is little to be gained and much to be lost if we get out of our car and engage these young men.
“If everything goes as pleasantly as things can go these days, we will at the very least be given a load of grief, first by the young men themselves, then by the many family members and other sympathizers who…will soon emerge from nearby homes and apartment houses.
“And if one of them runs? Well then we might have to chase him, and if we catch him we might have to hit him, an incident that will be captured on cell phone video and posted on YouTube and, if the footage is sufficiently inflammatory, broadcast on local television news.
“And if one of these young men is armed and we have to shoot him, and if video of the shooting does not clearly demonstrate that we were fired upon first, we will see our chain of command abandon us and pronounce our tactics unsound, this despite the fact that few of our superiors have actually stood in our shoes.
“And we might see that video become a national news story, one that will prompt the police commissioners, the mayor, the governor, and even the president of the United States himself to offer their unschooled opinions on the deficiencies of our actions. So, as we are not fools, we drive on….
“And now that we’ve chosen to ignore this gathering of street criminals, and after other officers have done the same with similar groups across the area, those criminals will be all the more emboldened to carry on with the behavior that terrorizes their law-abiding neighbors, for the only thing that will deter that behavior is the credible threat of the bad consequences that flow from being stopped by the police while possessing a gun. If the cops won’t act, if they drive on by, the drive-by shootings will only increase. And that is exactly what is happening….”
David Blake of the Blake Consulting and Training Group in Brentwood, CA, can be reached at: [email protected].