Professor Ross Deuchar
On 9th August 2014, an 18-year-old black man named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer named Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, USA. It later transpired that Brown had been stopped and queried because he was walking in the middle of the road blocking traffic. However, subsequent witness evidence suggested that Mr Brown had been unarmed during the incident and that he was cooperating with officer Wilson’s commands when the officer shot him. In the days and weeks following the incident, members of the Ferguson community engaged in protests and peaceful demonstrations and were later joined by citizens from outside the community. The media reporting of and political engagement with these events have continued to have a lasting impact on law enforcement across the USA in the last few years (Deuchar et al., 2017).
During a recent Fulbright scholarship, I conducted empirical research in a southern American State focused on exploring the perceived nature and impact of the so-called ‘Ferguson effect’ on serving officers there. I wanted to examine the ways in which the media portrayal of American policing and political engagement in the issues emerging from Ferguson had impacted on law enforcement within the State. Specifically, I wanted to explore the perceived repercussions in terms of citizen engagement and the apparent impact on officer morale and policing strategies. As with most of my other research, I drew upon ethnographic research methods (Hammersley, 2006). Across a period of three months I engaged in ride-alongs during police deployments with both departmental officers and those working at County Sheriff level, recording observations of police interactions with citizens and also my own impressions and feelings of what I was observing in fieldnotes. I also conducted semi-structured interviews with a sample of 20 serving officers of various ranks, exploring in more depth their reactions to the media reporting and political rhetoric surrounding policing in the years since the Ferguson shooting.
A substantial body of criminological literature has drawn attention to the links between public perceptions of procedural justice, police legitimacy and the tendency towards citizen engagement with officers (Mazarolle et al., 2012; Lum and Nagin, 2015; Weisburd et al., 2015). The officers I interviewed felt strongly that the media reporting of the high-profile incident in Ferguson had had a profound impact on public perceptions of the police in communities of colour in the State I was working in. They felt it had led to a perceived lack of police legitimacy, and reduced cooperation with officers on the streets. They described the way in which local people had developed an increased tendency to resist officers’ instructions, to film encounters with their cell phones and were even less inclined than before to report crimes or volunteer to be witnesses. As well as blaming the media reporting for this, informal dialogue with officers suggested to me that they felt that the wider political environment over the last eight years had not been conducive towards winning public support for policing. By supporting the Black Lives Matter campaign, they felt that President Obama had subtly reinforced the message that American policing was racially biased.
During interviews, the officers reported that morale was at an all-time low because of the increasing levels of public disengagement with law enforcement they came across in marginalised communities. Many officers felt that the police had become demonized, and that the political and media climate had reduced their ability to win the hearts and minds of those living in communities of colour. Further, many described the way in which they and their colleagues had become less inclined to be proactive in their enforcement for fear of being accused of racism. Tyler (2006) has suggested that, where police legitimacy is questioned, crime is often found to be greater. Although I had no direct observational evidence to substantiate this, some of the interviewees suggested that the increased reticence among officers to confront young black men in disadvantaged communities for fear of how they might be portrayed in the media meant that some criminal activity was now going unchecked. As one County Detective put it, ‘now [cops] are driving by and the criminals know that.’
In spite of the demotivated views of many officers, in one police department I worked in I did detect that the ‘Ferguson effect’ had raised awareness of the need for procedural justice among frontline cops. During my ride-alongs with officers in this particular city, I frequently observed them getting out of their cars to talk to local citizens and this was particularly noticeable in communities of colour. On several occasions, I saw both male and female white officers actively building rapport with young black men on street corners, and several articulated their strong commitment to community-oriented policing approaches as a means of building trust and upholding dignity and respect. In this same city, there had been some officer-involved shootings of black citizens in the past, but no subsequent public protests or demonstrations akin to those that emerged in Ferguson. Officers attributed this to the strong focus they had adopted on being ‘guardians’ as well as ‘warriors’ within the local neighbourhoods (PTF, 2015).
Incidents like the one in Ferguson, Missouri have become all-too familiar in the United States over the years, but it is clear that the media and political backlash from this particular event has had a profound impact on law enforcement across the country. Indeed, although the southern State where I worked was over 1000 miles away from Ferguson, the impact of the repercussions from Michael Brown’s shooting had been felt strongly by officers I worked with. While my insights suggested that this had contributed to reduced officer morale and proactive enforcement strategies, it was also beginning to prompt an increased focus on the need for positive community engagement and procedural justice, at least in some divisions where I worked. In officers’ minds, the desire to re-focus their efforts on becoming humanitarian ‘guardians’ was perhaps principally driven by a desire to prevent another ‘Ferguson’ incident (Deuchar et al., 2017). In my mind, however, it more importantly represented an attempt to become the type of ethically-minded, socially just law enforcement officers that the public might finally begin to regard as legitimate.
Ross Deuchar is Professor and Director of the Interdisciplinary Research Unit on Crime, Policing and Social Justice at the University of the West of Scotland, and Affiliate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University, USA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org