Police Use-of-Force Self-efficacy: An Antidote to the Ferguson Effect?

Abstract

Research has consistently shown that officers’ perceptions of deteriorated relationships with the public are associated with physical and emotional disengagement with their work. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this “Ferguson Effect” has also contributed to reluctance to use necessary physical force in the course of their duties, leading to compromises for officer safety and public safety. This study has two objectives: first, it is the only study to systematically assess the claim that apprehensiveness to use force is associated with perceptions of community support; second, it examines whether use-of-force self-efficacy reduces apprehensiveness to use force. Using OLS regression of officer surveys from 4,000 police officers in a Southeastern U.S. state, we find support for both hypotheses, as well as evidence of interaction effects. We identify several practical implications for agency leaders, and further encourage the development of use-of-force self-efficacy as a substantively and theoretically meaningful concept for researchers.

Published in the Journal of Crime and Justice.

Justifiability and culpability in lethal self-defense: Police officers vs. civilians

Purpose

Some critics argue that legal standards, even when and where equivalent, are differentially applied to officers and civilians. This study examined evaluations of justifiability and culpability for police officers versus civilians, as well as White shooters versus Black shooters, in a 2✕2 factorial experiment. It also explored how personal attitudes and characteristics correspond to those evaluations.

Methods

A national sample of 2492 online respondents evaluated culpability and justifiability involving a claim of lethal self-defense involving mistake of fact. After reviewing facts about the case, watching video of the incident, and being given jury instructions for murder and self-defense, respondents were asked to evaluate the justifiability of the shooting on a 6-point scale and render a verdict.

Results

Police officers and Black shooters were evaluated more favorably. Pre-existing confidence in the police demonstrated direct effects and interaction effects on perceived justifiability and likelihood of acquittal.

Conclusions

These results reveal a double standard that benefits police in cases of lethal self-defense. The strong correlation between pre-existing confidence in the police and acquittal of police officers indicates a need for further research on how a generalized public trust in police impacts particularized evaluations of conduct in specific cases.

Published in the Journal of Criminal Justice.

What Really Happened in Ferguson, and What the Country Can Learn from It

The United States found itself in the center of a heated national debate on race, policing, and justice in 2014. The shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, by a white police officer sparked outrage and protests, shedding the spotlight on Ferguson. “Policing Ferguson, Policing America” dives into the heart of this time, offering an inside perspective from the man who was at the forefront of law enforcement during the entire spectacle.

FERGUSON, MO – AUGUST 13: Police Chief Thomas Jackson fields questions related to the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown during a press conference on August 13, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer on Saturday. Ferguson has experienced three days of violent protests since the killing. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

As the former Chief of Police of Ferguson, Thomas Jackson provides a personal and candid account of the events leading up to, during, and after the shooting of Michael Brown. “Policing Ferguson, Policing America” is an interesting exploration of how race and community dynamics can intersect with policing, and how it took Ferguson, and America, by storm. At first glance, this book is built on the systemic issues that arose after the shooting of Michael Brown; though upon reading it, one can easily find out that this is also a book where Jackson makes his personal objections known, all of them stemming from either the DOJ report that was written following the shooting of Michael Brown, or the misconceptions placed on the police by the media. Jackson is quick to say that the DOJ did not have the Ferguson Police Department’s best interest in mind; according to Jackson (2017), “But the Ferguson portrayed in that report was an invention, a backwards, angry place that the Justice Department created to make a show of tearing it down.” (p. 10)

This report will analyze Jackson’s narrative, including his perspective on the tragedy that took place in Ferguson and the effects it had on policing in America. It will examine Jackson’s perspectives on community policing, racial bias within law enforcement, and the broader role of the police in our society. This report will discuss whether his accounts can be seen as an objective analysis or if they appear to be steeped in the personal experiences and grievances of a former police chief.

It’s widely known that the shooting of Michael Brown garnered an abundance of media attention at the time; but according to Jackson, the media garnered an abundance of biased standpoints that were all filtered through misconceptions. He even goes so far as to say, “I don’t think it’s a surprise to anybody that the big news media follow the rules of the entertainment industry as much as the rules of traditional journalism.” (Jackson, 2017, p. 46)

Jackson mentions how his acquaintance working in network news described how it was being in the middle of such a media storm that was only intensified with the involvement of smartphones, social media, and crowdsourced online journalism. While still expressing concerns about the lack of controls and filters in today’s methods of spreading information, he also acknowledges the benefits of modern technology and access to information. He calls attention to the fact that when society is being bombarded with information, it’s rather hard to determine the credibility of the information being shared.

Jackson explains how misinformation about Michael Brown’s death was spread through calls, texts, and social media, which only resulted in suspicion and hostility between the public and the police. He was even alerted by the city manager, John Shaw, about the negative portrayal of the city and its police in the media. Despite the push to control the narrative being spread, Jackson was still cautious about providing information as the investigation was still in its early stages.

Jackson refers to the concept of “optics” and how it swayed the public during Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson. ‘Optics’ refers to how things appear, and Jackson touches on how at the time of the events in Ferguson, politicians and the media viewed the story through those optics, which resulted in a story that was less than true about the entire incident. He maintains his stance that the story told through tweets, videos, and pictures was a tragedy based on optics.

Jackson uses the fact that Michael Brown’s body remained in the street for hours after the shooting to show just how much optics can sway and influence the entire story surrounding a set of circumstances. The story that accompanied the sight of Michael Brown’s body still lying in the street created the narrative that it was done by the police as a sign of disrespect, not only to the victim’s family but to the African-American community as a whole, which only emphasized how appearances often take precedence over intentions in shaping public opinion. He also uses the second incident, which involved the deployment of police dogs, which immediately created a tense and negative image; that tension only continued to grow between the police, the public, and even the Department of Justice.

On September 4th, 2014, the Department of Justice (referred to as “DOJ”) started an investigation into the Ferguson Police Department (referred to as “FPD”) under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act established in 1994. The following year, they released a report titled “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department.” The report calls attention to the multiple types of biases that exist in the FPD that, when viewed altogether, make it clear that “officers expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority.” (DOJ, 2015, p. 2)

Following the DOJ’s investigation, Jackson accuses the department of intentionally withholding information and presenting a biased view of Ferguson’s police department and the city itself. According to him, the department refrained from discussing, understanding, or even considering alternative interpretations, but instead focused on the appearance of bias. The biases purportedly focus on the department’s habit of aiming their law enforcement towards an almost aggressive enforcement of the municipal code despite the potential of these strategies being harmful to public safety and community trust, and their habit of including the number of citations issued as a part of an officer’s evaluation. Not only was this report particularly harrowing for then-Chief Jackson, but according to him, it was “…the final nail in the coffin for our community” (Jackson, 2017, p. 122) composed of “misperceptions, misrepresentations, and outright falsehoods.” (Jackson, 2017, p. 122)

A specific point of contention is the claim that Ferguson’s law enforcement efforts were primarily focused on generating revenue rather than addressing public safety needs. Despite the DOJ’s report suggesting that the city budgeted for increases in fines and fees each year, encouraging police and court staff to deliver those revenue increases, Jackson maintains that the budgeting process is a standard practice in any organization. The DOJ’s report also alluded to the practice of officers writing as many citations as possible and being rewarded for doing so. Jackson refutes this claim, stating that the number of tickets written did not play a role in evaluating officers for promotions and that said promotions were based on good police work and test scores.

The DOJ’s report raised multiple concerns for Jackson, one being how said report was not required to provide absolute proof of racial bias, but only needed to demonstrate the credible appearance of racial bias. He points out that a red flag should have been the leniency in how they approached the evidence given by the situation. He calls attention to the fact that the DOJ’s investigation relied on anonymous and/or unverified sources and that they ignored exculpatory evidence—evidence that is seen to favor a certain “side” in an investigation or case. The report mentioned violations of constitutional rights despite no legal findings being made to support this evidence, according to Jackson.

While the author recognizes that African-Americans do take up a large, disproportionate number of street stops, incarcerations, arrests, etc., he also believes wholeheartedly that we as a society have to be careful about placing the blame for all of these issues on racial bias in the police as a whole or the criminal justice system. He calls it misguided and dangerous, as it gives the police an “easy excuse” that’ll allow them to brush the mentioned problems to the side instead of actually working towards their improvement. He then discusses the origins of policing, as he believes that looking back at them can help society decide the actual role of the police. Those origins include calling the beginning of policing a “community-based enterprise,” in contrast to the widely known and widely taught fact that the early days of policing stem from slave patrols, where these individuals were tasked with finding and recapturing runaway slaves before forcing them back to their masters. In Jackson’s (2017) words:

The great irony is that policing really began as a community-based enterprise, where a constable, sheriff, or other public safety officer was a constant presence in a small town or neighborhood. That officer would know the business owners, families, and children, and could be a resource to the citizens for all kinds of assistance. As the towns and cities grew, these officers were organized into municipal forces that were paid for and regulated by the government. (p. 146)

In “Policing Ferguson, Policing America,” Jackson seems to follow a pattern of pointing out the misconceptions that are placed on police officers, both in general and those who work in the Ferguson police department, before attempting to explain how and why those claims are false. He has a habit of explaining how he personally attempted to stray from those misconceptions during his time as the chief of the Ferguson Police Department. This pattern makes the book seem more like a “think-piece”—an article or book written under the guise of being thought-provoking when, in reality, it is composed of personal opinions and analyses based on personal experience—instead of being an in-depth look into how Ferguson garnered the attention it had in 2014. He certainly provides reliable and verified information along with his personal thoughts, but due to his history of being Chief of the Ferguson Police Department, it’s nearly impossible to say that this book is completely objective in its purpose. One can even question whether Jackson’s intention was to provide an objective account of what happened in Ferguson, or if his own interpretation of the optics at work had a hand in the publication of “Policing Ferguson, Policing America.”

Racial Threat and Punitive Police Attitudes

Racial Threat Theory posits that punitive attitudes are produced when Whites are alarmed by large or growing Black populations. While research has identified a relationship between Black composition and support from community members for more punitive criminal justice policy, no research has examined whether racial composition influences punitive attitudes among criminal justice personnel—even though they represent a key population that can engage in discrimination. This study advances our understanding of racial threat and police force by examining the relationship between Black population and punitive use-of-force attitudes on the part of police. Using survey and census data for approximately 10,000 police officers in 97 agencies, multilevel analyses reveal that officers report more punitive attitudes in jurisdictions with larger Black populations and that this relationship is concentrated among White police officers. The results provide evidence that racial disparities in police outcomes are at least partly driven by motivational criteria (such as discrimination).

Published in Justice Quarterly.

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‘Send everybody’: Video shows ambush that killed Fargo officer, wounded 2 others

Dramatic body camera footage of a shooting ambush last month in Fargo shows the surprise nature of the chaotic attack along a busy street that left one police officer dead and others wounded, as the only officer left standing called for help and engaged the heavily armed shooter.

North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley and Fargo Police Chief David Zibolski on Thursday presented the July 14 video footage taken from Officer Zach Robinson’s body camera of the attack that left North Dakota’s biggest city shocked at the unusual violence.

The scenes show gunman Mohamad Barakat shooting rapid fire from a .223-caliber rifle, modified with a binary trigger, that took down three officers before a breathless Robinson stopped him after a nearly 2-minute confrontation.

The video also illustrates what authorities have said was likely part of a planned, larger attack, with an arsenal of guns and explosives found in Barakat’s vehicle…

Full story: ‘Send everybody’: Video shows ambush that killed Fargo officer, wounded 2 others

LAPD using AI in body camera study; Recordings will be reviewed for officers’ language and tone during traffic stops.

Researchers will use artificial intelligence to analyze the tone and word choice that LAPD officers use during traffic stops, the department announced Tuesday, part of a broader study of whether police language sometimes unnecessarily escalates public encounters.

Findings from the study, conducted by researchers from USC and elsewhere, will be used to help train officers on how best to navigate encounters with the public and to “promote accountability,” said Cmdr. Marla R. Ciuffetelli of the Office of Constitutional Policing & Policy;

Machine learning, she said at a meeting of the Board of Police Commissioners, “is in its infancy, but will undoubtedly become a profound element in officer training in the future.”

Full story: LAPD using AI in body camera study; Recordings will be reviewed for officers’ language and tone during traffic stops.

Flash mobs invade luxury L.A. retailers with brute force – Los Angeles Times

Overall crime rates in Los Angeles are down from last year, and a recent surge in smash-and-grab robberies makes up little of the overall problem of retail thefts. Still, the audacious daytime incidents over the last few weeks have cast a long shadow, leaving people who shop and work at malls unsettled…

Full story: Flash mobs invade luxury L.A. retailers with brute force – Los Angeles Times

High-speed Mobile Networks and Police Repression during the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Case of Nigeria

Purpose: Government repression against civilians while enforcing restrictive policies related to COVID-19 was widely reported in Africa. At the same time, many have claimed that high-speed mobile data and social media provide an accountability mechanism that may constrain police abuses. This study focused on Nigeria to examine (1) the effect of COVID-19 lockdowns on police repression and (2) whether widespread high-speed mobile data networks constrain or facilitate police repression.
Design/Methodology: Using data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Database (ACLED) and the Mobile Coverage Database, and focusing on regional sub-units in Nigeria, this study used Difference-in-Differences (DID) and triple difference (DDD) estimation on a sample of 423,925 observations (local government area-days) between January 1, 2019 and June 30, 2020 to estimate the causal effects of COVID-19 lockdowns and high-speed mobile data on police repression.
Findings: Difference-in-Differences (DID) analyses reveal no increases in police repression during lockdown periods. However, triple difference (DDD) estimation finds that certain forms of police repression were greater during lockdown periods in areas with substantial high-speed (4G) mobile networks (a proxy indicator of rapid information dissemination and video sharing). Net 4G effects, separate from the lockdowns, were also observed. Police repression increased in areas with a widespread 4G network, even without lockdowns.
Research Implications: Contrary to theoretical hypotheses derived from self-awareness theory, as well as anecdotal claims of a “viral video effect” or “Ferguson Effect” constraining police behavior, proliferation of high-speed mobile networks in Nigeria appears to facilitate, rather than constrain, police repression. Additional studies may explore through what causal mechanisms high-speed mobile network proliferation affects police repression. For instance, it is possible that high-speed mobile data and social media allow police to detect and repress citizen behaviors they disapprove of, rather than permitting citizens to correct police behaviors they disapprove of.
Originality/Value: Although many studies have explored the COVID-19 pandemic and police behavior in Western countries, only a few have examined its effects in states with even more troubled policing institutions, including those in sub-Saharan Africa. The findings of increased government repression during lockdowns in areas with 4G proliferation, as well as the independent effects of 4G facilitating police repression even without lockdowns, present significant counterevidence to observations from the U.S. and elsewhere, which has suggested that the ability to rapidly and widely share videos of police misconduct via mobile devices can limit police repression. Such effects were not found in Nigeria.

Published in Policing: An International Journal

Worried Sick: Perceptions of Low Public Support, Stress, and Somatic Health Problems in Law Enforcement

Recent surveys suggest that confidence in police reached its lowest level on record in the wake of controversial police custody deaths and associated protests in recent years. Meanwhile, research has found links between perceptions of low public support for police and a variety of negative outcomes among police officers, including stress and withdrawal. The consequences of psychological stress, according to much other research, include a variety of physical health problems. The present study synthesizes these bodies of research by examining whether perceptions of low public support are associated with physical, somatic symptoms in police officers, including headaches, gastrointestinal problems, sleep disturbances, and upper respiratory infections. Structural equation modelling of 4,221 officer surveys from a Southeastern U.S. state collected in January of 2022 suggests that officers are quite literally worried sick about poor police–public relations, and that stress mediates this relationship. We discuss the implications of these findings for officer wellness and the relationship between mental and physical wellbeing among officers. Furthermore, we discuss practical recommendations for police leaders who may be struggling to promote officer wellness during a period of intense public scrutiny.

Published in Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice

Is it possible to find a balance between reducing unnecessary traffic stops and ensuring public safety through traffic enforcement?

American roads have become deadlier than before the pandemic, and many are attributing this to a decrease in policing after the George Floyd protests of 2020. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), the fatality rate, which is deaths per million miles traveled, is about 18% higher than in 2019. In contrast, other Western countries did not experience the same sustained increase in traffic deaths.

Jonathan Adkins, CEO of the GHSA, believes that the decrease in policing led to many people driving dangerously because they thought they could get away with it. He notes that there is not enough enforcement on the roads, and many police officers are hesitant to write tickets.

Seattle police officer Carol Cummings, who requested traffic stops data from the city, found that traffic citations by police were down about 86% compared to 2019. The Seattle Police Chief, Adrian Diaz, explains that this is due to staffing levels and call loads. His department lost hundreds of officers after the George Floyd protests of 2020, and he had to cut dedicated traffic details.

Susan Nembhard, a research associate with the Urban Institute, believes that traffic stops can be dangerous interactions, particularly for people of color and specifically Black people. She has argued for limiting those stops. As a result, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and even the state of Virginia have adopted formal policies limiting traffic stops for minor violations. Seattle has also instructed officers not to pull cars over for certain non-moving violations, such as expired license tags and obstructions hanging from the rear-view mirror.

While these new policies reduce the number of contacts between police and citizens, some believe that they have also reduced drivers’ impression that they’ll be stopped for more serious violations, such as running red lights. However, Adkins says that the Governors Highway Safety Association believes in equitable enforcement and could accept restrictions on stops for technical violations, as long as drivers are still stopped when they’re doing something dangerous. Cummings believes that many drivers follow the law because they know it makes sense, but some people drive dangerously, and without enough enforcement on the roads, they are the ones putting themselves and others at risk.

Is it possible to find a balance between reducing unnecessary traffic stops and ensuring public safety through traffic enforcement? The decrease in traffic stops for minor violations may have unintended consequences, such as drivers feeling that they can get away with more serious violations, and ultimately making the roads more dangerous. On the other hand, limiting these stops could also help reduce the number of dangerous interactions between police and citizens, particularly for people of color. Striking a balance between equitable enforcement and public safety is crucial to improving road safety in the United States.