The "Ferguson effect"—an alleged reluctance on the part of police officers to aggressively perform their duties, for fear of their actions being critically scrutinized by the media—has been the subject of widespread debate, including between Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey and the Justice Department. While the argument has played out in predictable ways, actual research on the topic has been scarce—until now.
A new study focusing on one mid-sized sheriff's department found negative publicity about policing has indeed reduced some deputies' motivation, as well as their willingness to form partnerships with members of their communities.
It also reports, however, that these effects evaporate if the officers feel self-confident in their roles, and believe they are treated fairly by their superiors. Such beliefs presumably reduce the fear they will be made scapegoats if and when controversial incidents occur.
"Fair treatment from supervisors send the message to officers that 'We are here for you' regardless of how much the public or the media tries to sully law enforcement."
"For the most part, our findings suggest that the Ferguson Effect fear mongering may need to stop (at least for now)," write the University of South Carolina's Scott Wolfe and the University of Louisville's Justin Nix in the journal Law and Human Behavior. "Our data reveal that reduced motivation attributable to negative publicity may be counteracted if supervisors ensure fairness among subordinates."
In February, the researchers surveyed 567 deputies at a mid-sized sheriff's department in the Southeastern United States (an impressive 85 percent response rate). The deputies were asked a series of questions regarding how recent negative publicity about police actions has impacted their work. They indicated, on a five-point scale, the extent to which such coverage has "made it more difficult for you to be motivated at work," and "caused you to be less proactive on the job."
Using that same scale, the deputies evaluated their organization's internal justice, noting their level of agreement or disagreement with such statements as "Generally, command staff treats employees with respect," and "My agency's investigation of civilian complaints is fair."
They also responded to statements designed to measure feelings of self-legitimacy ("I have confidence in the authority invested in me"), and their willingness to engage in community partnerships ("Collaborating with community members is an important aspect of law enforcement").
"It appears that officers in our sample have been affected by negative 'Ferguson-type' press," Wolfe and Nix write. "Some officers indicated being less motivated to perform their duties. This is important from a managerial standpoint, because feelings such as these need to be subverted if possible."
Specifically, the researchers note that "deputies who reported being less motivated as a result of negative publicity surrounding law enforcement in the six months leading up to the survey indicated less willingness to partner with the community."
Crucially, however, that relationship disappeared for deputies who were secure in their feelings of legitimacy, and who felt that their department treated employees fairly. "Fair treatment from supervisors send the message to officers that 'We are here for you' regardless of how much the public or the media tries to sully law enforcement," the researchers note.
The sense that someone has their back, along with a strong internal feeling that what they do is legitimate and important, apparently motivates deputies to actively work with members of the community in joint efforts to reduce crime.
So it appears we can have a meaningful public discussion about questionable police conduct toward minorities (such as the officer caught on tape throwing a disobedient high school student across a classroom) without discouraging good cops from doing their important work.
The answer may be as simple as hiring emotionally mature, self-confident police officers, and making sure they have sympathetic, supportive supervisors.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.