Why Police Perform Poorly Under Scrutiny
September 30, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Heather Mac Donald and others have focused lately on a so-called “Ferguson effect,” the idea that increased scrutiny and accountability for police has made them shy. As a result, Mac Donald argues, police officers aren’t doing the sort of vigorous police work they used to, and the result has been an eleven percent uptick murders and a smaller increase in the violent crime rate.
The best reason to support this hypothesis has always been timing. The Ferguson effect began shortly after the shooting of Michael Brown, and was most pronounced in areas where blacks had recently fallen victim to government shootings. Mac Donald claims another example of correlation, an increase in crime caused by “decreased police engagement” after anti-cop riots in Cincinnati in 2001. Even the FBI is on board.
As Comey said last October, de-policing ‘is the one explanation that does explain the calendar and the map and that makes the most sense to me.’
The theory has gained traction among the stop and frisk crowd in the past year or so, even garnering some support at the fivethirtyeight, who noted a pattern of increased shootings and decreased arrests (including narcotics arrests) in Chicago after the release of the Laquan McDonald video.
But, of course, there’s a problem. If police are getting shyer about “proactive” policing, why hasn’t there been a reduction in shootings by police? And why is the effect most pronounced in places that have recently featured a bad shoot by police? Three sociological researchers have suggested an answer:
[W]e find that residents of Milwaukee’s neighborhoods were far less likely to report crime after Jude’s beating was broadcast. Over half of the total loss in 911 calls occurred in black neighborhoods. Supplemental analyses show that other local and national cases of police violence against unarmed black men also had an impact on crime reporting in Milwaukee.
In other words, the researchers’ hypothesis is that residents are less likely to call police after a recent incident of police brutality. The Jude beating described by the writers is a particularly gruesome one. A police officer, Andrew Spengler, hosted a house-warming party. Frank Jude, a black man, arrived with another black friend and then left. But ten men surrounded their truck, accusing them of stealing a police badge while in the house. The details are harsh:
One uniformed officer, Joseph Schabel, stomped on Jude’s face until he heard bones breaking. The other on-duty officer watched. An off-duty officer picked Jude up and kicked him in the crotch with such force his feet left the ground. Another took one of Schabel’s pens and pressed it deep into Jude’s ear canals. Another bent Jude’s fingers back until they snapped. Spengler put a gun to Jude’s head. Jude was left naked from the waist down lying on the street in a pool of his own blood.
Once news of the beating came out, 911 calls in black Milwaukee neighborhoods sharply declined. 22,200 fewer calls were made in the year following the beating. The report cleverly rules out a problem with 911 capacity or employment by noting that reports of traffic accidents held steady—it was only those cases where residents feared a violent police response where 911 calls declined.
Now, of course, the study has limitations. It looked only at calls in Milwaukee, and while it was able to show that drop-offs occurred after two other major national stories about police brutality, it did not look into cities like Chicago or Ferguson to see if the effect extended there. But the hypothesis itself has some pretty interesting implications.
After all, the “shy police” theory always had a rather unsettling implication. That we couldn’t expect police to perform their jobs adequately if we were actually paying attention to them. Radley Balko says it best:
[W]e’re told by law enforcement groups and their advocates that your average, well-intentioned cop is so outraged by these indictments that he’s refusing to do his job. Or, more ridiculous still, that even the good cops are hesitating to protect people out of some fear that they’ll be publicly criticized by racial justice groups. For a profession that takes such pride in its bravery, police advocates make cops seem remarkably thin-skinned.
Throughout social media, there has been a trend, asking people not to call the police unless it’s absolutely necessary. It seems warranted. Just recently, a San Diego man was shot to death for acting erratically in the throes of a seizure as his horrified sister (the 911 caller) looked on. If police took a lesson away from Ferguson on that occasion, it wasn’t to be shy about using force, or careful if they weren’t sure a suspect was armed. It was to seize footage to avoid being criticized.
If police brutality makes people call 911 less, then there’s a simple solution. Be less brutal. Be more transparent. Make people feel that good officers are being rewarded for showing restraint where possible. For our sake, I hope the researchers proposing the Jude effect are right. I’d rather have good officers be the solution, not merely unaccountable ones.