LMPD :: Louisville Metro Police Department

Officers less motivated post-Ferguson


A study co-authored by a University of Louisville criminologist shows that public scrutiny surrounding police shootings of unarmed civilians has diminished officers' morale but has not created a so-called "Ferguson effect," which claims the criticism has impacted officers' willingness to perform their duties.

Police in the U.S. are facing a legitimacy crisis following highly publicized deadly force incidents in several cities during the last year, including the August 2014 shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., said U of L professor Justin Nix, who co-authored the study in the American Psychological Association this October.

"They see this press and this bad media surrounding their profession and it's resulting in reduced confidence among police officers," said Nix, who co-wrote the study with criminologist Scott Wolfe of the University of South Carolina.

As a result, the study indicates officers are being less proactive on the job and less willing to engage directly with community members to solve problems but that those feelings decline if officers feel supported by their commanders and department.

Louisville Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad told The Courier-Journal on Tuesday that a similar phenomenon might be happening in Louisville. Conrad said his own data show 30 percent fewer arrests, citations, field interviews and served warrants in the 15 months after the Brown shooting, compared to the 15 months prior.

"We are not seeing the same level of self-initiated activity since Ferguson that we saw before Ferguson," Conrad said.

Conrad said it's hard to attribute the change to an increase in police scrutiny, but he rejected any suggestion that Louisville police data should be used to suggest officers are being lax even as the city faces a seven-year high homicide rate.

"Whether that's connected to this 'Ferguson effect' or not, I can't say that," he continued. "But I don't believe for a second that our people are not out there working doing everything they can to make our community safe."

The study used a February survey in which deputies were asked to indicate the extent to which they agreed that negative publicity during the prior six months made them less motivated at work or caused them to be less proactive on the job than they were in the past. It surveyed 567 deputies at an unnamed, mid-sized sheriff's department serving about 393,000 residents in the southeast U.S.

All sworn deputies were asked to complete a questionnaire and were guaranteed anonymity along with the department.

The research comes as police supporters and critics debate if a so-called "Ferguson effect" is responsible for an uptick in inner-city violence. The theory is that increases in violent crime sweeping across Midwestern cities this year can be attributed to anti-police brutality protests and social media coverage focusing on officers' actions in the wake of Brown's controversial death.

FBI Director James Comey hinted that the surge in violence could be attributed to police apprehension due to the rise of civilians with cellphone cameras and the possibility that such recordings could go viral on social media.

"I don't know whether this explains it entirely, but I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year," Comey said in an Oct. 27 speech at the University of Chicago. "And that wind is surely changing behavior."

Officer morale may be taking a hit and police are cognizant of the heightened criticism, Nix said, but the researchers say there is no empirical data to support the "Ferguson effect" is behind surging violent crime rates across the country.

"Basically, (the police) don't like what's happening, but they're still going to go out and do their job," he said.

The study said reduced police motivation can be improved by officers' confidence in their superiors, who can guarantee departmental fairness. The study also found officers' attitudes improved once confidence in their commanders was taken into account.

"The officers need to know that I'm there and will support them as they go about doing their job," Conrad said.

"But I also need people in our community to be supportive of the police officers," he added. "That doesn't mean you can't criticize when there's a problem, it doesn't mean you can't complain if an officer doesn't do what you think they should."