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4 ways to stave off the ‘Ferguson effect’

The ‘Ferguson effect’ is a trend toward a reactionary model of policing where a proactive approach to crime fighting is significantly limited


The ‘Ferguson effect’ developed in part from the reaction to the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

AP Photo

“The nobility of policing demands the noblest of character.” This quote from Dr. Stephen Covey should be an overriding theme throughout this article as our profession is faced with a unique challenge right now. That challenge is derisively referred to as the “Ferguson effect,” which developed in part from the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, although its incubation period may have already been in place before that incident.

The “Ferguson effect” is a trend toward a reactionary model of policing where a proactive approach to crime fighting is significantly limited. Basically, officers will continue to give an honest day’s work, which is still rife with serious risks to their health and safety, but they may be a little more cautious to go “above and beyond” to the degree they had before.

That extra effort, which is difficult to define with a bright line or a policy statement and is not easily reflected on a timecard, is a big reason our profession is so special and why so many Americans have appreciated the work we do to try and keep them safe.

An Understandable Thing
As we see crime spike in many areas of our country, a recent survey by Police1 contributor David Blake — who heads an independent law enforcement consulting and training firm — found that many of the 500 officers surveyed had reduced their proactive efforts.

There is cause for concern that the “Ferguson effect” may be making unfortunate inroads within some of our police ranks.

It is easy to understand why many police officers may be led in this direction. It seems that even some of those running for our highest political office seem bent on throwing cops under the bus to garner votes. It’s hard to expect officers to take “extra” risk if they think no one has their backs and they may be grossly and unfairly maligned for making mistakes or perceived ones under stressful, rapidly evolving situations that are not always clear-cut.

Despite all this though, it is critical that we try to avoid this contagion as much as possible while simultaneously countering the disinformation campaign being waged against our noble profession. The following is a preliminary four-step effort to begin that process with more long-term strategies and ideas needed.

1. Ask questions
Officers should ask themselves thought-provoking questions about what the “Ferguson effect” means to them. The answers may help us better understand ourselves and our chosen profession. We should ask what may happen to the bad guy if we don’t go above and beyond and aggressive try to ferret him out.

Will he stay within the confines of his own street or drift into our backyards? Will he become more emboldened and cause deeper suffering to innocent law-abiding citizens? Will he adversely affect the future of our nation? These are just a few of many inquiries that we can ask ourselves of which the conclusions may reaffirm our mission to protect and serve.

2. Embrace an empathetic model of policing
The empathetic police model which is essentially community policing to the 10th degree has the potential to bring about a greater buy-in from the communities we serve. When observing our actions of service, designed to make their neighborhoods better places to live, we may embolden the silent majority who believe in us to become vocal defenders against the negativity, bias and overreaching efforts of stifling our work that we’re currently seeing today.

3. Petition your legislative representatives
We’re starting to see some ridiculous suggestions and proposals on how we should do our job, particularly when the use of force is necessary. Some of these efforts, however well-meaning or hollow, border on obnoxious and dangerous. We need to let our representatives understand our concerns that these actions could further endanger us, as well as cause too many to question the need to go “above and beyond” and thereby result in “turtle cops” who withdraw into their protective shells.

If close to 800,000 officers sent just two letters or made two phone calls to their elected legislators, the flood of concern could get results and stop overzealous control measures which if enacted could make too many neighborhoods nearly uninhabitable due to out of control crime.

4. Find innovative ways to get out our message
Either through the support of our unions and fraternities or own personal efforts, we need to find ways to get out positive messages to the public that counter the negative portrayal that some are trying to push. Again, ours is a noble profession and the work we do makes a difference. We need to reinforce this to counter the noise.

This can be done through paid television and radio ads, writing to major media outlets as well as using the vast outreach that social media provides. It may be frustrating to some officers that they have to spend some of their own time and money or their union dues to pay for a promotional ad campaign when their hard work should be enough but unfortunately in our current environment, we must adapt. The results can have a motivating effect on officers and help them battle the pull toward the “Ferguson effect.”

I remember a catchy motivational placard at a leadership school that said “If it has to be, it’s up to me.” I would expand that to “If it’s a must, it’s up to us.”

Addressing the “Ferguson effect” is not going to be easy but it is worth the effort as it can help more officers avoid the temptation of succumbing to this attitude. We simply have to, otherwise our nation will be in more danger. Ours is too noble of a profession to do anything less.

Chief Tom Wetzel is a 32-year veteran police officer and currently leading a northeast Ohio suburban police department. A former SWAT commander, he is an adjunct professor in community policing, a certified law enforcement executive and a graduate of the Police Executive Leadership College. An instructor for Northcoast Polytechnic Institute, Chief Wetzel is an internationally published author for numerous police trade publications and a black belt in Goshin Jujitsu. He co-developed a school/community policing children’s Internet and stranger danger safety program called e-Copp, an educational children’s online protection program.

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