SCIENCE
10/28/2015 01:45 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2017

'Ferguson Effect' Probably Not Keeping Police From Doing Their Jobs, Study Suggests

But poor publicity is still affecting them.

The threat of having their behavior captured in viral videos is not necessarily keeping police officers from doing their jobs, a new study from the American Psychological Association suggests. 

Following the bad press and public outcry related to the August 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, politicians and federal authorities have worried that cops may be less motivated to do their jobs due to the so-called "Ferguson effect." 

The White House has denied its existence, but FBI Director James Comey last week told students at the University of Chicago Law School that the "era of viral videos" has left officers feeling "under siege" and unwilling to do their duties for fear of consequences. He also attributed a national uptick in violent crime to the public's use of cell phones and cameras to record police incidents. 

The study, which was published online this month in the journal Law and Human Behavior, didn't find empirical evidence of the "Ferguson effect." It did, however, find evidence that officers feel less inclined to engage in their communities or stay in law enforcement in general.

"There is a portion of officers who... appear to be less motivated to be police officers, and there's an extent to which officers pull back from the community," said Scott Wolfe, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina and the study's lead author.

In February, researchers surveyed 567 deputies at a mid-sized sheriff's department that serves 393,000 residents in the southeastern United States. All the officers involved were promised anonymity. The line of questioning was set up to reduce bias -- for example, officers weren't asked directly if they ever shirk their duties -- and keep officers comfortable, Wolfe said.

It’s important to note that the study group is located nearly 800 miles from Ferguson. Wolfe said the results are "limited" in that sense, but found that these feelings of alienation among officers have permeated through the country, just as the public’s reaction to these national events have.

Although there wasn't any hard and fast evidence among the sample group that upticks in violence could be attributed to officers not doing their jobs because of viral videos, the "Ferguson effect" appears to have hold in certain jurisdictions. 

During the riots in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray in May, there was a spike in violent crime as arrest rates plummeted, The Associated Press reports. Police denied avoiding their jobs, but many residents said they felt scared to leave their homes and gang members noted that they could fire their weapons outside without any law enforcement response.

The solution to the motivation problem isn't for citizens should stop recording, Wolfe said. Instead, police departments should make sure their officers know that they're behind them.

"Our data reveal that reduced motivation attributable to negative publicity may be counteracted if supervisors ensure fairness among subordinates," Wolfe wrote in the study. "Little actions can go a long way. Fair treatment from supervisors sends the message to officers that 'we are here for you' regardless of how much the public or the media tries to sully law enforcement."

When there’s instability among police ranks, he said, the result is going to be more problems within the community, either in the form of violent crime or simple community relations.

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