'Ferguson effect' has had its impact nationally, locally

'Ferguson effect' has had its impact nationally, locally
  1. 'Ferguson effect' has had its impact nationally, locally
    DECATUR -- Decatur Police Chief Jim Getz said while Decatur officers aren't policing less because of the high-profile uses of force against black citizens and the backlash they've caused, he did say training on how to deal with volatile…
    Illinois (IL)

DECATUR -- Decatur Police Chief Jim Getz said while Decatur officers aren't policing less because of the high-profile uses of force against black citizens and the backlash they've caused, he did say training on how to deal with volatile situations is always evolving.

It’s been called the "Ferguson effect," officers backing off of policing out of fear that their actions will be questioned after the fact. A recent Pew Research Center national survey reported that three-quarters of officers asked say they’re hesitant to use force, even when appropriate, and are less willing to stop and question suspicious people.

Getz and Macon County sheriff's Lt. Jon Butts said they’d heard of the Ferguson effect but said they didn’t feel their officers were tentative or any less vigilant because of possible repercussions.

“None of my officers have indicated to me they’re hesitant in making decisions in use of force in situations like that,” Getz said.

Butts said he’d first heard of the Ferguson effect at the FBI National Academy in Quantico, a program of the FBI Academy for active U.S. law enforcement personnel. He said he didn’t see it among his officers.

“It’s something everyone is aware of, but in our office, we have a job to do, and our officers are staying diligent,” Butts said. “Our officers carry a badge and a gun for a living, but they practice great discretion and do things within the accordance of the state. We live, work and police in the community; we treat people with dignity and respect. ”

In 2014, a white officer in Ferguson, Mo., shot and killed black teenager Michael Brown, setting off a movement drawing greater scrutiny of police use of force against black citizens. In the years since, other fatal encounters with police in such cities as Baltimore, Baton Rouge, Milwaukee, Chicago and New York have put officers under the microscope, especially as video has captured more of these events.

In 2016, Decatur police officer Andrew Wittmer shot black man Lonnie D. Mitchell but was cleared of any wrongdoing by the Macon County State’s Attorney's Office. Mitchell was armed with a knife strapped to his wrist and a BB gun that looked like a semiautomatic handgun. Mitchell survived.

There has been a concern, largely shared in anecdotes, of officers holding back on stopping suspicious people or other policing out of concern that they'd be cast as racist. The Pew survey provides the first national evidence that those concerns may be having a real impact on how officers do their jobs.

"Officers are concerned about being the next viral video and so that influences what they do and how they do it and how they think about it," said Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. He added that he doesn't believe it's rampant or that officers are turning a blind eye, "but I still have to believe it may be in a marginal-call situation where there's a reasonable suspicion on the bubble ... that those are the ones they pass up."

Getz said that while he doesn’t believe his officers are backing off out of fear of repercussions, he said training is constantly updated for officers.

“Training will always adapt to the times,” Getz said. “Force has always been used in my 18 years with the department, but there’s a lot more decision-making that goes into use of force. That decision-making is always being adapted and added to.”

Getz said use of force is always a last resort.

“An officer’s presence and communication are always the first tools: Before any force is used, we’re always going to try what we call verbal judo first,” Getz said. “It would be great if our presence and communication would get everyone to comply, but that’s not how it happens in the real world. Officers often have to decide in a matter of seconds whether to go hands on, use the Taser or use a lethal weapon.”

Butts said Macon County sheriff's deputies attend regular training through the Law Enforcement Training Advisory Committee in Springfield and have regular discussions about how to handle volatile situations.

“Policing in the 21st century is different from what it was in the past, and the training reflects that,” Butts said. “We pride ourselves on being well-trained. We want officers to be aware at all times. Nothing is routine, and they should handle each call objectively and professionally.”

The nonpartisan Pew Research Center questioned at least 8,000 officers from departments with at least 100 officers between May 19 and Aug. 14 last year, most of it ahead of the fatal shootings of five officers in Dallas and three officers in Baton Rouge.

Some of the key findings:

  •  86 percent of officers said that fatal encounters between blacks and police have made policing more difficult
  • 93 percent said they're more concerned about safety
  • 76 percent said they're more reluctant to use force when appropriate
  •  75 percent said interactions between police and blacks have become more tense
  • 72 percent said they or their colleagues are more reluctant to stop and question people who seem suspicious

The survey also showed a stark difference in how white and black officers view the protests that have taken place after some of the high-profile shootings of black suspects in the past several years, with black officers believing the protests are genuine acts of civil disobedience designed to hold police accountable, while white officers are more skeptical of the protesters' motives.

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