National Security

‘Ferguson Effect’: Police Subculture and Societal Implications

By Stephen Owsinski:

Coined by Heather McDonald, Manhattan Institute fellow and author of The War on Cops, the “Ferguson effect” is the phenomenon whose namesake emanates from the case involving Michael Brown and the media-fueled hysteria which fanned the flames of the police-are-racists narrative.

The Ferguson, MO, case hinged on a Caucasian cop whose life-threatening duty-related struggle with a black male culminated in the shooting death of the latter. Mayhem ensued and the Ferguson community was literally and figuratively rocked by anti-police protests. The officer who pulled the trigger, Darren Wilson, ultimately went into hiding, not an easy thing to do when media reporters recklessly broadcast his home address.

Since the Ferguson incident, policing in America seemingly altered course, establishing the theoretical “Ferguson effect” framework.  We started to see assassinations of cops!

On one side of the coin, a theory is that law enforcement is taking a hands-off, reactive approach, correlating to spikes in crime and thus homicides. Another view involves police officials feeling apprehensive regarding performance of duty, culminating in cops becoming victims, some almost bludgeoned to death by the clear and present dangers posed by suspects. In either scenario a proverbial backing-down is what is being alleged.

The common denominator is police fear of media scrutiny and of being vilified by the American public, exactly like the experience of Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson, hence the “Ferguson effect.”

In Los Angeles, the police have a saying: Save your life, lose your job…

Are law enforcers holding back? Is police subculture marred by Ferguson and similar events, to the degree that cops are apprehensive to apprehend wrongdoers, fearing the onslaught of personal and professional condemnation? Are society’s members recognizing the alleged hands-off stance of cops and seizing the advantage by brusquely taunting police officers? Are certain members of American society hell-bent on challenging police, testing the “Ferguson effect” theory? Anarchy in the making?

The most-recent example transpired on October 5, 2016. A female Chicago police officer responded to a traffic crash scene where an involved party, who initially was leaving the scene of an accident on foot —a criminal event— doubled back, approached and savagely beat her head against the pavement until she lay unconscious. Two back-up officers likely saved her life; they, too, were embattled from the suspect’s violent resistance to arrest.

In the aftermath, that 17-year veteran Chicago police officer remains in a hospital gurney, confessing how she feared being the officer involved in another Ferguson-like debacle.

With a bastion of bullies and thugs roaming the streets, as law enforcement officers we can neither afford distractions of Monday morning quarterbacks nor fall into the armpit of the media. Bluntly, it can cost you your life. The unidentified police officer candidly stated from her hospital gurney that she feared for her life and knew she was going to die. Yet, even acknowledging she should have shot the suspect, she refrained from pulling the trigger for fear of the media blitzkrieg. Ironically, she wound up in the media anyway, nearly becoming another statistic among the enormously burgeoning and highly-publicized Chicago homicide rate.

On Friday, two days after the aforementioned near-death of the Chicago officer, the Chicago Police Department rolled-out reforms and cited a “Sanctity of Life” initiative which underscores retraining in police de-escalation protocols and techniques.

Sometimes there is no time whatsoever to implement de-escalation techniques, and, as a law enforcement officer, it is naturally imperative to ensure your own sanctity of life.

President Obama and U.S. Attorney General Lynch tentatively dismiss the “Ferguson effect,” citing not enough evidence exists to correlate the increase in crime to police balking at carrying out their duties. Even absent statistical proof, FBI Director James B. Comey coined the “Viral video effect” moniker, citing police officers are apprehensive about encounters with the public for fear of their interactions winding up on YouTube.

President of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, Dean Angelo, intimated: “In Los Angeles, the police have a saying: Save your life, lose your job.” The implications are extraordinary and the theoretical “Ferguson effect” fuse must be dampened to preempt ignition. Solution-based constructs are endemic features of American law enforcement, readied to remedy the scourge of society.

However biased I may be, I prefer to think that my law enforcement brothers and sisters who strap-on a gun belt and don a badge to serve others are courageously and universally doing so, whose constitution is galvanized and defined by the oath they swore to administer.

Stephen Owsinski is an OpsLens Contributor and retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit.  He is currently a researcher and writer.


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