More than three-quarters of U.S. law enforcement officers say they are reluctant to use force when necessary, and nearly as many say they or their colleagues are more reluctant to stop and question people who seem suspicious as a result of increased scrutiny of police, according to a new study published Wednesday by the Pew Research Center.
The 2014 officer-involved shooting death of a black teen in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson put the national spotlight on police use of force and officers' interactions with minorities. Since then, top-ranking law enforcement officers and policymakers have debated the impact of the so-called “Ferguson effect” — officers becoming less proactive in their policing out of a fear their actions will be second-guessed by their superiors and the public.
The wide-ranging, national survey — which includes feedback from 8,000 officers and sheriff’s deputies — quantifies just how pervasive the issue has become in departments across the U.S. in the aftermath of a series of controversial deadly encounters between police and African-American suspects. High-profile incidents in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore, Baton Rouge, Chicago and elsewhere have spurred public protest, and cut deep rifts between police and minorities in some communities. The survey suggests that the impact has been just as deep on the morale of rank-and-file police officers.
“Within America’s police and sheriff’s departments ... the ramifications of these deadly encounters have been less visible than the public protests, but no less profound,” according to the Pew report.
Three-quarters of officers say the incidents have increased tensions between police and black residents in their communities. More than eight in 10 officers said police work is harder today as a result of the high-profile incidents.
The survey — conducted between May 19 and Aug. 14 with officers at 54 departments — comes on the heels of a year when several big cities — including Chicago, Indianapolis, Memphis, and San Antonio — dealt with surges in murder rates. In the midst of last year’s spike, FBI Director James Comey suggested an increase in violent crime in some cities may be a result of a less-aggressive law enforcement approach in the face of increased public scrutiny.
Former Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy recently tied the surge in violence in the nation’s third largest city — which tallied 762 murders and more than 4,300 shooting victims in 2016 — to a decline in street stops by cops. McCarthy was fired from his post in December 2015 after the court-ordered release of a video that showed a white police officer firing 16 shots at 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
That incident, which ignited public backlash, also spurred a Justice Department civil rights investigation of Chicago Police Department’s patterns and practices. The DOJ is expected to issue its findings on its Chicago investigation in the coming days.
In an op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times published Wednesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said it was crucial that the city have an “engaged, proactive police department” as the city tries to stem the violence that has disproportionately impacted a few low-income, predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhoods.
“If the reforms we must, and will, make are seen as demonizing the police, the police will naturally become reactive,” Emanuel wrote in anticipation of the Justice report. “They’re only human. The clarity, certainty and standards they need to do their jobs will be lost, and the result will be more violence. That is not a recipe for success in our communities. The only winners in that case are the gangbangers and drug dealers.”
Most participants completed the survey ahead of the fatal shooting of five officers in Dallas in July and the killing of three officers in Baton Rouge less than two weeks later. Both incidents occurred in the aftermath of the fatal police shootings in suburban St. Paul and Baton Rouge that drew nationwide attention. All participants surveyed came from agencies with at least 100 sworn officers.
The survey also showed that black officers' views on high-profile, deadly incidents sharply contrast with their white and Hispanic colleagues.
Twenty-seven percent of white officers and 26% of Hispanic officers say highly publicized deaths of African-Americans during police encounters are indicative of a broader problem between police and African-Americans. Meanwhile, 57% of black officers saying that the incidents are evidence of a broader problem.
The survey also found 67% of officers believe the public has a positive view of police, though rank-and-file officers were less likely than supervisors or administrators to hold that view.
Follow USA TODAY Chicago correspondent Aamer Madhani on Twitter: @AamerISmad