The Ferguson Effect: How Negative News Discourages Careers In Law Enforcement

By Paul Atkinson, Lauren Gilger, Steve Goldstein
Published: Wednesday, July 3, 2019 - 12:12pm
Updated: Thursday, July 4, 2019 - 1:33pm
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LAUREN GILGER: The barrage of negative headlines concerning police nationwide is causing college students to reconsider careers in law enforcement. That's the finding of a new study published in The Journal of Criminal Justice Education. The tipping point occurred almost five years ago in a city outside St. Louis....

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: The shooting death of Michael Brown [in Ferguson, Missouri] helped trigger the Black Lives Matter movement, which raised awareness of the deaths of African-Americans by mostly white police officers. Weston Morrow, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nevada, Reno is the author of the new study. He says the backlash against police led to what some have called "the Ferguson effect."

WESTON MORROW: This idea that this negative attention of police and accusations of racial profiling and/or excessive force was really discouraging law enforcement from their policing duties. And subsequently this is leading to increases in crime.

GILGER: While some cities have seen increases in crime, Morrow says criminologists around the country examined the so-called Ferguson effect and pretty much came up empty.

MORROW: To date, what the researchers found is that we're not experiencing a national crime wave in the United States. You know, this quote-unquote "war on cops" is not at a rate that is higher than any previous decade. And then the other one about de-policing there there is some evidence to suggest that certain states have engaged in de-policing. Say for instance, they're not stopping as many individuals, traffic stops. But it's not necessarily translating into increases in crime for that state.

GOLDSTEIN: So Morrow and some colleagues decided to look at one impact that hadn't been investigated.

GILGER: Instead of looking at the effect on crime rates, they turned their attention to prospective police officers — college students. Researchers surveyed 460 students enrolled in criminal justice classes at a university in the southwest and one in the northeast. What they found was surprising:.

MORROW:  Students who have viewed police officers as being more heavily scrutinized by the public and the media were less likely to apply for police positions or more hesitant to apply for police positions. Which is potentially problematic because there is a lot of benefits associated with having a college education or being more educated and being a police officer.

GILGER: And that could have serious consequences.

GOLDSTEIN: That's because police departments here in Arizona and nationwide can't find enough new recruits. The Center for State and Local Government Excellence reports that the hardest job to fill of any category of personnel is that of police officer.

GILGER: So what can be done to counter this? Morrow says police need to do a better job communicating with the community they serve.

MORROW:  There needs to be a concerted effort on their behalf to reach out to community members and —especially those at college — and try and provide that counterweight to what they see in the media.

GOLDSTEIN: So now let's put a face to this phenomenon.

GILGER: Brett Matthews is wrapping up his Criminology and Criminal Justice degree at ASU Online. He lives in Sacramento and from a young age wanted to protect and serve.

BRETT MATTHEWS: So I actually wanted to go into law enforcement and start as a police officer to begin with and eventually work my way up into working at the federal level. And this was a dream of mine, probably since I was in elementary school or junior high. So it's pretty much been like a lifelong goal.

GILGER: So that's why you went into criminology when you went to ASU and chose that path?


GILGER: Tell me about the experience of going into school for criminology and what you learned and what you liked about it.

MATTHEWS:  So what criminology is so great about doing is it touches on sociological aspects, psychological aspects, legal reasons and definitions for why people may or may not commit crime. And as someone who's kind of an analyst myself, it was absolutely fascinating. Still is fascinating as I'm completing my last course. All the different theories out there that might kind of define why a particular crime might happen because I'm the kind of person who likes to get down to the basic element of why did this occur.

GILGER: So I understand though that you've changed your mind recently, that you're no longer interested in that particular path and going into law enforcement. What happened?

MATTHEWS:  So that is a pretty big question. And there were a few things that happened. One of the things that ended up happening was I did become a parent, and I had to consider roles and jobs that I would go into as a single father and what could potentially put me in harm's way or not in harm's way for my son and wanting to be there. And to go along with that, what really caused me to think about that even more: I experienced a lot of backlash and negativity from my surrounding community for from those people who knew that I was interested in pursuing a career in law enforcement.

GILGER: What did people say?

MATTHEWS: So when I would want to go study and get away from some of the parenting responsibilities and go do my coursework, I'd either go to like a Starbucks or a library, and people would see my books out. And they'd be curious and have questions, and probably 65-70% of the time, people would start off with "So, you just want to be aggressive and have a badge to defend that?" And I would get into conversations with people and say "This actively is not anywhere near the stigma that I've got towards police officers or the work. I want to do this to help my community."

GILGER: When was the moment when you decided you weren't going to do it anymore? Like was there something specific that happened, or what kind of tilted the scales in that direction for you?

MATTHEWS:  So while I have been a student I've also done some on-the-side Lyft and Uber driving, and there was one particular family that got in and they were a African-American family. And they happened to notice my books, and in the app it said I was a studying student for criminology. And they're like, "Oh, so you really just don't care about the people." And then they started talking about how they had had family members killed by people who were of Caucasian descent who were in uniform, and the negativity that many members of the African-American community associate with Caucasian members in uniform. And I just kind of sat there and thought about it. I was like "Wow, is this the predominant thought that many members of this minority community have and feel?" And if that's the case, am I really doing my community a service by going into uniform. Maybe I'm not. If they're going to perceive me in such a way regardless of my intent, maybe this isn't the right path.

GILGER: Do you understand where those reactions are coming from from those people, or were you offended?

MATTHEWS: Oh, I was absolutely offended, you know, because these are people who were making a judgment about me based on the color of my own skin without knowing who I am. Without knowing what my background is or what my intent was. But they seem to have really deep-seeded beliefs. It seems like there's a lot of things that have been going on in the media, from minority organizations or groups like Black Lives Matter that have really shown like "Hey, cops are not people to actually be trusted."

GILGER: Do you feel like there's something to that? Do you feel like you could have, as a police officer, tried to counter those points of view even though there have been instances in which that has happened? There have been white officers who have killed people of color, and the communities have felt like they have not been held accountable for that.

MATTHEWS: You know, I like to think there's a possibility that I could have helped change some of those minds. But as I think about it more from a community oriented policing approach, honestly I think members of those communities or people who come from representations of the minority population might in some ways be able to do a better job than I could because I don't understand where these people are coming from. You know, I can have sympathy and sympathize for them and some of their issues and situations, but I can't fully empathize like a minority or a police officer with a minority background or descent would be able to do it in the same way. I feel like I would really struggle with establishing that level of trust that so many of the minority population just don't have.

GILGER: What are you planning to do now, Brett, now that you're not on this law enforcement track?

MATTHEWS: I am actually transitioning in to more of a emergency management type of setting and role. And that will be actually what I'll be focusing on in my advanced degree settings that I'll be pursuing at ASU in the fall.

GILGER: Brett Matthews, thank you so much for coming on.

MATTHEWS: Yeah, absolutely.

GILGER: Brett Matthews Is a criminology student at ASU who will be graduating soon.

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