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For one Atlanta police officer, no 'war on cops' – just a chance to do her job

While both supporters and critics see a police force on edge in the wake of the protests of the past year, Officer Barricia McCormick says that's not her reality in Zone 4, one of Atlanta's most dangerous districts.

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    An Atlanta police cruiser, shown on Jan. 15.
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Barricia McCormick has heard the anti-police slogans, and has watched news coverage of police officers being gunned down in an era of intense national scrutiny on how police use force, especially against black people.

As a result, the Atlanta Police Department beat cop says she watches her “six” – or rear – a little more diligently. She spends more time than usual working on her tactical training. But in this city of gilded skyscrapers and chicken-and-waffle joints, Officer McCormick, who joined the police in 2009, says she has only really noticed an increase in one type of citizen interaction: the sympathetic smile.

That mixture of hot and cold – “Some people never liked us, and never will like us,” as she says – is part of a disconcerting stretch for many of the nation’s nearly 400,000 police officers. A series of high-profile deaths in which the victims were unarmed black men has sparked an at times volatile civil rights movement that has participated in presidential task forces but also raised rabble-rousing chants while banging on police car hoods.

Simultaneously, there also has been a high-profile series of police deaths in Texas, Missouri, New York, Louisiana, and Illinois in the year since the shooting of Michael Brown sparked protests and riots that spread to other cities. These deaths, coming amid a wave of crime in some US cities, have raised concerns that “the equilibrium has changed between police and offenders,” as Alfred Blumstein, a professor and a criminologist at Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, posited to The New York Times earlier this month.

Police deaths are certainly the biggest concern of officers. But others stem from the fact that a job where split-second decisions can literally be life and death is coming in for extra scrutiny that critics argue is long overdue. The United States has seen a series of major wrongful death court settlements involving police, including Baltimore’s $6.4 million settlement with the family of Freddie Gray. So far, 14 police officers have been arrested this year for alleged on-duty crimes. While that’s a record, it’s still a vanishingly small fraction of the nation’s law enforcement.

The heated rhetoric and a concern that some Americans may be inspired to target the police come at the same time as a spike in violence, leading some to believe that police may be pulling back. While there have been isolated incidents – such as New York’s ticketing slowdown last winter – there’s little evidence that US police officers as a whole are retreating from duty, according to both policing experts and research by police departments. There’s also little data suggesting that violence against police has increased. Slightly fewer officers have been killed this year compared with the same time last year.

“Yes, what happened in Ferguson affected Baltimore [and other cities], because people are watching,” says Tod Burke, a criminologist at Radford University in Virginia and a former Maryland police officer. For officers, he says, “I think there is a red flag. I think there is extra caution. But all that means is that they’re going to do their job with extra caution” – not refuse to do their job.

Not 'us versus them'

The New Jersey-born McCormick, who also serves in the Air National Guard at Fort Benning, Ga., agrees. “I was hired to do a job, and that’s what I’m going to do,” she says.

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And as far as a “war on cops” – a phrase used recently by Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke – McCormick, at least, doesn’t see it.

“I don’t think it’s us versus them,” says McCormick, who served as an officer in Texas before joining the APD in 2011. “Yeah, the media might have some people looking more closely at police and wondering. But the fact is, I get thanked more now than I did before, and I have people coming up to me just randomly telling me to be safe out there, stuff like that. And I know it’s related to what’s going on nationally, because when they approach me they usually mention something they heard on the news.”

Atlanta saw some major protests in the wake of the Michael Brown killing, with activists last November briefly shutting down a major interstate and, at Christmas, stopping traffic at an upscale mall. But the city’s 2,000-officer force has also made strides to ease community tensions since two major scandals in the past decade.

A reformist chief, George Turner, fired a number of rogue officers when he took office in 2011. Chief Turner is credited with building community trust in part by creating a force that racially reflects the city, as well as creating opportunities for neighborhoods to set policing priorities.

But it’s not an easy city to police. Zone 4, where McCormick patrols, includes one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in America, where 1 of 9 residents are a victim of violent crime every year.

A public concern for police has a long tradition in the US, tying into a sense of police as civic heroes that only increased after 9/11. But 14 years after those terror attacks, Gallup found this summer that 18 percent of Americans now have little to no confidence in police – the highest such figure the organization has recorded in the past 22 years.

Some of those who are dissatisfied have taken to the streets and have taken anti-police rhetoric to a level perhaps not seen since the rap group NWA in 1988 released “[expletive] tha Police” in response to racial profiling allegations. In August, protesters outside the fairgrounds in St. Paul, Minn., were filmed chanting, “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon.”

“I don’t think chanting or singing what's basically promoting killing police officers is peaceful,” St. Paul Police Federation President Dave Titus told a local TV station.

Perhaps most concerning was a nine-day stretch this summer in which four officers were killed by gunfire, including Darren Goforth. The sheriff’s deputy was killed execution-style while pumping gas in late August in the Houston area.

“You can’t help but wonder if there are people who are susceptible to the message that someone should lash out and make targets of police officers,” Harris County, Texas, Sheriff Ron Hickman told Fox News after the killing of Mr. Goforth. A man with a history of mental illness has been charged in his death. “You can’t help but wonder.”

'Free-floating anxiety' among officers

Some say the rhetoric and scrutiny has affected how police officers do their jobs. Amid one of the worst murder waves in recent memory, Milwaukee police officers are making fewer traffic stops and conducting fewer field interviews, largely due to what Chief Edward Flynn called “free-floating anxiety” among cops. However, Mr. Flynn told the Times his officers were responding as usual to service calls.

The contention that hesitant policing has emboldened criminals, is not, so far, supported by data. University of St. Louis criminologist Richard Rosenfeld, for example, has found that homicides in St. Louis started to rise before Michael Brown’s death last August.

But concern among cops like McCormick for their own safety has paralleled a noticeable uptick in murder and violence in 35 US cities over the past year.

So far, criminologists have struggled to explain the spike, especially as it’s coming after a dramatic long-term decline in violent crimes in the US.

Early data don’t implicate either the national scrutiny of police, nor adjustments made by departments. In cities such as Milwaukee, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Atlanta, the majority of victims and perpetrators are black men under 30, police departments say. And much of the recent violence, they say, has little to do with gangs or robberies. Instead, they have been minor arguments that spun into violence. In recent weeks, young people have been killed over Facebook posts, fights over girlfriends, and food.

“For the most part, the highest grade education of perpetrators and victims is between 8th and 9th grade,” says Atlanta Police Department Assistant Chief Shawn Jones, citing internal research. “Dropping out of school at 15 hampers a person’s ability to reason and manage adult-type situations, so as a result of that, they pretty much look at violence as a solution. They also don’t know how to negotiate and deal with frustrations of something not going their way, and their lack of education compounds that situation.

The only incident resembling violence against police in Atlanta has been two cruisers that were vandalized after officers responded to a false alarm. Still, says Assistant Chief Jones, when there’s frustration at the government, police officers know that their uniforms make them a potential target for raw emotions and even violence. “As a responding officer, you’re the face of the government,” he acknowledges.

Many US police departments have begun reforms ranging from use-of-force protocols to ending the practice of raising city revenues by ticketing people in poorer areas of town for minor infractions. Many police departments have started asking neighborhood residents to prioritize crime problems, have begun putting more emphasis on de-escalation tactics, and have increased the use of so-called body cameras, which studies show can help improve the tenor of police-citizen encounters.

In New York City, all 35,000 officers now are required to spend at least one day a year thinking about how they approach the public. One popular session focuses on helping cops stop swearing so much. After showing a clip of Robert De Niro cursing like a sailor in “Taxi Driver,” an instructor suggests cops instead use phrases such as “Stop mucking around” and “Move the car, my friend,” according to a recent Ken Auletta piece in the New Yorker.

The challenge for officers like McCormick, who is a distant descendant of Harriet Tubman, is to push back against negative stereotypes of police not by sitting in her police cruiser, but getting out. During her day watch shift in Zone 4, she visits several gasoline stations where older men like to sit and talk, both to pick up on the local gossip as well as provide a friendly official presence.

Despite the hard-edged rhetoric against police nationally, McCormick says she hasn’t lost sight of why she became a police officer in the first place.

“I like knowing that on some level you’re making a difference in someone’s life,” she says. “I’m thinking of a kid whose neighborhood is not the greatest in the world, and somehow he hasn’t fallen in line with other kids in the neighborhood. He always asks me how I’m doing and tells me about his school year. It’s nice to know that there are people that we can help and maybe be better role models and mentors for.”

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