Amid withering post-Ferguson critique, police around the country look inward

Public confidence in police has dropped following video evidence showing police officers acting with seeming disregard for human life. Still, policing reforms proposed after a white officer killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., have begun to gain traction. 

Rick Wilking/REUTERS
Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol shakes hands with a protester during a protest march in Ferguson, Missouri Saturday, August 8, 2015, one year after the police shooting of an unarmed black teen thrust Ferguson into the national spotlight.

A year after Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson killed an unarmed black man named Michael Brown, the nearly 800,000 American police officers from Santa Rosa, Calif., to Atlanta are navigating new and uncertain terrain.

While the danger of the job hasn’t subsided, public admiration for police has dropped amid a string of video evidence showing police officers acting with seeming disregard for human life.

A June Gallup poll found the lowest percentage of confidence in police since 1993, in the wake  of the videotaped beating of motorist Rodney King. While noting that the recent drop in confidence was likely due to events in Ferguson and elsewhere, Gallup also reported that “trust in police … remains high in an absolute sense, despite being at a historical low.”

Still, it’s been a tough year for a profession seen publicly as ranging from Dirty Harry to Norman Rockwell, even as real cops perform what Jonathan Thompson of the National Sheriffs’ Association calls a “dangerous, risky, hard, ugly job.”

An average of 45 million citizen-police interactions a year have become complicated by a new look at how police use force, especially deadly force, and especially in communities of color. Video images have raised new questions about the authority of the badge on the streets, and, at the very least, have given police officers pause in everyday interactions with citizens.

“The harm from the Freddie Gray death [where a Baltimore man died in police custody] has had a chilling effect,” Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer, told the AP recently. “Cops were saying, ‘That could have been me’” who ended up charged with serious crimes.

Even the most ardent anti-police brutality activists acknowledge that the vast majority of US police officers are well-trained and decent. But the past year has put a sharp spotlight on potentially rogue officers who, by lack of training or by a crimp in their moral compass, have brought shame to the badge. Recent videos have given America a glimpse of that dark side of policing, and reckoning with it has become a national priority.

“These [police shooting] incidents have gotten national attention and settled into the public consciousness in a way that has changed the landscape in ways we have not seen before,” says Laurie Robinson, a George Mason University criminologist who served as co-chair of the White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing. “It’s changed the landscape for policing, it’s changed the landscape for criminal justice, and it’s changed the landscape for public officials, who can’t treat this as a crisis to get through, but who have to now grapple with this and pay serious attention to it.”

That tumultuous shift has led in some places to low morale, even work slow-downs, among the rank-and-file

In Baltimore, the riots over the death of Mr. Gray in police hands seem to have unleashed a murder wave, with the city recording 189 murders through July. The police force, which saw six of its officers indicted in the death of Mr. Gray and the subsequent firing of police commissioner Anthony Batts, has seen morale plummet amid the violence. Even as the murder rate doubled, arrests in Baltimore were halved over the same period.

The new interim chief, Kevin Davis, acknowledged that police officers are in the midst of a period of existential introspection, hardened by poll numbers. Before Ferguson, 33 percent of white Americans were dissatisfied with how blacks are treated; in the wake of Brown’s killing, according to Gallup, that dissatisfaction figure has risen to 47 percent

“We have a profession with authority that no other profession has,” Mr. Davis told the AP last month. “We can take a person’s freedom away and … a human life if justification exists to do so. Where we are in this moment in time is, we have to engage in a great deal of self-examination, and look at how we can do things better.”

But police are being asked to do so even as many feel like pariahs, unfairly targeted en masse by mayors, the US Justice Department, even President Obama.

Bill Johnson, the director of the National Association of Police Organizations, sympathizes with beat cops whose jobs have become slogs.

“I think police officers feel, in general, that things are tougher right now,” he says. “Economically, things are tougher. Police officers see people who have given up looking for work, so drug use is coming back up and violent crime is going up. Race relations are worse than they have been in the recent past. All things that people don’t like to talk about. The world is angrier, and just harder.”

Such dire perceptions have had an impact on officers. New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio came in on a police reform agenda, saw the city’s police force slow down its work after widespread official criticism over the death of Eric Garner, who died after a NYPD officer put a chokehold on him after he resisted arrest for selling single, untaxed cigarettes.

The incriminating videos of police callousness and disregard – including the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland and the killing of motorist Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C. – have magnified simmering problems in some urban departments in the US.

In the past five years, over 100 Washington, D.C., police officers have been arrested for crimes ranging from money laundering to murder. And Baltimore is one city among many with a long history of alleged police abuses, some of which have been richly documented by local media, including the 17 officers arrested in 2011 for running an extortion scheme.

The pressures of the job likely play into criminality by police.  On average, cops have higher rates of alcoholism, suicide, and divorce than the general population.

Adding to the tension: The country is still entrenched in a post-9/11 national security environment that saw a widespread militarization of local police, and where soldier traditions and paramilitary tactics seeped deeper into policing culture, according to “Rise of the Warrior Cop,” by libertarian author Radley Balko.

That trend has hardened an already significant “us versus them” approach by many especially urban police departments, where some parts of town feel, at least to cops, like war zones. As part of that defensiveness, police academies focus first and foremost on the gun. US police cadets spend an average of 58 hours at the gun range and eight yours learning how to de-escalate tense situations.

“We’re seeing the problem that arises when we deploy our police as a security force: they become insulated … [as] they try to control people from a safe distance, and that’s when the guns tend to come out,” says Rob Kane, a criminologist at Drexel University, and author of “Jammed Up: Bad Cops, Police Misconduct and the New York City Police Department.”

“The irony is that the neighborhoods where we send our police in as a paramilitary unit, these are the neighborhoods where the heavy use of coercion is most likely to backfire on police and the public,” he says.

Nevertheless, policing reforms proposed after Ferguson have gained various amounts of traction. Body cameras are becoming more commonplace, and are widely seen as a safeguard for both civilians and police. Washington has modified the process for allowing police departments to receive used military equipment. Some states, including New York and Connecticut, now appoint special prosecutors to look into controversial use-of-force incidents.

For Mr. Wilson, the now ex-Ferguson officer who was twice exonerated of any wrongdoing in the killing of Mr. Brown, a central problem for police officers in the video age is that it’s difficult to consider a suspect’s full humanity when faced with split-second decisions that could change the world forever.

“We can’t fix in thirty minutes what happened [to someone] thirty years ago,” Wilson told The New Yorker. “We have to fix what’s happening now. That’s my job as a police officer. I’m not going to delve into people’s life-long history and figure out why they’re feeling a certain way, in a certain moment. I’m not a psychologist.”

Though Wilson has repeatedly tried to find another job as a police officer, he remains unemployed, the magazine reports.

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