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Impact of the Ferguson Effect on Police Use of Force

Info: 3141 words (13 pages) Essay
Published: 8th Feb 2020 in Criminology

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 As the police commissioner of Buffalo NY the issues of the Ferguson effect and police use of force on people of colour will be addressed and this essay will aim to enlighten the concerned citizens on these issues. Firstly, the essay will briefly discuss the Ferguson effect which was gotten from the case of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and briefly explain what is meant by deadly force. It will go further to explain how the Ferguson effect has is not exactly related to the increase of crime. Not only this, but the use of force against minorities will also be discussed in great detail with the help of empirical research and a conclusion will be made.

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 The Ferguson effect is a term that involves the events encircling the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed young black man by a white police officer in Ferguson (Pyrooz, Decker, Wolfe & Shjarback 2016). Deadly force is physical force that has the capability to kill or severely injure an individual (Klinger, Rosenfeld, Isom & Deckard 2015). The best way to determine the frequency of police decisions to use firearms as a means of deadly force is by considering wounding and off-target shots as only unexpected distinctions of fatal shootings (Klinger et al. 2015). Officer involved shootings that happened after the Ferguson incident such as Tamir Rice in Cleveland Ohio have added to general concerns of the public regarding the use of deadly force by police officers (Klinger et al. 2015).

The shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson has increased the growth of citizen groups that want to raise awareness about police use of force (Campbell, Nix & Maguire 2017). Citizens are of the notion that police fatal shootings occur frequently but in fact they are rear events (Campbell et al. 2017). In the aftermath of Ferguson there are compelling reasons to expect fatal shootings to increase or decrease (Campbell et al. 2017). The first possibility is that citizens are more likely to challenge police authority and not comply with their orders (Campbell et al. 2017). If citizens are more likely to challenge police authority, it is expected that the use of deadly force by the police will increase to gain citizen compliance (Campbell et al. 2017). This event can lead to a decrease in community policing. The second possibility is that police officers are less likely to engage in proactive policing because of fear of consequences that come with fatal shootings (Campbell et al. 2017). This occurrence is called de-policing. If de-policing has occurred post-Ferguson era, it is expected that the use of deadly of force will decrease. These are the two trends that can occur post-Ferguson (Campbell et al. 2017).

 The trends that are described above are hypotheses that were put forward by Campbell, Nix and Maguire 2017. In a study conducted by Campbell, Nix and Maguire 2017 it was found that the police shooting of Michael Brown had no significant influence on the frequency of police fatal shootings (Campbell, Nix & Maguire 2017). They performed ordinary linear regression analysis and a time series analysis to obtain the results for their hypothesis (Campbell et al. 2017). The time series analysis also showed that the Michael Brown shooting did not have a significant effect on police fatal shooting after the occurrence of the Ferguson incident (Campbell et al. 2017). Based on the result from the research study discussed, it can be seen that the Ferguson effect has little to no influence on police fatal shootings and there is no evidence of a direct link between the Ferguson effect and the increase of crime. The influence of the media portrays officer involved shooting as a frequent occurrence and looking at the Ferguson case it is understandable that citizens would want to believe that there is an increase in crime and that this increase is linked to the Ferguson effect but research says otherwise. There was no upward or downward trend in the post-Ferguson era.

 It is important to note that there is limitation to this study. In this study there was a lack of sufficient data to examine the trends in the number of citizens killed by police officers (Campbell et al. 2017). This is as a result of law enforcement agencies not being able to provide accurate data on police use of deadly force incidents (Campbell et al. 2017).  There should be an improvement on government data collection initiative to ensure the availability of valid and reliable information of police use of deadly force (Campbell et al. 2017).

 In addition to this, the study conducted by Pyrooz, Decker, Wolfe and Shjarback 2016 found that there was no real change in violent and property crime trends post-Ferguson; however the disaggregate analyses showed that robbery rates that were declining before Ferguson increased after the Ferguson incident (Pyrooz, Decker, Wolfe & Shjarback 2016. Also there was a great variation in crime trends and some cities did experience homicide increase (Pyrooz et al. 2016). In general the research study found that there was no overall Ferguson effect (Pyrooz et al. 2016).

 The notion of implicit bias may go farther than predictable racism in explaining officer involved shootings (Sekhon 2016). Psychologists have demonstrated that most people, minorities included conceal racial biases of which they are not aware or conscious of (Sekhon 2016). Such biases may explain an officer’s quick trigger-finger when faced with a black versus white suspect (Sekhon 2016). Implicit bias is helpful in understanding shootings where officers wrongfully perceive that the minority victim is armed (Sekhon 2016). However, it is less helpful in understanding majority of the cases where the victim actually had a firearm (Sekhon 2016). Such studies cannot control for the complex ecological conditions that exist in the poor minority neighbourhoods where police violence is potent (Sekhon 2016).

Looking at officer involved shootings against people of colour the conflict theory can be used to explain socioeconomic status that can be linked to minorities. The conflict theory is a perspective that suggests that law enforcement is mainly used by the superior group in society to reduce threats to their interests that is posed by minorities and the lower class (Petrocelli Pieuro & Smith 2003). It can be seen from prior research that minorities are commonly associated with lower class neighbourhoods that are impoverished and have high levels of violence. Research has established that urban neighbourhoods show significant difference in crime, demographic make-up and socioeconomic status (Klinger et al. 2015). Research has also suggested that police behaviour can vary with race and class across neighbourhoods and the nature of police-citizen interactions in minority based communities may be noticeably different in other neighbourhoods (Klinger et al. 2015).  

In some cases officer involved shooting does not always occur based on racial stereotype it could occur based on the situation, if the suspect is in possession of a weapon, officer experience, officer self control, ecological factors, police organizations and individual-officer characteristics (Donner, Maskaly, Piquero & Jennings 2017). These factors play into officer involve shooting and in some cases race may not be the determining factor for on officer’s decision to shoot.

 The self control theory which was put forward by Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) suggests that an individual with low self-control is more likely to engage in reckless behaviour due to an inability to consider long term consequences that may be as a result of their actions (Donner Fridell & Jennings 2016; Donner et al. 2017). These individuals are more likely to be impulsive thrill-seekers self-centred, low tolerance for frustration and have an inability to delay gratification (Donner et al. 2016; Donner et al. 2017). According to the self control theory there is a likelihood that a police officer may shoot a suspect based on having low self control not necessarily based on race. There officers that have low self control and are thrill seeking therefore self control is a factor that is worth considering.

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 Ecological factor is also an important factor to consider when looking at officer involved shooting. Klinger (1997) put forward an ecological theory that suggests the vigor with which police use legal authority would differ inversely with district crime levels because police cynicism would be higher and officers would view crime as normal and victims as less deserving in high crime district compared to officers in a low crime district (Philips & Sobol 2010; Sobol 2010). Klinger’s theory focused on the connection between police organization and ecological environments (Philips & Sobol 2010; Sobol 2010). In a research study done by Smith (2004) it was found that a city’s population, violent crime rate and the proportion of African American citizens was all linked to police shootings among 179 large U.S cities (Donner et al. 2017).                In addition to ecology police organization also plays a role in officer involved shooting. Sometime if a police organization comprises of female officers there could be a reduction in the number of officer involved shootings (Donner et al. 2017). As seen in Carmichael and Kent 2015 data revealed that the percentage of female officers in a city significantly reduced the number of officer involved shootings (Donner et al. 2017). In addition to this police organizations may not always have restrictive deadly force policies or clear shooting guidelines as seen in the research conducted by Fyfe (1982) (Donner et al. 2017). Fyfe (1982) found that the difference in police shootings in Memphis and New York could attributed to the absence of clear shooting guidelines in Memphis compared to New York (Donner et al. 2017).  Another thing to note is training in police organizations sometimes training can help reduce police shootings (Donner et al. 2017).

 The research that was carried out by Klinger, Rosenfeld, Isom and Deckard 2015 is an example of how officer involved shooting may not always be aimed at race. It could be based on crime severity. In the study conducted by Klinger, Rosenfeld, Isom and Deckard 2015, the nature and determinants of 230 officer involved shootings across 355 St Louis census block group between the years of 2003 to 2012 was examined (Klinger et al. 2015). It was discovered in the police case files that most of the shootings involved white male officers and young black male suspects that were armed with guns and were also caused by perceived criminal activity or suspicious behaviour by the suspect (Klinger et al. 2015). It was seen that half of the shooting resulted in injury and one in six involved fatal injuries (Klinger et al. 2015). The shooting most likely occurred in poor socioeconomic neighbourhoods with a large number of black people and a high level of firearm violence (Klinger et al. 2015). Several shootings also took place in wealthy neighbourhoods with midlevel firearm violence. In the empirical finding, there was also an existence of a curvilinear association between firearm violence and police shootings (Klinger et al. 2015). It showed that when the curvilinear association is applied the neighbourhood racial composition or the socioeconomic status was irrelevant (Klinger et al. 2015). The firearm violence has a direct effect on police shootings in St Louis neighbourhoods (Klinger et al. 2015). It suggests that the use of deadly force is in response to serious crime which in this case was firearm violence and not race.

 In another research study conducted by Tregle, Nix and Alpert 2018 it was found that fatal officer involved shooting occurred evenly each year in terms of race when the benchmark against all arrest was applied (Tregle Nix & Alpert 2018). However the odds ratio varied in the year of 2015 to 2017 which indicated that black citizens were more likely to be fatally shot than white citizens in each of the last three years (Tregle et al. 2018). When benchmarked against arrests for violent criminal activity and weapons offenses black citizens were less likely to be fatally shot by police from 2015 to 2017 (Tregle et al. 2018). In their research the authors used an appropriate benchmark which was the arrest benchmark to observe racial differences in officer involved shooting and the results show that population data gave flawed conclusions about racial differences in officer involved shooting (Tregle et al. 2018). The reason for this is police encounters that white and black citizens experience differ substantially; therefore the rate at which they are exposed to the risk of being fatally shot differs as well. Population data does not take this into account.   

 Sometimes a police officer may be in a deadly mix situation where a decision to use or not to use deadly force has to be made (Pinizzotto, Davis, Bohrer & Ifanti 2012). The deadly mix is the dynamic interaction between the officer, the offender and the circumstances which brought them together (Pinzzotto et al. 2012). Any encounter where an officer was assaulted or killed happened in a progressive evolving location that involved the awareness of the officer and the offender (Pinzzotto et al. 2012).   The awareness and the accompanying interpretations were changed by the actions of each individual as they interacted (Pinzzotto et al. 2012). Based on those assumptions of each other’s behaviours the individuals acted accordingly (Pinzzotto et al. 2012). Pinzzotto and others conducted a research study where the results showed that approximately 70 percent of the sample police officers had been in situations where they had the decision to legally use their firearm during a critical incident but chose not to (Pinzzotto et al. 2012). Officers were involved in an average of four of such cases during their career (Pinzzotto et al. 2012). Only 20 percent of the sample had been involved in crucial occurrence where they had to use firearm during the event (Pinzzotto et al. 2012). Officers in the sample used a significant amount of restraint (Pinzzotto et al. 2012).

  In conclusion the empirical findings show that the increase in crime is not always a result of the Ferguson effect. In most cases, in the post-Ferguson era crime trends don’t have an upward or downward movement as can be seen from the research discussed. The media always gives citizens the notion that officer involved shooting occurs frequently when in reality it rarely happens and even in some instances officers actually attempt to exercise restraint before resorting to the use of a firearm. In terms of use of force and race, racial bias does exist in officer decision making but the chances of an officer pulling the trigger because of the colour of an individual’s skin is less likely. As can be seen in previous pages, there are other factors that can account for an officer shooting an individual, especially a person of colour. These factors could be based on the situational context, socioeconomic status, officer experience, low self control, ecology, presence of a weapon, crime severity and individual-officer characteristics.  There are some suggestions that can be made to address the use of force. There should be more officer training, realistic simulators, educated police officers and clear police shooting guidelines in police organizations. In terms of future research there should be an improvement in the reliability of federal government  and law enforcement agencies data regarding officer involved shootings to help future researchers. This was a common limitation across most of the empirical research that was examined. 


  • Campbell, B. A., Nix, J., & Maguire, E. R. (2018). Is the number of citizens fatally shot by police increasing in the post-Ferguson era? Crime & Delinquency, 64(3), 398-420. doi:10.1177/0011128716686343
  • Donner, C.M., Fridell, L.A. & Jennings, W.G. 2016. The Relationship Between Self-Control and Police Misconduct: A Multi Agency Study of First-Line Police Supervisors. Criminal Justice and Behaviour, 43, 7, 841-862
  • Donner, C. M., Maskaly, J., Piquero, A. R., & Jennings, W. G. (2017). Quick on the Draw: Assessing the Relationship Between Low Self-Control and Officer-Involved Police Shootings. Police Quarterly, 20(2), 213–234. https://doi.org/10.1177/1098611116688066
  • Klinger, D. , Rosenfeld, R. , Isom, D. and Deckard, M. (2016), Race, Crime, and the Micro‐Ecology of Deadly Force. Criminology & Public Policy, 15: 193-222.
  • Sekhon, N. (2016), Blue on black: An empirical assessment of police shootings. American Criminal Law Reviewhttps://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/Papers.cfm?abstract_id=2700724
  • Phillips, S., & Sobol, J. (2011). Police Attitudes about the Use of Unnecessary Force: An Ecological Examination. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology. 26. 47-57. 10.1007/s11896-010-9067-6. doi:10.1111/1745-9133.12174
  • Pinizzotto, A. J., Davis, E. F., Bohrer, S. B., & Infanti, B. J. (2012). Law Enforcement Restraint in the Use of Deadly Force within the Context of ‘the Deadly Mix.’ International Journal of Police Science & Management, 14(4), 285–298. https://doi.org/10.1350/ijps.2012.14.4.289
  • Pyrooz, D. C., Decker, S. H., Wolfe, S. E., & Shjarback, J. A. (2016). Was there a Ferguson effect on crime rates in large U.S. cities? Journal of Criminal Justice, 46, 1-8. doi:10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2016.01.001
  • Sobol J.J. (2010). Social ecology and police discretion: The influence of district crime, cynicism, and workload on the vigor of police response. Journal of Criminal Justice 38(4) 481 – 488
  • Tregle Brandon, Nix, Justin & Alpert, Geoffrey P. 2018 Disparity does not mean bias: making sense of observed racial disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings with multiple benchmarks. Journal of Criminal Justice, 42:1, 18-31, DOI:10.1080/0735648X.2018.1547269


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