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Is there a 'Ferguson effect' on policing? Politicians, Chief Belmar differ

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar at a press conference Thursday, Sept.4
File photo by Bill Greenblatt | UPI

Are police throughout the country holding back on law enforcement in the wake of demonstrations that started with the shooting death of Michael Brown? A recent Senate hearing and a conversation with St. Louis County Police chief Jon Belmar gave a variety of perspectives.

The idea of a “Ferguson effect” was at the heart of a Senate subcommittee hearing chaired by Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, R-Texas. The hearing, with the unusually political title of “The War on Police: How the Federal Government Undermines State and Local Law Enforcement” heard from from Justice Department officials and a handful of organizations with very different perspectives.

Cruz opened by talking about attending the funeral of Darren Goforth, a 47-year-old sheriff’s deputy killed in August outside of Houston. Cruz linked Goforth’s killing to the Obama administration’s focus on relations between law enforcement and minority communities across the U.S. and related protests he says have led to the public vilification of police.

“Deputy Goforth was shot at a gas station, in an act of violence that I believe was a manifestation of the growing antipathy directed at law enforcement.” Cruz said officers felt their hands were tied and that they were scared to engage in proactive policing for fear of “being hung out to dry,” and risking their careers and the wellbeing of their families.

He then read news accounts of murders in cities across the U.S., including St. Louis, as evidence that crime is up because police officers are holding back on all but assigned calls following a year of increased scrutiny and protests.

Several of the witnesses who agreed with Cruz cited FBI Director James Comey’s comments in October, suggesting officers were changing their approach toward policing.

At a meeting of police chiefs in October, Comey said he had spoken privately with police officers in one big-city precinct and they had told him that they felt “under siege” whenever they got out of their cars and were “taunted” by crowds of young people holding cell phones to record their encounters. Comey told the chiefs that the officers said they didn’t really feel like getting out of their cars. He said he didn’t know whether police hesitation had contributed to a rise in crime, “but I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is a chill wind that has blown through law enforcement over the last year, and that wind is surely changing behavior.”

Ferguson effect in Ferguson?

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar says such comments from high-level officials aren’t helpful and do not reflect what he’s seeing on the part of his officers, especially those who patrol the area around Ferguson. Belmar told St. Louis Public Radio that “their productivity lately is actually up,” when it comes to what some describe as “proactive policing.” Belmar says he sees that increased activity as “a good indicator that we’re beginning to come out of this.”

More than any “Ferguson effect,” Belmar says he believes officers in places where protests occurred were just “wore out and tired” and needed a physical and emotional break for a little while. He says he’s not putting any “pressure or emphasis to go out there and be more proactive,” saying instead that he’s relying on good leadership and quality officers within the department to make that happen.

Belmar says one of the biggest challenges for police chiefs in the years ahead is the question officers have about “who has their backs?” He says officers know they can count on support from inside their departments, but they also want to know what support they have from the community. As for his own perspective, Belmar says he does believe law enforcement has the support of a majority of Americans, even if much of that support is silent.

As for how some police officers may view the question of support, Belmar points to former Ferguson officer Darren Wilson as an example, explaining that officers take note of the fact that both a state grand jury and an 85-page investigative report from the Department of Justice found no evidence on which to charge Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown.

“Can you imagine any chief in the United States hiring Darren Wilson to be a police officer,” he asks, adding “I can’t.” Belmar says that, while the example may be “remarkable” and that he doesn’t want to over simplify Wilson’s case, it does “resonate” with officers. “And they say to themselves, well I can lose my job, I can put my career and family’s well-being at stake and as it turns out perhaps nothing was ever wrong, and I did my job that day.”

Belmar says he doesn’t think law enforcement knows yet whether it is dealing with a “Ferguson effect." It’s likely to be several years, he says, before we understand exactly what that effect was.

A study released this summer by Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, shows no "credible and comprehensive" evidence that officers were refraining from vigorous enforcement activity, resulting in more crime.

Long overdue conversation

While the Justice Department didn’t find evidence to charge Wilson, it did find widespread evidence of civil rights violations in Ferguson. And groups, such as the Ferguson Commission, have pushed for more training and more community-centered policing.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, told the subcommittee that she rejected the idea that there was war on police. “What some are calling a war on police is an admittedly painful, but necessary national conversation about the police use of excessive - sometimes fatally excessive -- force against unarmed citizens. A disproportionate number of these victims are African American,” she said.

She also told the panel that the protests that are occurring around the U.S. are not just a response to “graphic and disturbing videos” seen over the last year. Instead, she says they “reflect decades-long reality of the relationship between police and many communities of color.”

Ifill also said, that the “conversation” the country is having on the issue is “long overdue,” but she says she’s confident that it will result in better policing with stronger and more trusting relationships between the police and the communities they serve.

Proactive policing and trust

Part of that relationship relies on what some call “proactive policing” where an officer talks with individuals in a community or approaches someone on a street corner in the early morning hours where there’s been criminal activity.

Without community support, he fears that some police officers across the U.S. could get to the point of only answering the calls they are assigned. - Jon Belmar

Belmar says police departments put a lot of time, money and emphasis on giving officers the kind of information they need to “make a difference regarding burglaries, assaults, whatever it may be.” He says they use a lot of analytical tools along with “good, common-sense police work that veteran officers” should understand, but he also says that kind of policing can be adversely impacted by groups “professing a lot of distrust” and suggesting that police departments are corrupt.

He’s says without community support, he fears that some police officers across the U.S. could get to the point of only answering the calls they are assigned (back to the “Ferguson effect”). The result Belmar says, would hurt the very communities many of those same groups say they want to help.

He also says some of the “broad brush” comments critical of police departments that came out of the Department of Justice in 2014 gave an impression of an “epidemic” in law enforcement and were “knee-jerk reactions.”

During a summit on violence earlier this summer, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel urged Attorney General Loretta Lynch to express strong support for law enforcement across the country. Belmar says that kind of support is “critical.”

He adds, “If we overlook that, we don’t understand that there is a trickle down effect … officers watch TV, they watch the national news, they read papers, they understand what’s going on” and they’re looking for “everybody, especially entities like the Department of Justice not to be overly critical of law enforcement, because frankly, I don’t think it’s helpful.”

Belmar says there’s been a sea change in how police communicate with the public in general and members of the protest community. In the past, he says police were limited in how much information they’d release about a crime so as not to do anything that might prejudice a case or influence a jury. Now, he says “we’re making sure that we’re as transparent as possible and I think that one change is probably one of the biggest … I’ve seen in the last 15 to 20 years on community/police relations."

“You bring your clergy in, talk to the NAACP, talk to your different groups … stakeholders in our community because we can’t do it alone as a police department.” He says those improved avenues of communications lead to greater approval of law enforcement.