THE POLICING IN AMERICA SYMPOSIUM: American Policing in the Post-Ferguson Era

August 16th, 2017

By Justin Nix*

American policing is currently in the midst of a legitimacy crisis, fueled primarily by numerous highly publicized fatal shootings of black citizens over the last two and a half years.[1] Arguably the most consequential was the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. This incident sparked protests throughout the United States and fueled the growth of the Black Lives Matter Movement and Campaign Zero, which have helped raise awareness about police use of force.[2] Since Ferguson, many claims have been made about crime, policing in general, and police use of force – particularly against minorities. I outline and discuss some of the more prominent claims below, and comment on the need for better official data, which would provide for a more informed national dialogue on police use of force. I conclude by reviewing some promising avenues for police training moving forward.

The “Ferguson Effect”

There is growing concern that the current police legitimacy crisis will ultimately cause an increase in crime. As public and media scrutiny continued to mount in the wake of police shootings, Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute warned that crime would begin to rise as officers became less willing to initiate proactive stops – a phenomenon now commonly referred to as the “Ferguson Effect.”[3] The logic behind this hypothesis is that officers are aware of the heightened scrutiny surrounding their profession, realize their actions could be videoed and posted on the Internet, and as a result, are more likely to deem it unnecessarily risky to put themselves in a situation that could escalate to deadly force. Yet, evidence suggests proactive policing can be an effective way to reduce crime.[4] If officers stop policing proactively, it may become easier (and therefore more likely) for criminals to offend.

Nix Photo 1

Photo Credit: HAMZA BUTT via Creative Commons

Has crime increased due to this so-called Ferguson Effect? The evidence is fairly mixed. The most rigorous study to date analyzed crime trends in 81 large US cities 12 months before and after Michael Brown’s death in August 2014.[5] Pyrooz and colleagues found no evidence of a post-Ferguson rise in overall, violent, or property crime trends. However, they did find that robbery rates were rising and select cities – most of which had “historically high levels of violence, a large composition of black residents, and socioeconomic disadvantages” – had experienced increases in homicides. The authors concluded that “on the whole, there is no nationwide Ferguson Effect on crime rates.” On the other hand, a separate evaluation of homicide patterns in 56 US cities concluded that increases were “real and nearly unprecedented,” and possibly attributable to a Ferguson Effect.[6] Official crime statistics compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) are also at odds with one another. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Report suggests that violent crime rates increased slightly from 2014 to 2015, while the BJS’ National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) suggests violent crime rates declined during the same period.[7] Of course, even if violent crime really has increased in recent months, it does not necessarily mean that de-policing is to blame.

While it remains unclear whether the legitimacy crisis has had any meaningful impact on crime rates, a growing body of evidence suggests policing has indeed been impacted. A report written for the 21st Century Cities Initiative at Johns Hopkins University, for example, suggests that de-policing occurred in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray.[8] Other analyses suggest that arrests and traffic stops declined temporarily in Chicago and North Charleston following the deaths of Laquan McDonald and Walter Scott, respectively.[9] A study published by the American Psychological Association found that officers working at an agency in the southeast expressed less willingness to engage in community partnership due to negative publicity surrounding law enforcement in the six months following Ferguson.[10] Another study found that officers who felt less motivated as a result of unfavorable media were less likely to express confidence in their authority as police officers.[11] Finally, yet another study revealed that post-Ferguson, many officers felt less motivated, thought that policing had become more dangerous, believed their peers experienced similar feelings, and thought citizens’ views of the police had deteriorated.[12]

Research also suggests the legitimacy crisis has had an effect on citizens’ attitudes and behaviors. A recent experiment revealed that citizens were less likely to view the same use of force incident captured on video as justified after Ferguson compared to before Ferguson.[13] Another recent study found that Milwaukee residents – particularly those residing in black neighborhoods – were less likely to report crimes to the police following the highly publicized beating of Frank Jude by police officers.[14] This effect “lasted for over a year and resulted in a total net loss of approximately 22,200 calls for service.” The results of this study suggest that declining arrests may be a function of diminished public trust in law enforcement rather than de-policing. The reality is that both may be occurring simultaneously in some cities as a result of the legitimacy crisis that has grown out of Ferguson and other shootings across the United States.

The “War on Cops”

Another claim that has been put forth by Mac Donald and others in recent months is that the legitimacy crisis has fueled a war on cops.[15] That is, officers are being assaulted and killed in the line of duty more frequently in the post-Ferguson era. A cursory glance at the Officer Down Memorial Page certainly seems to support this notion: as of December 6th, gunfire deaths were up 67% in 2016 compared to 2015.[16] In November alone, there were 12 officers killed by gunfire throughout the United States. Yet statistically speaking, officer deaths remain rare events – and simple year-to-date comparisons can be misleading.[17]

Only one study to date has examined recent trends in police officer homicides using more sophisticated analyses – and its authors found that as of March 2016, there was no evidence to support the claim that officers were being feloniously killed more frequently in the post-Ferguson era.[18] Importantly, however, this study was unable to examine trends in non-fatal assaults due to unavailability of reliable data. The FBI attempts to track these incidents with its Law Enforcement Officers Killed & Assaulted (LEOKA) series, but researchers have documented numerous flaws – including under-reporting by agencies – which diminish its utility for determining if violence directed at police officers has increased since Ferguson.[19] It is critical for the government to compile reliable data on important issues such as these – a point to which I turn next.

Race, Police Use of Force, and the Need for Better Data

As stated at the onset, the current police legitimacy crisis is a result of seemingly excessive uses of deadly force by police officers against minority citizens throughout the United States. It is, however, unknown how frequently the police use deadly force in this country, let alone the extent of racial/ethnic disparities therein. As FBI Director James Comey recently stated at the annual International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference in San Diego:

Americans actually have no idea whether the number of black people or brown people or white people being shot by police is up, down, or sideways over the last 10 years…They have no idea of these things because we have no idea of these things. We simply don’t know. As a country, we simply haven’t bothered to collect the data, to gather the information.[20]

This is highly problematic. The FBI attempts to compile this information through the UCR’s Supplementary Homicide Reports (SHR), which track justifiable homicides by police officers.[21] Unfortunately, as with LEOKA, these data are hampered by under-reporting.

Fortunately, media outlets such as The Washington Post and The Guardian have begun tracking fatal encounters between police and citizens.[22] These data indicate that police killed roughly 1,000 people each year in 2015 and 2016.[23]  These data furthermore suggest that black citizens are killed by police more often than would be expected based on population figures: they accounted for 24% of all fatal police shootings in 2015, yet only represent 13% of the US population. Black men accounted for 40% of all unarmed persons fatally shot by police in 2015, yet make up only 6% of the US population.[24] Still, these numbers must be interpreted with extreme caution for two reasons.

First, although these data are an improvement over the SHR, they remain incomplete. Missing from these data are non-fatal shootings – of which there are an unknown number. Often when the police discharge their firearms, no one is killed: bullets may wound but not kill, or altogether miss individuals. But importantly, these shootings still involve an intent to kill on the part of the officer. One recent study found that of 230 police shooting incidents that occurred in St. Louis from 2003 to 2012, only 37 suspects (16%) were killed.[25] A Texas Tribune analysis of police shootings in 36 Texas cities from 2010 to 2015 revealed that 247 out of 656 shootings (about 38%) were fatal.[26]  If similar patterns operate at the national level, it would mean that The Washington Post’s data are missing anywhere from 1,600 to 5,200 non-fatal shootings. Without knowing anything about these shootings, it is impossible to determine whether minorities are disproportionately shot by police beyond extrapolations based on the available fatal shootings data.

Second, using population figures to draw conclusions about racial disparities in police use of force is misleading. Adjusting the raw number of citizens killed by police in this manner assumes that it is equally likely for every citizen to be killed by a police officer. Yet, in order for an officer to use force against a citizen, the officer must first initiate contact with the citizen. And numerous studies have been published to date, which suggest that police disproportionately make contact with black citizens – who are more likely to be stopped, searched, and arrested.[27] The evidence with respect to the effect of race on the decision by police to use force, however, is less conclusive: some studies suggest police are more likely to use force against minorities, others suggest no relationship between suspect race and police use of force, and still others suggest that race effects are rendered non-significant upon accounting for the suspect’s level of resistance.[28] In any event, without reliable national data on police use of force, researchers are forced to make a difficult methodological decision: analyze existing national data and note its limitations, or analyze data from a small selection of agencies and note that findings are probably not generalizable to the 17,000+ other police agencies in the United States.[29] This conundrum makes it incredibly difficult to discern the extent to which race influences police use of force.

Nevertheless, experimental studies provide reason to believe that race influences officers’ decision to shoot. The problem, however, is that studies disagree on the direction of the race effect. For example, in “shoot/don’t shoot” simulations, participants are shown pictures of black and white suspects holding either guns or some other object (e.g., a cell phone) and must quickly press the “shoot” or the “don’t shoot” button. Results suggest participants decide to “shoot” more quickly when they are presented with armed black suspects than armed white suspects.[30] This finding suggests that implicit racial bias might influence officers’ decision to shoot in the real world.[31] On the other hand, recent studies utilizing far more realistic video simulations have found evidence of counter bias; in other words, officers were actually more hesitant to shoot minority suspects than white suspects even though they had shown signs of implicit bias upon taking the Harvard Implicit Association Test.[32] In this way, race still exerted an effect on the decision to shoot – only the effect favored minorities. The authors speculate that such a finding might be attributable to a fear among officers of the backlash that would ensue if they mistakenly shot an unarmed minority suspect.

Studies like these are helpful because they can isolate the effect of race on the decision to shoot while controlling for other relevant factors such as appearance (e.g., clothing and body type), demeanor, compliance, neighborhood context, and the nature of the incident (e.g., domestic disturbance, violent crime, traffic stop). The only drawback is that they are carried out in a laboratory setting – and may not be indicative of reality. That is, a mistake made during a simulation does not carry the same consequences as a mistake made in the real world. Using the data compiled by The Washington Post in 2015, my colleagues and I found that black suspects were significantly more likely than white suspects to have been unarmed when fatally shot, and the “other minority” group was significantly less likely to have been posing an imminent threat to officer safety when fatally shot.[33] These correlations were significant while holding other relevant factors constant – including age, signs of mental illness, city crime level, and region of the United States. But again, the data used for this study were missing an unknown number of non-fatal shootings – so findings must be interpreted cautiously.

Perceived racial/ethnic disparities in police use of deadly force continues to fuel the police legitimacy crisis. Given the seriousness of this legitimacy crisis and evidence suggesting the negative effects it has on both the police and the public, it is unfortunate that we are left to guess how often police fire their weapons and the extent to which there may be racial/ethnic bias in their decision to do so.


Policing in America is undeniably at a crossroads. Moving forward, it will be imperative for police agencies to be more transparent, particularly with their use of force policies and data. A couple of recent developments hold promise in this regard. First, the FBI has pledged to compile more complete national data on fatal police-citizen interactions – similar to the efforts of The Guardian.[34] With better data, we can have a more informed dialogue about the use of force by police, and the extent of racial/ethnic disparities therein, in the United States. Second, in May 2016, a new bill was introduced to Congress, which, if passed, would create a national use of force standard and require officers to undergo de-escalation training.[35] Given the number of studies that have shown citizens value being treated with procedural fairness – such that they in turn become more likely to accept police decisions, comply with their requests, and cooperate in the form of reporting crimes – agencies would be wise to train their officers periodically on how to utilize procedural fairness during citizen interactions as but one way to de-escalate potentially volatile situations.[36] Research furthermore suggests there are a number of ways that increased awareness of implicit bias can serve to reduce the likelihood that it influences officer decision-making.[37] As such, agencies should also pursue implicit bias awareness training as one possible step toward reducing racial/ethnic disparities in policing outcomes like the use of force.[38]

            Reversing the ill effects of the current police legitimacy crisis will take time and it is unlikely that there is any single “fix.” In the meantime, studies have shed light on ways that police supervisors can shield their officers from negative publicity and the “Ferguson Effect,” initial inquiry regarding the war on cops suggests officers are not significantly more likely to be feloniously killed since August 2014, more complete use of force data appears to be on the horizon, and agencies have already begun seeking out procedural justice and implicit bias awareness training.

*Justin Nix is an assistant professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. He earned his PhD in Criminology and Criminal Justice in 2015 from the University of South Carolina. His research interests include police legitimacy, procedural fairness, and police use of force. His work has been published in a variety of peer-reviewed journals, including Justice Quarterly, Journal of Criminal Justice, and Criminology and Public Policy.

[1] Including, but not limited to: Michael Brown in Missouri, Laquan McDonald in Illinois, Tamir Rice in Ohio, Walter Scott in South Carolina, Mario Woods in California, Alton Sterling in Louisiana, and Keith Lamont Scott in North Carolina.

[2] Black Lives Matter, (last visited Nov 30, 2016); Campaign Zero, (last visited Nov 30, 2016).

[3] See Heather Mac Donald, The New Nationwide Crime Wave, The Wall Street Journal, May 29, 2015, (last visited Nov 29, 2016); Others have similarly referred to a “YouTube” or “Viral Video” Effect.  See also Andrea Noble, Police Fear ‘YouTube Effect’ Affecting Work, Contributing to Rise in Violent Crime, Wash. Times, Oct. 25, 2015, (last visited Jan. 31, 2017).

[4] See Anthony A. Braga & David L. Weisburd, The Effects of Focused Deterrence Strategies on Crime: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Empirical Evidence, 49 J. of Res. in Crime & Delinquency 323 (2011); Committee to Review Research on Police Policy and Practices, National Research Council of the National Academies, Fairness and Effectiveness in Policing: The Evidence 217-251 (Skogan, W. and K. Frydl, eds., 2004).

[5] David C. Pyrooz et al., Was There a Ferguson Effect on Crime Rates in Large U.S. Cities?, 46 J. of Crim. Just. 1 (2016).

[6] Richard Rosenfeld, Documenting and Explaining the 2015 Homicide Rise: Research Directions (2016), (last visited Nov 30, 2016).

[7] Crime in the United States, FBI (2016), (last visited Nov 30, 2016); Jennifer L. Truman & Rachel E. Morgan, Criminal victimization, 2015, (last visited Jan. 31, 2017). Note, however, that the NCVS does not include homicide statistics.

[8] Stephen L. Morgan & Joel A. Pally, Ferguson, Gray, and Davis An Analysis of Recorded Crime Incidents and Arrests in Baltimore City, March 2010 through December 2015 3, (last visited Jan. 31, 2017).

[9] Rob Arthur & Jeff Asher, Gun Violence Spiked – And Arrests Declined – In Chicago Right After The Laquan McDonald Video Release FiveThirtyEight (2016), (last visited Nov 30, 2016); Associated Press, N. Charleston traffic stops halved since Walter Scott shooting WNCN (2016), (last visited Nov 30, 2016).

[10] Scott E. Wolfe & Justin Nix, The Alleged “Ferguson Effect” and Police Willingness to Engage in Community Partnership, 40 Law and Human Behavior 1 (2016).

[11] Justin Nix & Scott E. Wolfe, The Impact of Negative Publicity on Police Self-legitimacy, Just. Q. 1 (2017).

[12] See Justin Nix & Scott E. Wolfe, Sensitivity to the Ferguson Effect: The Role of Managerial Organizational Justice, 47 J. of Crim. Just. 12 (2016). Fortunately, officers who perceived greater fairness within their organization (e.g., respectful treatment by superiors, having a voice in decisions/policies, and decisions such as promotions and disciplinary actions being fairly distributed throughout the organization) were less sensitive to negative publicity and public scrutiny. Fair treatment has the added benefits of fostering trust in the organization and increasing the likelihood that officers will treat citizens respectfully and fairly during interactions. See Rick Trinkner, Tom R. Tyler & Phillip Atiba Goff, Justice from Within: The Relations Between a Procedurally Just Organizational Climate and Police Organizational Efficiency, Endorsement of Democratic Policing, and Officer Well-being, 22 Psychol., Pub. Pol’y, & L. 158 (2016); Justice Tankebe, The Making of ‘Democracy’s Champions’: Understanding Police Support for Democracy in Ghana, 14 Criminology and Crim. Just. 25 (2013). It is thus crucial for police leaders to emphasize fairness in today’s world of policing.  See Scott E. Wolfe & Justin Nix, Managing Police Departments Post-Ferguson, Harvard Bus. Rev. (2016), (last visited Nov 30, 2016).

[13] Scott E. Culhane, John H. Boman & Kimberly Schweitzer, Public Perceptions of the Justifiability of Police Shootings: The Role of Body Cameras in a Pre- and Post-Ferguson Experiment, 19 Police Q. 251 (2016).

[14] Matthew Desmond, Andrew V. Papachristos & David S. Kirk, Police Violence and Citizen Crime Reporting in the Black Community, 81 Am. Soc. Rev. 857 (2016). Note that this incident occurred in 2004, long before Ferguson. Nevertheless, it similarly involved allegations of excessive force against an unarmed black male, and garnered a lot of media attention in the Milwaukee area.

[15] Chuck Canterbury, Letter to US President from FOP National President Canterbury (2015), (last visited Nov 30, 2016); Heather Mac Donald, The war on cops: how the new attack on law and order makes everyone less safe (2016).

[16] The Officer Down Memorial Page (ODMP), ODMP RSS, (last visited Dec 6, 2016).

[17] See, e.g., Is There A ‘War On Police’? The Statistics Say No, Nat’l Pub. Radio (Sept. 17, 2015), (last visited Jan. 31, 2017) (“It’s misleading to compare one year to another year. . . . When we’re talking about 780,000 state and local police officers who are interacting with people on 67 million occasions every year, the increase from five to eight, or five to 10 — statistically, it doesn’t look significant.”)

[18] Edward R. Maguire, Justin Nix & Bradley A. Campbell, A War on Cops? The Effects of Ferguson on the Number of U.S. Police Officers Murdered in the Line of Duty, 33 Just. Q. 1 (2016).

[19] Law Enforcement Officers Killed & Assaulted, 2015, FBI (2016), (last visited Nov 30, 2016); Joseph B. Kuhns et al., Understanding Firearms Assaults against Law Enforcement Officers in the United States (2016).

[20] James B. Comey, The True Heart of American Law Enforcement, FBI (2016), (last visited Nov 30, 2016).

[21] United States Department of Justice. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Reporting Program Data: Supplementary Homicide Reports, 2012 (ICPSR 35023) (2014), (last visited Nov 30, 2016).

[22] Police shootings 2016 database, Wash. Post, (last visited Nov 30, 2016); Kenan Davis et al., The Counted: The Definitive Map of US Police Killings in 2015 Guardian, (last visited Nov 30, 2016). See also Killed By Police – 2016, (last visited Nov 30, 2016); Mapping Police Violence, (last visited Nov 30, 2016); Fatal Encounters, (last visited Nov 30, 2016).

[23] The two sources arrive at different totals because The Washington Post’s data is restricted to fatal shootings, whereas The Guardian’s data includes deaths in custody and vehicle collisions.

[24] Wesley Lowery, Aren’t More White People Than Black People Killed by Police? Yes, but No. Wash. Post (July 11, 2016), (last visited Nov 30, 2016).

[25] David Klinger et al., Race, Crime, and the Micro-Ecology of Deadly Force, 15 Criminology & Pub. Pol’y 193, (2015).

[26] Jolie McCullough et al., How Often do Texas Police Shoot At People? No One Knows, Tex. Trib. (2016), (last visited Nov 30, 2016).

[27] Andrew Gelman, Jeffrey Fagan & Alex Kiss, An Analysis of the New York City Police Department’s “Stop-and-Frisk” Policy in the Context of Claims of Racial Bias, 102 J. of the Am. Stat. Ass’n 813 (2007); Robin Shepard Engel & Jennifer M. Calnon, Examining the Influence of Drivers’ Characteristics During Traffic Stops with Police: Results from a National Survey, 21 Just. Q. 49 (2004); Tammy Rinehart Kochel, David B. Wilson & Stephen D. Mastrofski, Effect Of Suspect Race On Officers’ Arrest Decisions, 49 Criminology 473 (2011).

[28] William Terrill & Stephen D. Mastrofski, Situational and Officer-based Determinants of Police Coercion, 19 Just. Q. 215. (2002); John D. McCluskey & William Terrill, Departmental and Citizen Complaints as Predictors of Police Coercion, 28 Policing: An Int’l J. of Police Strategies & Mgmt 513 (2005); Joel H. Garner, Christopher D. Maxwell & Cedrick G. Heraux, Characteristics Associated with the Prevalence and Severity of Force Used by the Police, 19 Just. Q. 705 (2002).

[29] Phillip A. Goff et al., The Science of Justice: Race, Arrests, and Police Use of Force (2016), (last visited Nov 30, 2016); Roland G. Fryer, Jr., An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences In Police Use of Force (Harv. Univ., Working Paper, 2016), (last visited Feb 20, 2017).

[30] Joshua Correll et al., The Influence of Stereotypes on Decisions to Shoot, 37 Eur. J. of Soc. Psychol. 1102 (2007).

[31] For an excellent discussion of implicit racial bias and policing, see Rick Trinkner & Phillip A. Goff, The Color of Safety: The Psychology of Race and Policing, The SAGE Handbook of Global Policing 61 (Ben Bradford et al. eds., 2016).

[32] Lois James, Stephen M. James & Bryan J. Vila, The Reverse Racism Effect: Are Cops More Hesitant to Shoot Black than White Suspects? 15 Criminology & Pub. Pol’y 457 (2016).

[33] Justin Nix et al., A Bird’s Eye View of Civilians Killed by Police in 2015: Further Evidence of Implicit Bias, 16 Criminology & Pub. Pol’y 1 (2017).

[34] Justice Department Outlines Plan to Enable Nationwide Collection of Use of Force Data | OPA | Department of Justice (2016), (last visited Dec 1, 2016).

[35] Preventing Tragedies Between Police and Communities Act of 2016, H.R. 521, 114th Cong. (2016).

[36] Procedural fairness is comprised of four elements: treating a person with respect/dignity, neutrality in decision-making, allowing the person to have a voice in the process, and appearing to have trustworthy motives. See, e.g., Tom R. Tyler, Why people obey the law (1990); Kristina Murphy, Tom R. Tyler & Amy Curtis, Nurturing Regulatory Compliance: Is Procedural Justice Effective when People Question the Legitimacy of the Law? 3 Regulation & Governance 1–26, (2009); Jonathan Jackson et al., Just authority: Trust in the police in England and Wales (2012); Tom R. Tyler & Yuen J. Huo, Trust in the law: encouraging public cooperation with the police and courts (2002); Scott E. Wolfe et al., Is the Effect of Procedural Justice on Police Legitimacy Invariant? Testing the Generality of Procedural Justice and Competing Antecedents of Legitimacy, 32 Journal of Quantitative Criminology 253–282, (2015).

[37] Katherine Spencer, Amanda Charbonneau & Jack Glaser, Teaching & Learning Guide for Implicit Bias and Policing, 9 Social and Personality Psychology Compass 705–708 (2015).

[38] See Fair & Impartial Policing, (last visited Dec 1, 2016).