Thoughts on Police Transparency and The Ferguson Effect

What is Transparency and how does it relate to CopWatching

The suppressive nature of police work (not the mention a history of police officers abusing their power), mean that citizens have long expressed a desire to place checks and balances on police officers. Key to these checks and balances is the ability to monitor and scrutinize police work, sometimes referred to as transparency.

Transparency has traditionally relied on 3 systems:

  • Government: governmental organizations are given the specific duty of monitoring police work to make sure that it meets accepted standards
  • Media: mainstream media outlets are tasked with reporting on police organizations and critiquing police work
  • Internal Investigation: police organizations develop internal systems which scrutinize police work often on the basis of complaints from citizen

However, due to the limitations of tradition systems of transparency, several non-official systems have emerged. One of the most infamous of these systems is copwatching, which refers to the use of bottom-up surveillance systems to monitor and scrutinize police work. Recent cultural and technological changes (the creation of cheap and mobile camera phones in particular) have led to a massive growth in copwatching by creating a citizenry that is better equipped and more willing to monitor and scrutinize police officers.

Though the implications of copwatching are subject to debate, there is no doubt that infamous cases of police abuse have been documented and exposed thanks to copwatchers, and that some of these cases have resulted in the legal punishment of officers guilty of misconduct, financial settlements with victims of police abuse and their families, as well as changes to training and policy (see the Ian Tomlinson case, the Robert Dziekanski case, the Sammy Yatim Case). As a result, copwatching is often characterized by social activist organizations (see CopWatch and Photography is not a crime) as an empowering system of transparency which facilitates progressive and systemic changes to policing.

Despite the optimism of activists, critics allege that copwatching may have some unintended consequences and worrying costs, including the Ferguson Effect. 

What is the The Ferguson Effect and what are it’s implications

In August 2014, a black male named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson Missouri (a suburb of St. Louis) under controversial and disputed circumstances. The ramifications of this shooting are difficult to overstate as the incident resulted in mass civil unrest as well as the emergence of highly influential anti-racist movements (see Black Lives Matter) dedicated to criticizing police organizations for their abuse of racial and ethnic minorities. Some characterize this social unrest as a valuable social movement which will result in significant and valuable social change. Critics, however, allege that this civil unrest has many costs, among the most controversial of which is the creation of a Ferguson Effect.

The Ferguson effect refers to a theory asserting a causal link between increases in crime rates and copwatching (as well as a general rise in the scrutiny of police officers). Proponents of this theory such as Heather Mac Donald allege that copwatching has a chilling effect on police work, as police officers are less willing to do their duties while being monitored and scrutinized. As a result, society is less able to rely on police officers to provide them with safety and security, and criminals are more willing to commit crimes, explaining the rise in crime rates.

Early research has confirmed a rise in crime rates in major U.S. cities, and although there are mixed views as to whether a key factor in this rise is the Ferguson effect, one can see why the crime rate may be impacted by a police force that adopts what is sometimes known as a FIDO (fuck it drive on) mentality when they feel as though they are subject to excessive surveillance and scrutiny. Accordingly, former critics of the Ferguson effect theory such as Richard Rosenfeld (Professor of Criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis) have begun to warm to the idea that it may explain changes in crime rates.

The implications of the Ferguson effect are just as controversial as the theory itself. Proponents of the theory allege that the Ferguson effect implies that police officers are being subject to excessive scrutiny and criticism, and that most critics, especially copwatchers, should lay off. I am not so convinced.

A police officer’s decision to disengage from police work because they feel like they are subject to too much scrutiny is not necesarily a sign of excessive scrutiny. In fact, it may be a sign of just the right amount of scrutiny as it means that police officers are perhaps being deterred from abusing their powers. The next step is to encourage police officers not to disengage, but to improve police work so that it can pass the test of working in highly transparent circumstances. To put it another way, the police need to accept the increasingly visible nature of police work and use this as motivation to improve that work, rather than using it as a reason to disengaging from their duties.

The Importance of asking Critical Questions about the Implications of Transparency

Of course, the idea that copwatching can motivate improvements in police work is simplistic. It is important to apply a critical lens to claims from both proponents of copwatching and the Ferguson effect before making conclusions about the implications of monitoring police work. A few questions I think are worthy of special attention include:

  • Can we guarantee objectivity in the copwatching process? Copwatching is likely to be heavily influenced by the politics of those recording police officers, so it is important to ask if copwatching guarantees a fair method of scrutinizing police work.
  • What are the behavioural implications of copwatching? Does copwatching create sufficient pressures to improve police work or, as my own research suggests, does it only create pressures to make surface level changes to police work so that it appears to be improved?

Author: theajayblog

I hold a doctorate degree in sociology and specialise in qualitative criminological research. My research interests include surveillance and policing. My most recent research project is entitled The Police on Camera and examines the intersection of surveillance and legal authority, with a twist. Rather than exploring police officers’ use of surveillance cameras to monitor criminal behaviour, I research the use of cameras to monitor police, and the experiences of police officers in the “surveillance society.” My research has led to many publications which offer insights into the politics of the police’s growing visibility.

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