Consequences of De-policing

De-policing is a term that refers to a reduction in proactive policing strategies, and it tends to coincide with officer fears of becoming ‘the next viral incident’ and fears of criminal prosecution. Many postulate that this effect has worsened in recent months due to increasing tensions between the community and the police. The de-policing effect seemed to start around 2014 after a viral shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and hence, it is sometimes referred to as the “Ferguson Effect.” Since then, there has been increasing numbers of viral videos from footage from body-worn camera (BWC) and cell phone videos that have circulated on the internet that seem to have exacerbated the effect.

The Manhattan Institute released a report recently discussing de-policing effects, including a description of the research on the topic as well as qualitative findings from interviews with police officers.

Simultaneously, there has been criticism of officers pulling back and being less proactive, saying that it is correlated to recent increases in homicides and violent crime. On September 27, 2021, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) released preliminary findings that revealed that violent crime is up, with a violent crime rate of 387.8 per 100,000 — a 5.2% increase when compared with 2019 rates (380.8 per 100,000). The violent crime increase appears to be driven by increases in aggravated assaults (+12.0%) and murders (+29.4%), whereas rates for other violent crimes (i.e., robbery, rape) decreased from 2019 to 2020 (-9.3% and -12.0%, respectively).

Admittedly, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted crime in different ways, but there is still a lot of confusion and disagreement regarding this relationship. On its face, the onset of the pandemic was initially correlated with large drops in many types of crime. However, this finding comes with a caveat: while overall crime rates are lower than they have been in previous years, homicides and shootings are higher than normal, and this trend appears to be continuing into 2021. As stated above, many argue that the “de-policing effect” increases violent crime in certain cities.

One thing we can do to better understand crime patterns is to assess them at the micro-level (using data), and subsequently inform predictive policing and/or surveillance efforts. Some other proactive approaches that police might consider are hot-spots policing, intelligence-led policing, or third-party policing. Hot-spots policing is a policing strategy that incorporates place-based and time-variant factors to predict the approximate time of day and area where crime occurs (i.e., a ‘hot spot’). The idea is that if we can predict where crime is likely to occur, police can be more proactive in preventing crime. Intelligence-led policing is similar to hot-spots in that it is data-driven, but it focuses less on place/time and more on social networks to predict what types of offenders are more likely to commit certain types of crime. Third-party policing is another type of intelligence-led policing that draws on the social control mechanisms held by other government and community actors — such as subway workers, for example. These community actors can then act as “eyes and ears” for the police and also impose their own legal levers to help control crime. All of these approaches have been evaluated to some extent with promising effects. For more information on the effectiveness of various policing strategies, see, where results from various studies are collated, reviewed, and given ratings regarding their efficacy. While data-driven policing strategies are not completely without unintended effects, research suggests they are promising in preventing crime.

Unfortunately though, we have seen less police proactivity in the recent months (i.e., the de-policing effect), which has been exacerbated by COVID-19 as well as the “defund the police” movement. Unfortunately, de-funding the police would both decrease law enforcement’s abilities to engage in predictive policing efforts discussed above. It is likely that the police could do their job better with more resources, particularly if they were dedicated to data-driven policing, yet these topics remain contentious in the political arena. Another issue contributing to the de-policing effect is low police morale and motivation.

As discussed in the Manhattan Institute report, low motivation might result from feeling underappreciated, not feeling supported by supervisors, and whether they perceive their own organization as fair and legitimate. Studies like Nix and Wolfe that interviewed police officers regarding their opinions on de-policing have suggested that officers who have a sense of fair treatment and legitimacy are more likely to engage in proactive policing. Nix and Wolfe (2016) surveyed sheriffs’ deputies and found that when deputies felt their organizations treated them fairly, they were significantly more likely to report experiencing reduced motivation due to negative publicity surrounding policing in the six months following Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson. Officers were also more motivated to be proactive when they felt their supervisors were less sensitive to public pressure. Factors that seem to make officers more willing to be proactive and engage with the community are often related to police moral and motivation. This is often driven by factors such as confidence that they will be treated fairly, perceived legitimacy of their organizations, and their relationships with their supervisors. Officers who were supported by their supervisors also reported reduced emotional distress. Other options for training that might improve de-policing in these respects are trainings that focus on distress tolerance and communication skills.

Other research in general has found that employees in general perform better when they feel supported by their supervisors/organizations and view them as legitimate. Relatedly, “procedural justice” applies to organizational justice concepts as well as law enforcement’s communication practices with the public. Procedural justice refers to principles of fair processes, transparency, voice, and impartiality. They also tend to be less cynical about their careers and the associated community and more likely to engage in community-oriented policing. Officers’ supervisors’ priorities dictate individual officers’ priorities, so it makes sense that the effect of supervisor can be so strong on officer behaviors, beliefs, and values. A 2017 survey by Pew research center found that only 45% of officers thought that their departments’ disciplinary processes were fair, and 27% believed that low-performing officers were held accountable.

Motivation might be decreased by the increased among of viral incidents and distrust of the police. Another study by Wolfe and Nix (2016) found that deputies who reported being less motivated as a result of negative publicity surrounding policing and were also less likely to engage with the community. Another study by Wolfe and colleagues (2018) found that a sense of organizational fairness was critical to job satisfaction for officers who faced uncertainty and/or negative publicity from the public. Officers often feel under attack and might be less likely to have motivation to police an area – this is important because it can really affect motivation to change, which is a highly relevant factor in de-policing as well as research on motivation and effectiveness as a whole. Overall, it appears that police motivation may be the key causal mechanism affecting de-policing, and factors that affect police motivation will obviously have intermixed effects as well.

But how do we balance police accountability and transparency with police proactivity? If there is a rush to judge the police and defund the police, this likely won’t motivate them to be proactive. Because motivation of police officers seems to be the causal mechanism to police proactivity, we need to support them and build upon a strengths-based approach. This would likely lead to more motivation to change and do better. Communication between police supervisors and officers can help them feel supported and perhaps help support this balance. Deep fixes to policing are complex and relate mostly to officer morale as well as departmental policies and training. Unfortunately though, politics are obviously not based on reality; defunding might not be the greatest idea because law enforcement does need funding to engage in effective, evidence-based policing strategies as well as use available technology to assist in reducing crime and clear cases. While de-funding the police would help politicians appease the public and navigate public outcry, it might decrease public safety. Thus, we need to be cautious in regard to the laws we pass and policies implemented in various law enforcement agencies. For example, police departments (if budgets allow) could include trainings or explore ways to increase police morale and motivation.

In general, police morale and motivation may be a key causal mechanism contributing to de-policing. Motivation can sometimes be affected by or supervisor relationships or whether they feel their organization is fair and legitimate. Officers are also scared of being in the next viral incident. However, it seems that we could decrease bad use-of-force incidents if training were improved and implemented. If certain types of training (e.g. de-escalation, crisis intervention training, threat assessment training) could help and officer handle situations without fatally injuring people (and thus protect relationships with the community), while also holding officers accountable to their training at the same time. This is important and leads into the conversation of qualified immunity.

Many argue that qualified immunity should be eliminated because it means officers will never face consequences for their actions. However, in fact, qualified immunity only applies to officers who are acting within the scope of their training. Thus, qualified immunity should (and often does protect) officers from being prosecuted if they are acting within their training from the department. Don’t get me wrong – when poorly handled use-of-force incidents go viral, they can be incredibly upsetting; but at the same time the officer can only do as well as he has been trained, and he likely second-guesses himself after the event. Thus, elimination of qualified immunity could also contribute to de-policing — because officers are terrified of being prosecuted (regardless of whether they are acting within their policy/training) the are less likely to intervene. For reform, the real change needs to come from changing training and also policies in departments. Unfortunately there is no nationally-recognized, universal policy, training, or guidelines that is used to govern police organizations.

Related to training, officer motivation may also be affected by whether officers feel confident in their skills to effectively handle situations. In some respects, training may be able to help improve an officer’s confidence in handling certain scenarios, such as de-escalation skills, communication skills, and physical defense skills (and their confidence in implementing them). There is limited research on the impact of physical exercise and martial arts on police performance, as well as programs that work on distress tolerance and interpersonal effectiveness, but some aspects are included in other areas of police training that might be promising.

De-escalation trainings focus on slowing down potentially volatile situations and reducing the immediacy of threat during these encounters. The goal of de-escalation is to resolve the situation without using force or with a reduction in the severity of force used. Communication skills and operational skills are the two major types of de-escalation techniques. Verbal techniques cover things like interpersonal effectiveness, conflict resolution, and empathic listening skills. Non-verbal techniques emphasize things like giving undivided attention or being mindful of tone of voice. Many of these concepts are also covered in procedural justice and social interaction trainings, and have been found to improve citizen and officer encounters.

Communication is especially key when it comes to engaging with persons with mental illness or those in crisis. Some of the programs related to this include co-responder programs, where an officer may work alongside specially trained civilian personnel to respond to crises, or they may rely on a mobile crisis unit, which is a specially-trained entity separate from the police. Research reviews from 2018 and 2020 explain how frameworks of co-responder programs vary greatly, making it difficult to know which framework is the most effective. Nonetheless, the research has shown that co-responder programs can reduce the amount of police time spent on mental health calls, increase access to services for mentally ill persons, and decrease repeat calls.

Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) is a well-known knowledge- and scenario-based training for officers that teaches them how to recognize and respond to people in crisis. A 2019 research review found mixed results regarding the benefits of CIT on officer/citizen injuries and use of force, however, it does appear to improve officers’ perceptions of their interactions with mentally ill people. So far, the research on CIT is promising but still inconclusive.

Another approach is disability awareness training, such as FRDAT (First Responder Disability Awareness Training) based in New York. FRDAT offers resources on how to recognize and communicate with people who are intellectually or physically disabled. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it helps to decrease use of force, increase officer awareness of mental health symptoms, and increase their efficiency and confidence in handling mental health calls. However, it has yet to be rigorously evaluated.

When communication skills are not appropriate for the situation, an officer may need to employ operational techniques. Operational techniques include skills such as using distance and cover to create time, tactical positioning/repositioning, and potentially calling additional resources to the scene. The officer’s goal when using operational techniques is to not only protect himself but also create additional attempts to de-escalate. Operational techniques involve critical decision-making skills like knowing whether it is safe to ‘tactically pause’ and engage verbally with a suspect. For example, in a rapidly evolving scenario involving a person with a knife, an officer can use an operational skill such as tactical positioning/tactical pause to create distance between himself and the subject, which may allow for another verbal de-escalation attempt. Sometimes, it will not be safe to tactically pause and an officer will still need to apply force. However, they can still opt for a less-lethal use of force, particularly if the subject does not appear to have a firearm (as an aside, this is were martial arts/jiu-jistu alternatives might be helpful, but they have yet to be rigorously evaluated). Should a use of force eventually occur, operational techniques can also help an officer resolve the situation without resorting to lethal force.

For agencies with budgetary constrictions, the Police Executive Research Forum has a variety of free resources, including a range of modules related to critical decision-making, crisis recognition, communications skills, and operational tactics. Their program, ICAT, was evaluated in Louisville, Kentucky and Camden, New Jersey, and both had promising results. The Louisville study showed significant reductions in use of force, citizen injuries, and officer injuries, while the Camden study found reductions in serious force events. The ICAT training also seems to increase officer confidence in handling volatile law enforcement-citizen encounters, particularly with mentally ill persons.

De-policing seems to be associated with low police morale and motivation and fear of becoming involved in a viral use of force incident. This effect has worsened as increasing numbers of viral videos from body-worn camera (BWC) footage and cell phones circulate on the internet. Simultaneously, there has been criticism of officers pulling back and being less proactive, saying that it is correlated to recent increases in homicides and violent crime. Ultimately, this does put officers in a tough situation. Perhaps officer morale could be improved and their fear of ‘going viral’ can be reduced if they are more confident in handling use-of-force incidents. Considering some of the research discussed above, it seems there are some strategies that might help police balance the ability to be proactive and still maintain transparency.

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