Policing, Solidarity, and Conflict
Many news stories have noted that violent crime rates have risen in some cities, and some are blaming the so-called "Ferguson Effect." What does this mean?
The Los Angeles Police Department's (LAPD) Chief Charlie Beck wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times discussing the relationship between communities and their police departments. He mentions the "Ferguson Effect" yet redefines it when looking at Los Angeles and its crime related statistics.
He disagrees that this is the case in Los Angeles, and defines a different type of Ferguson Effect. In this new definition, he maintains that the community does not believe that the police are "using their authority fairly and legitimately," and that has resulted in the community and police being unable to work together. In his view the police, or at least the LAPD, have been working at their tasks and not withdrawing as the more popular version of the Ferguson Effect suggests.
In his redefinition, I see the sociological perspective known as structural functionalism. From this perspective, Emile Durkheim would argue that a community's support for their law enforcement agencies is crucial to maintain the balance of society. If law enforcement efforts are not heeded, then norms are broken and dysfunctions occur.
Laws are strongly held social norms; thus breaking them violates the social contract. If law enforcement runs into communities that do not trust them, their jobs become more difficult if not impossible. More traditional examples of this kind of breakdown in trust are organized crime and gangs that hinder investigations because people don't talk to police and share information about the crime in their neighborhoods.
Beck is suggesting that this may be happening on a wider scale in the community where more people distrust law enforcement and either protest police actions or are reluctant to assist or engage with the police in positive ways.
Max Weber would also agree that the legitimacy of the authority of governmental agencies rests with the people in the communities. If the society withdraws legitimacy from those agencies, they no longer have the authority to lead.
Both points suggest the unraveling or unbalancing of the equilibrium of society--either of which is disturbing, to say the least.
On the other hand, the original definition of the Ferguson Effect seems to come from the perspective of conflict theory. Starting with the protests leading to increased scrutiny leading to potential withdrawal of the police from their duties, it highlights the conflict between communities and the police. We know we have a long history in this country (and others) of problematic relations and scrutiny between law enforcement and specific communities such as those that have higher rates of the working class, underclass, and people of color.
The different positions provide a very distinctive view and conclusion about this tenuous relationship between police and communities. Communities of color who are routinely patrolled and scrutinized by police tend not to see them as their friend or helper when there is trouble. In these communities, children are taught to be compliant if possible and are given specific advice about what to do if police harass or arrest them. Communities that have more positive experiences with the police may be able to teach their children to respect the police and will be more likely to support the police and assume that they are there to serve the community.
Beck offers two solutions to his Ferguson Effect: More police in divisions that deal with violent crime and better community relationship programs. I have seen the result of the latter personally since I live in Los Angeles. We have a neighborhood lead officer assigned to our area, whom we have met and who sends out notices and information via Facebook and a few other social media platforms. There are monthly meetings in which we can ask questions and, once in awhile, he and other officers some to our area and do a community forum. One of these forums took place in my neighborhood's streets..
At that meeting, they identified the location of a local drug dealer and alerted us as to how to tell if he's selling or not. That, and their posts on Facebook and elsewhere alert us to what crimes and happening and where. They ask for our help in alerting them by messaging them if something is happening. I live in a racially diverse area with a range of housing available, although most of the residents are middle to upper-middle class. The result of knowing what type of burglaries and other crimes are happening around us has made some of my neighbors very paranoid and more likely to call the police when they are not really needed – or at least not act very neighborly if they don't recognize you as a neighbor.
By saying that either Ferguson Effect is to blame for rising crime rates, well, we need more research to state that with confidence. We should also check to verify that crime rates – and violent crime rates – are actually increasing over time. Maybe they appear to be rising only in some places, like the cities involved in the police shootings of community members. Increases might not be statistically significant, the result of chance, rather than a Ferguson Effect.