Courage: How We Fight the Ferguson Effect

Police officers need to embrace a culture of courage in the face of a crisis of morale

By H.K. Slade  |   Jan 24, 2017

There’s a conversation going on more and more frequently among officers in squad rooms and weight rooms and late-night diners across the country. This conversation usually involves some form of the statement: “With the way everything is today, I don’t think I’d be a cop if I had it to do over.”

It’s a variation on the much talked about “Ferguson Effect.” Not only are (some) officers doing less for fear of negative outcomes, but good, young officers are leaving the profession entirely. Within my state of North Carolina, recruiting is at an all-time low. It doesn’t take a workload study or a consulting firm to see the crisis coming as more officers are leaving and fewer are signing up—and who can blame them?

The System Over-Corrects

I have heard tell of a mythical time when police officers were given the benefit of the doubt when it came to use-of-force incidents. Yes, the stories I hear often show that some officers abused that benefit, and almost all officers from that era took it for granted. But now the pendulum has swung in the other direction. Far, far in the other direction.

The system is overcorrecting. Even when I started a mere eight years ago, we had an honest belief that if we just did the right thing, everything would be okay. If, God forbid, an officer had to shoot someone in the line of duty, the department, the media, and the community would support them, at least until all the details emerged.

By the time I got my own beat, the unspoken rule was that if you shot someone, they had better have a gun or at least a knife, and be in the process of trying to kill you or a third party. After Ferguson, the rule became even narrower: A suspect would have to have a gun, there had to be video, and the suspect had to be of the same ethnicity as the officer who shot him.

And then we had Charlotte.

Charlotte, where there was video of the suspect ignoring both the commands of the police and of his own wife. Charlotte—where the suspect, armed with a stolen gun, was clearly maneuvering for cover, had a history of violent crime, and was the same ethnicity as the officer who shot him. By all accounts that I have access to, that officer did everything right. And still he was portrayed as a villain by the media. The community he protected called for him to be sent to prison. There were riots. Who in their right mind would want to work at any job where you can be treated so poorly for doing that job to the best of human ability?

Officers speculate about the answer to that question all the time. Most frequently, the solution suggested is hirer pay. The argument is that offering more money is the only thing that will entice young officers to stay on the job and tempt potential recruits to roll the dice and hope they never have to use deadly force.

Others believe that we will need a crisis on the scale of 9/11 before society sees the value of someone willing to move toward a danger that everyone else is running away from. I’ve heard a few people talk about how departments need to have a more modern approach when it comes to releasing information, and that public opinion will swing back in our favor if they can see the information that we have access to.

` Sadly, the easiest, and therefore most tempting solution I’ve seen is to lower the bar and accept any recruits who pass the bare minimum requirements. I feel this will only aggravate the problem as these subpar recruits become substandard officers who make poor decisions in an increasingly understaffed and hostile work environment.

The answer will probably include a little bit of everything, catered to the needs of the community in question. However, there’s a word that needs to part of the discussion: Courage.

Courageous Business

Courage is a word, a concept, that has fallen out of favor in society. It means to be brave, to be willing to do the right thing in spite of danger. Courage doesn’t happen through ignorance. On the contrary, courage requires a person to understand the risks, to grasp the consequences of their actions, and only then choose to do what’s necessary. Any idiot and put themself in danger without understanding the consequences. Brave men and women act knowing what it can cost them.

Most cops I know understand what I’m talking about. Usually, this conjures images of physical danger: Running into the line of fire to aid a fallen brother or sister, or entering an apartment to serve a warrant on a violent, possibly armed, felon. Acts like that call for a tremendous courage, and the best officers I know take those actions without a second’s hesitation, despite having families and everything else in the world to lose.

My non-police friends often ask me if I worry about the dangers of police work, most specifically about getting shot. I can speak the truth to my brothers and sisters, those of you who do the job day in and day out. No, it doesn’t worry me all that much. I am at peace with that risk. What keeps me up at night isn’t the man who might try to kill me, but what will happen to me and my family when I kill him first. Will rioters destroy my city? Will my wife have to change her last name and worry every time a stranger knocks at our door? Will I lose the job I love and have to live the rest of my life branded as a racist murderer for doing that job to the best of my ability? It is enough to paralyze a person into quitting police work or never applying at all.

Yet people still apply for this noble work. They still sweat and struggle to make it through the academy. They still go out and answer calls and serve warrants and stop cars. It isn’t money that makes them do that. It isn’t ignorance. In these fraught days, it’s not prestige. It’s courage.

We as officers can’t change the media. We can’t change our pay. We can’t control whether society values what we do. But we can choose to do our jobs to the best of our abilities in spite of the dangers, be they physical, social, or mental. We can choose to celebrate that aspect of courage, make it a central part of our culture. Recruit for it. Train for it. Make it a prerequisite for employment like we do with pushups or reading comprehension.

Conclusion

When you see a recruit or a rookie or even a salty veteran struggling with the Ferguson Effect, remind them of how brave they have been in other ways. Explain to them how the true test of our courage isn’t the movie action sequence stuff we all secretly hope for. It’s the ongoing and selfless execution of our duties even, and especially, when faced with the disrespect of those who never risk anything.

Bottom line: If we don’t look out for each other in this way, no one else will, and the Ferguson Effect will keep claiming more and more officers.