The vast majority of the things police officers do are extraordinary — from thwarting additional mass shooting casualties in Dayton to getting a narcotics suspect to surrender after an intense shootout in Philadelphia, all while preserving the lives of everyone on scene, including children.
Many view their heroism with awe and gratitude. But, these positive stories are often overshadowed by negative ones — such as the one about mounted Galveston cops leading an African American suspect with a rope — in which police officers are relentlessly demonized as insensitive and racist.
Because social media sometimes operates in its own bubble, not many understand how deeply this overpowering negativity is hurting our cops — and ultimately us, the people they serve. After the recent dismissal of the New York City police officer accused of contributing to Eric Garner’s death, the “Ferguson effect” debate has once again taken center stage, with police chiefs and union leaders warning that viral negativity is causing officers to pull back from their jobs, thus putting society at greater risk, while criminologists dispute that assertion.
My research takes an approach different from studying the effects of public scrutiny — a more “micro,” psychological one. From a “micro” perspective, the evidence of the “Ferguson effect” is strong.
Ironically, and tragically, officers who feel their profession is publicly disrespected are discouraged from doing precisely what advocates of police reform want cops to do: take the initiative to build better relationships with minority communities, proactively develop their own decision making skills, and otherwise go above and beyond to help community members on a daily basis. These effects hold, even though police officers report they are deeply driven to help and serve.
My studies were conducted among nearly 400 officers spanning seven agencies. We asked officers about their general perceptions. Do you think the public understands how difficult and challenging your jobs are? Can they picture the dilemmas you confront on a day-to-day basis? Then we got their superiors to rate their proactivity — do these officers act as advocates on behalf of their communities, actively learn how to make better decisions, and generally go beyond the call of duty?
We initially thought that officers would chalk up public misunderstandings to “business as normal,” as criminologists who claim the Ferguson effect does not exist would argue. We also thought that officers who are pro-socially motivated, or driven to help others, would persist in being proactive. Numerous studies in our field of management have shown that pro-socially motivated employees typically do everything they can to make a difference in others’ lives.
But this was not the case. Officers who felt the public did not understand their jobs were less likely to be proactive, even though they were pro-socially motivated. So, while having prosocial drive fuels employees to be energetic and proactive in other occupations, it does not have the same power in law enforcement.
Why might this be the case? Because, from the officers’ perspective, the current scrutiny is so unfair and one-sided that the only option is to pull back from proactively helping.
To many officers, few, if any, opportunities exist to explain their side. The community mostly learns about police officers through the media, which is often negative.
Before we convict an entire profession without due process, more of us ought to understand the consequences of doing so. In many respects, social media — and the ease with which things become viral — has played an important role in shedding light on egregious behaviors, not only in law enforcement, but in other professions such as medicine and academia.
But, using these incidents to overgeneralize about members of a profession, and partaking in the spread of relentless negativity and criticism, is counterproductive.
Police officers want to do the right thing. But when their profession is vilified nearly daily, and they pull back, it is the public that suffers.
Shefali V. Patil is an assistant professor of management in the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in The Hill.