Communities will suffer immeasurable harm if lack of trust and confidence in the police is accepted as the new normal

After years of declining violent crime rates in Minnesota, 2021 was a bad year. Homicides, gun violence, and carjackings escalated to numbers not seen in nearly twenty years. Experts and politicians debated the underlying causes of this crime wave, but there was no consensus among the chattering class. Several contributing factors were suggested, including the COVID-19 pandemic which caused school closures, opened jails, and decreased police interactions in communities they were sworn to protect, as well as dubious criminal justice reforms such as blanket declinations to prosecute some violent offenders or abolishing pretrial detention as part of bail reform. Available data suggests a much more disturbing trend underlying our spike in violent crime: The Ferguson Effect.

The phrase Ferguson Effect was first used by the St. Louis police chief following the controversial police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, who saw violence inexplicably begin increasing across the country in the second half of 2014 following civil unrest in Ferguson, after nearly two decades of decline. This occurrence prompted the Major Cities Chiefs Association to convene an emergency session to talk about the double-digit surge in violent felonies. The conclusion was that the sudden rise in violence was due to a withdrawal of police activity following a controversial officer involved shooting. Notably, experts observed police officers decreased proactive policing, in which they used their discretion to decide whether to intervene in a potential crime situation, such as a traffic stop or walking up to someone on the street, and reverted to reactive policing, where they wait to respond to 911 calls for service. The Ferguson Effect is a three-headed hydra restraining officers from using aggressive law enforcement strategies, driving officers eligible to leave into retirement, and discouraging otherwise well qualified candidates from entering the ranks of the law enforcement profession.

The murder of George Floyd brought the Ferguson Effect to Minnesota. A chorus of public figures, political leaders, media personalities, and activists portrayed the entire Minneapolis Police Department as a racist, bigoted, rouge organization for which dissolution was the only option. This relentless narrative had a profoundly negative impact on the department’s rank and file, leaving officers to believe there was a complete lack of community support for their public safety work. To this day, these irresponsible public statements have not been retracted, forcing officers to revert to reactive policing strategies only.

Retired Minneapolis Police Department Commander Scott Gerlicher shined a bright light on why policing has become more reactive: “There isn’t a huge appetite for aggressive police work out there, and the risk/reward, certainly, we’re there and we’re sworn to protect and serve, but you also have to protect yourself and your family…” He continued, “Nobody in the job or working on the job can blame those officers for being less aggressive.” Available data backs up Gerlicher’s observations.

An even more troubling aspect of the Ferguson Effect is that if left unaddressed, it will metastasize, eventually undermining law enforcement’s ability to protect the public in the future. Chuck Wexler, the longtime executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, recently noted that, “you have to build public trust [in the police] before you unleash [anti-crime units]. It really has to be strategic. And it really has to be backed by the community.” (Emphasis added). Minnesotans need to recognize that any new anti-crime plans, policies, or procedures focused on taking habitual violent criminals off the streets will fail without also embarking on an “all of society approach” to restore community trust in the police. The police should not be left to build trust for public safety work alone.

To be sure, some may question the entire strategy of using the police to target habitual offenders and violent criminals as a ruse to engage in racially biased and divisive strategies. These charges are unfounded for a few reasons. First, police agencies should be sensitive to these concerns and ensure a comprehensive, ongoing community engagement strategy to explain the “how” and “why” aggressive law enforcement tactics are used. Second, many of the communities most impacted by violent crime have specifically asked the police to step up enforcement activities. One group of concerned citizens in Minneapolis wrote to Governor Walz seeking all available resources to assist the police in this crime emergency. Third, instituting internal department controls can correct any deficiencies and allow police to focus resources on areas experiencing high concentrations of violent crime. For example, in early January 2022, New York City restarted an elite anti-crime unit after it was disbanded based on concerns that such aggressive policing unfairly targeted millions of young Black and Latino men. New York Mayor Eric Adams, a former police officer, recognized these concerns, but assured residents that civil liberties would be protected with appropriate selection, training, and oversight of officers.

To help bring this crime wave to an end, Minnesotans must demand that our leaders at all levels of government and within the community speak out together on the need to build lasting trust and confidence in the police. Citizens cannot allow the irresponsible public statements made by political and community leaders following George Floyd’s murder to be the final word on policing in Minnesota, perpetuating the Ferguson Effect that leads to a further retreat by law enforcement, increases the attrition rate of officers leaving the profession, and discourages the right candidates from even considering a career as a professional law enforcement officer. The stakes could not be higher to secure our collective public safety now and in the future.