Recent negative publicity surrounding police after several shootings of civilians appears to have diminished the motivation of some police officers but did not decrease their willingness to carry out their duties, according to a new psychology paper.

This is in contrast to recent comments by FBI Director James Comey, who attributed the rise in homicides in some cities to police apprehension at the prospect of cellphone videos and the possibility that such recordings could go viral. As a result, he claimed, some police may be reluctant to engage in face-to-face encounters in their communities. 

This so-called "Ferguson effect" refers to the hypothesis that recent increases in violent crime can be ascribed to negative publicity associated with police actions, such as the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent riots. While there is no empirical evidence yet to support the "Ferguson effect," lead author Scott Wolfe, PhD, of the University of South Carolina, and co-author Justin Nix, PhD, of the University of Louisville, uses surveys to se whether the negative publicity surrounding these events might have had a negative effect on police willingness to engage in community partnerships, where police work together with residents to identify local problems and develop strategies to combat them.

They used data from a February 2015 survey of 567 deputies at a mid-sized sheriff's department in the Southeastern United States serving 393,000 residents. All sworn deputies were asked to complete a questionnaire on a password-protected website and were guaranteed anonymity. Participants were asked to indicate the extent to which they agreed that negative publicity during the prior six months made them less motivated at work or caused them to be less proactive on the job than they were in the past.

"The results indicate that there appears to be a relationship between reduced motivation as a result of negative publicity and less willingness to work directly with community members to solve problems," said Wolfe. However, this effect appears to be spurious once participants' perceptions of departmental fairness and confidence in their authority as a police officer were taken into account.

Wolfe suggested that the reduced motivation attributable to the negative publicity may be counteracted if supervisors ensure fairness among subordinates.

Published in Law and Human Behavior.