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Louisville Metro Police Less Active In Year Since Ferguson

Louisville Metro Police officers are initiating fewer interactions since a police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014 sparked a national controversy, Chief Steve Conrad said.

In a period of heightened scrutiny of law enforcement, Metro police officers are making fewer arrests, issuing fewer citations, serving fewer warrants and conducting fewer field interviews, Conrad said on Tuesday. Those interactions have decreased about 30 percent.

But Conrad said he couldn't pinpoint a reason for the drop.

"Whether or not that's connected to the Ferguson Effect or not, I can't say that," he said. "Some of that may be in play here, but, again, it's hard to know."

Justin Nix, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Louisville, co-authored a study published last month by the American Psychological Association that examines the so-called Ferguson Effect.

The Ferguson Effect concept suggests that officers are conscious of the negative publicity surrounding their profession and understand that their actions could be recorded by the public at any given time, according to the study. Police become less willing to actively do their jobs as a way to avoid being accused of racial profiling or use of excessive force. In turn, the  concept holds, this de-escalation in policing leads to increases in crime.

The Ferguson Effect name refers to the shooting death last year of an unarmed black teenager by a white Ferguson police officer. The incident sparked the Black Lives Matter movement and intensified scrutiny of police nationwide.

Last month, FBI Director James Comey suggested that the Ferguson Effect may be the cause of the uptick in violent crime across the U.S., but even he couldn't say for sure.

Louisville Metro Police have recorded 71 criminal homicides this year, compared with 55 in all of 2014. Conrad said the 300-plus reported shootings in the city is also much higher than years past.

Conrad said the idea these violent crimes may be rising due to the Ferguson Effect, as Comey suggested, could be a factor in Louisville, but it's difficult to say. Conrad said the state's heroin epidemic and other factors may also be contributing to the spike in murders.

He said it's important officers feel supported and comfortable in the everyday course of the job.

"I am there and will support them as they go about doing their job," he said.

The American Psychological Association study also found that scrutiny from media and the public is unlikely to lead police officers to stop responding to violent crime. Officers may be “less willing to put in the extra effort in the form of working with the community to solve problems,” the study found.

The study concluded that it is premature to blame crime increases across the nation on a Ferguson Effect.

Likewise, John Curra, a professor for Eastern Kentucky University's School of Justice Studies, said it's impossible to validate or measure — anecdotal evidence aside —whether the Ferguson Effect is having an effect on crime.

Local activist Gary Brice suggested a drop in non-violent crime could be leading to the drop in arrests and citations from Louisville Metro Police.

Property crime rates have been steadily falling since 2011, Louisville Metro Police data shows.

Brice said police officers locally and across the U.S. must come to terms that they are public servants and subject to constant public scrutiny.

“If the police are policing and not violating rights they should not have anything to worry about,” he said.

Brice said local police leaders who think a Ferguson Effect may be happening in Louisville should address the issue. Brice said the department could assess its training and culture, and that Conrad should ask what "police officers doing pre-Ferguson that they are afraid to do post-Ferguson?”

The shooting death earlier this year of a black man in Old Louisville by a Louisville Metro police officer — and the ensuing uproar from activists — could be factoring into how officers are interacting with people, said Metro Councilman David James, a former police officer.

"When people are suggesting he should have been charged with murder it makes them hesitant to engage," James said of the officers.

But James said he didn't know if the Ferguson Effect is tied to the drop in officer-initiated activity. There could be other culprits.

"There's a lot of morale issues on the police department right now totally unrelated to Ferguson," he said.

James said low pay and inadequate benefits packages could contribute to the drop in police action. He said some new officers take home about $400 every two weeks.

"That creates a morale issue," he said.

Louisville Metro Police Sgt. David Mutchler, the president of the local police union, did not immediately return to a request for comment.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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