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How Policing Is Still Changing Post-Ferguson

Police caution tape
Creative Commons
A 17-year-old has been charged as an adult for attempted murder after police say he fired shots at Clarksville Police Chief Mark Palmer's home in September.

Justin Nix grew up wanting to be a police officer. Instead, he opted to study the profession. Nix is an assistant professor in the University of Louisville's criminal justice department.

His latest research focuses on how law enforcement is changing in the years following the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Nix calls that shooting, which occurred in August 2014 and set off a string of protests and tensions between police and communities, a pivotal moment for policing.

He's studied the so-called Ferguson Effect, which 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 his study, which was published late last year.

And he's recently examined deadly attacks on police officers in the months following the Ferguson shooting and compared the findings with the years before Ferguson.

Nix said he wanted to see if more police officers were being killed post-Ferguson than before. His findings, however, show no significant change in the amount of officers killed in the line of duty.

I spoke with Nix about the study and how researchers, like himself, need more data to be able to fully tell the story of how the events surrounding Ferguson are impacting the concept of policing.

Listen to the audio in the player above.

Can you give me a brief rundown of why you started studying what you've been studying and what you've been finding?

Police legitimacy has been a hot button topic going back a long time now, but, certainly, in the last couple of years I've been interested in what makes citizens view the police with legitimacy. What is it that helps cops view their own authority as legitimate? And certainly, in these last couple of years this issue of use of force and deadly force has been just fascinating, trying to tease out the objective truth and the things we've seen alleged.

You're most recent study looks at killings of police officers. Talk about what you found there.

We looked at data from the Officer Down Memorial Page, which does a good job of tracking all line of duty deaths in the Untied States among police officers. We restricted it to human officers who have been feloniously attacked and killed going back to the start of 2010 and up until March of this year to see if there has been any significant changes in the number of cops murdered in the line of duty. And, in a nutshell, we did not find any evidence that that number was going up significantly.

Do the findings in this most recent study have any impact on policies related to law enforcement?

Time will tell. As I mentioned, what we weren't able to do was look at attacks that did not result in death. There just isn't really a good, up to date, source of data on non-fatal attacks of the police. It very well may be that those types of attacks are going up, and so, I hate to be a social scientist on you, but we need more data, we need more research.

What data do you need to be able to answer the questions we have regarding police, and regarding assaults on police and police killings of citizens?

A very, very important point that I think sometimes get lost in translation is that not always when the police use deadly force does someone die. What I mean by that is that anytime a cop pulls the trigger he or she is using deadly force, but we know from research going back decades, really, the majority of the time when they shoot, they don't kill anybody. But, nevertheless, the officer had intent to use deadly force. So, what we don't have is this huge piece of the puzzle where officers are pulling the trigger, but no one is dying. We need to know about that, because that might uncover an entirely different pattern of racial disparities or shooting of unarmed suspects, there's just a whole other side to this story that we don't know a whole lot about because we don't have good data.

How should people look at data and keep in mind that there's a big pie and how do you not just look at one slice of the pie and think that is the whole story?

That's quite a tall order. I think that I, myself, and criminologists, we need to do everything we can to translate our findings to something easily consumed by the general public. And the media, I would argue, also has to be responsible and try to be objective and report the good science out there and really do a good job of communicating that to the public.

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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