LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) - Researchers who study the effects of officer-involved shootings said the field has changed dramatically since the death of Michael Brown. Experts have even called this time in our nation's history the post-Ferguson era.
Justin Nix is an assistant professor of criminal justice at University of Louisville. He went from wanting to be a cop to spending his life's work studying the profession. More specifically, Nix and his colleagues focus on police legitimacy and what it is that police think makes their authority legitimate. They also study what it is that citizens’ think makes their authority legitimate.
There is actually no national database to document the number of officer-involved shootings in the U.S. Because of that, Nix said researchers instead rely on getting those statistics from media outlets like the Washington Post. His interviews with police departments across the country have also revealed some potentially alarming findings.
About six months after Ferguson, Nix and his colleagues surveyed a sample of sheriff's deputies.
“We asked them questions like: Do you think the job has gotten more dangerous? Do you feel less motivated at work? Do you think that citizens’ attitudes toward police have worsened? We saw some variation in those responses. A lot of the sample did feel that the job is more dangerous and they were less motivated,” Nix said.
Despite the increase in perceived danger on the job, the study also showed that officers are not less willing to partner with the community to solve problems. However, it revealed a good portion of the sample have become more reluctant to use force since Ferguson.
“That’s a huge concern right. We don’t cops out there trying to do their jobs and being afraid to use force in a situation that appropriately calls for it,” Nix said. “It does seem like police officers have been affected by these events, and especially with Dallas the other night, I can only imagine what it’s like to be a police officer today.”
Nix and his team also looked at nearly a thousand deadly officer-involved shootings in 2015.
“We found that among everybody that had been shot and killed by a police officer, black suspects were twice as likely to have not been armed as white suspects,” Nix said.
Nix said it's unclear if those deaths resulted from blatant profiling, but thinks something called implicit bias theory may play a role.
“It suggests that our brain uses mental shortcuts to process information, and there’s been experimental research that’s shown subjects are quicker to misidentify an object as a gun when they’ve primed with a black face,” Nix said.
Nix said the theory can affect everyone, but especially officers who are faced with crime all of the time.
“There are these underlying conditions that influence the way we look at the world and we see, especially police officers who deal with crime on a daily basis, and when they become conditioned to view certain suspects differently, it might be affecting their decision-making and their behavior without them even being aware of it,” Nix said.
According to Nix, these reactions can potentially be remedied.
“This might sound silly, but there are simple exercises people can do, literally saying a stereotype and following it by the word no or saying something that runs counter to a prevalent stereotype and saying yes and doing this repeatedly,” Nix said.
Officer-involved shootings aren’t a new thing, but Nix said social media has just made the world more aware of them.
“Hopefully, we’ll look back and say this has been a good thing because it’s made our cops more accountable, but there is concern out there that it’s going to result in de-policing, which would be bad for crime rates,” Nix said. “I guess if there is a glass half-full way to look at this, at least we’re having a conversation about it. At least, as a citizenry, we’re demanding accountability of our officers.”
Nis said more research is needed to prevent these shootings rather than trying to figure out if they’re justified or not. Those studies will continue, but Nix knows one thing will always hold true for both sides of the issue.
“Violence doesn’t solve anything,” Nix said.