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Decay and Reform in the Post-Ferguson Era

The death of Michael Brown at the hands of a white Ferguson police officer has uncovered an apparent legitimacy crisis at the heart of American policing. Some have claimed that de-policing may have led officers to become less proactive.

How exactly has the policing of gangs and violence changed in the post-Ferguson era? This book explores this question, drawing on participant observation field notes and in-depth interviews with officers, offenders, practitioners, and community members in a Southern American state.

As demands for police reform have once again come into focus following George Floyd’s death, this crucial book informs future policing practice to promote effective crime prevention and gain public trust.

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In this opening chapter, we set the scene for the book by referencing the contextual backdrop of increased accountability and change in American policing, the challenges around police– community relations, and the political and public concern about gang- related criminality as a related symptom of these issues across the United States (US). We introduce the research methods underpinning the empirical work and conclude by providing an overview of each of the subsequent chapters.

Maybe something in policing has changed. In today’s YouTube world, are officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime? … I spoke to officers privately in one big city precinct who described being surrounded by young people with mobile phone cameras held high, taunting them the moment they get out of their cars. They told me, “We feel like we’re under siege and we don’t feel much like getting out of our cars” … I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year. And that wind is surely changing behavior. (James B. Comey, Director of the FBI, 2015, cited in Morgan & Pally, 2016, p 7)

The words of James B. Comey are one example of the numerous discussions and debates that have emerged within American law enforcement contexts in recent years. Mr. Comey raised several themes emerging in recent discussions on policing, police– community relations, and youth violence that will be introduced in this chapter and explored further in subsequent chapters of this book.

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As we suggested in the previous chapter, policing in America is facing a crisis of confidence. Unfavorable perceptions toward police are a pervasive challenge for municipal agencies, particularly in communities impacted by high levels of gang- related crime where police departments are understaffed and under- resourced (Mock, 2017b; Police Executive Research Forum, 2019). In an era of 24- hour news cycles, social media activism, and community advocacy, there is growing public outrage due to perceived abuses by the police. Videos on social media depicting police- involved shootings have also led to increased scrutiny, and this has made the work of building community trust even more challenging (Maguire et al, 2017). Moreover, if there is a lack of support for police, residents will be unwilling to cooperate with the police and assist with investigations, and such attitudes can undermine the ability of police officers to do their jobs effectively (Wolfe et al, 2016). In order to understand attitudes toward police in the post- Ferguson era, in this chapter we discuss the rubric of procedural justice and police legitimacy perceptions. We then explore the historical roots of police– community conflict and the ongoing confidence gap in attitudes toward police, and conclude by discussing the impact of BLM and digital media in general as a tool for collective action and empowerment.

Extant research on legitimacy owes much of its framing to Max Weber’s work on political legitimacy and the role of legal norms in shaping the relationship between the individual and State. These ideas influenced the contributions of Tom Tyler and others in the field of psychology.

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In this part of the book we turn our attention to practitioner and youth perspectives on policing and police–community relations in the post-Ferguson era. In this chapter we begin by placing the spotlight on the voices of non-police practitioners who worked closely with racial minority youths in one of the counties studied. Drawing on data from semi-structured interviews, we outline the insights we gained into the current challenges faced by young racial minority males in local communities and the relationship between some of these issues and gang-related violence and crime in their neighborhoods. Insights are presented into the type of community-centered interventions in place within the county to prevent violence and to re-engage disadvantaged young men (including those involving law enforcement), as well as practitioners’ reflections on their nature and impact.

The prominent role or apparent absence of police in these interventions is considered, drawing on the perspectives of practitioners, and supplementary insights from youth focus groups shed light on justice-involved young men’s continued distrust of law enforcement. We draw implications from practitioners on the challenges stemming from the policing of young men located in gang-affected neighborhoods, and how this may have evolved in the post-Ferguson era. Given the prominence of street gangs in the locations where fieldwork was conducted, we begin the chapter with a brief overview of some of the existing literary insights on gangs in the literature. Specifically, we focus on the literature on gang involvement among racial minority males and their relationships with the police.

Since the time of the early work conducted by Frederic Thrasher (1927) and the Chicago School of Sociology, many academics have analyzed and described how poverty, unemployment, social disorganization, and oppression can help to stimulate gang culture among groups of young men (Shaw & MacKay, 1942; Whyte, 1943; Cohen, 1955; Cloward & Ohlin, 1960; Anderson, 1999; Decker et al, 2013).

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This chapter turns the spotlight away from practitioner perspectives and onto the views of those who are often most affected by law enforcement strategies – young men in communities of color, and specifically those with offending histories. The chapter draws upon insights from semi-structured interviews conducted in a county jail and in local neighborhoods, with young men with criminal histories or those who were on the periphery of criminality. We explore the collective challenges these young men had encountered, including the impact of adverse childhood experiences, social and economic disadvantage, and (where relevant) the influence of gang culture. We also chronicle the young men’s lived experiences with racial discrimination from police interventions and the wider criminal justice system. Among the generally despondent narratives shared, we also draw attention to the cautious optimism expressed by some who had recently participated in police-initiated community-engagement programs. In so doing, we draw some conclusions about the young men’s juxtaposed exposure to contrasting guardian and warrior police roles, and the continuing and cumulative disadvantage they experienced via law enforcement and – in some cases – the wider criminal justice system.

As we described in Chapter 1, this part of the research firstly involved the implementation of semi- structured interviews with eight young racial minority men who were currently residing in the Queen County jail, often awaiting sentencing related to suspected crimes of violence associated with gang culture. Access to the jail was established through a formal application process to the Queen County Sheriff’s Office, Department of Corrections, and once this was approved by senior officers, currently incarcerated young men were interviewed.

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Findings from fieldwork conducted with police, non-law enforcement practitioners, and justice-involved young men were presented throughout the previous chapters. We explored contemporary police–community relations and discussed the historical roots of racial conflict and social decay in America. Scholarly perspectives on policing and anti-gang strategies were also discussed, and challenges related to the policing of young men in disadvantaged communities were highlighted. In this concluding chapter, we summarize findings based on ethnographic research in a Southern American state and address the implications of navigating a post-Ferguson era largely characterized by divisiveness and acrimony. We note emerging issues regarding the policing of racial and ethnic minorities and suggest approaches to foster more procedurally just practices and improve police legitimacy perceptions. In addition, we reflect on lessons learned from previous police-reform efforts and provide recommendations for police–community reforms in troubled times.

Commentators have characterized the unique challenges of police work as “the impossible mandate,” or mission impossible, due to unrealistic public expectations (Manning, 1977; Goldsmith, 2005; Roelofse, 2010). In contexts where resources are scarce and personnel are stretched, police are expected to be effective at enforcing the law, maintaining order, and keeping crime at bay, while also garnering trust and partnering with communities. During times of crisis and social change, such wishes are even more difficult to fulfill, and given the lessons of the last hundred years it is not surprising that police often fall short of lofty ideals. For example, between the 1920s and 1940s, despite concerns about police brutality and civil rights abuses, there was an emphasis on managerial efficiency and adherence to the bidding of lawmakers (Walker & Katz, 2017); however, this was soon followed by significant developments related to the civil rights movement, as social upheaval and racial conflict took center stage.

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As we reflect on policing in times of crisis, we acknowledge the frequent reminders of the need for difficult conversations about racial injustice. It may be a comforting notion that most officers do not intend to treat Black residents differently from their White counterparts, or to use force unjustly in neighborhoods that lack political efficacy, yet this does not diminish the pain that many feel in the aftermath of tragic encounters with police. Given the unabated grievances that stem from the shortcomings of the justice system, it is clear that racial conflicts in America’s past cannot be treated as mere historical artifacts. It is lamentable that such conflicts seem to define life in America today as law enforcement continues to face scrutiny due to the conduct of officers in Black and Brown communities. This book draws attention to the undeniable fact that within geographical pockets of disorder and neglect in urban landscapes, police–community relations are shaped by a problematic racial history and a pervasive cognitive landscape of anger, resentment, and disillusionment (Brunson, 2007; Rothenberg, 2013; Cobbina, 2019). Moreover, the unshakeable reality of police violence on the streets reminds us of the likelihood that we will experience more “Fergusons” in the near future.

Throughout the previous chapters we have suggested that noble efforts by law enforcement to “mend the fences” are often undermined by recurring incidents of perceived excessive force by police officers. The movement against racial injustice has clearly resonated with millions of people around the world and drawn an unprecedented worldwide response, and during the time of writing, this fact has become abundantly clear.

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