The protests in West Volusia and across the country following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police, have put law enforcement in the spotlight.
Relations between officers and the communities they police are at a modern-day nadir, particularly between law enforcement and people of color.
The Beacon spoke with Dr. Chris Ferguson, a Stetson University psychology professor, about the protests following Floyd’s killing, and what the future of policing might look like.
Ferguson earned his doctorate in clinical psychology at the University of Central Florida, and has researched a variety of topics, including violent behavior, violence in video games and the effects of different media on behavior.
— Anthony DeFeo
Q: Thank you for speaking with us, Dr. Ferguson. Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
A: I’m a clinical psychologist, and I’ve for a long time done research on violent media and violent behavior. I’ve done a lot of research on violent video games. I’ve generally looked at violent crime and issues related to that.
Q: Seeing what’s been going on across the country lately, what about George Floyd’s death caused these particular protests to grow so large and so widespread?
A: I think there probably were a lot of factors. There has been this steady stream of accounts of primarily young black men, and sometimes black women as well, who have been unarmed and killed by police officers, obviously exercising much more force than what was absolutely needed.
This is an issue that’s come up before, and it’s probably been simmering for years, if not decades.
It’s really the largest reaction to this type of situation we’ve seen since really, 1967, when there were the “long, hot summer” race riots.
Two other things have been happening.
One, of course, is over the past few months we’ve had the COVID-19 epidemic. That created a lot of tension — people are unemployed. There’s been a lot of polarization around that. It may have actually helped fuel both the protests, and initially, some of the rioting. You had a lot of particularly younger people who don’t have to go back to work on Monday, because they’ve been unemployed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
We’ve also gotten incredibly polarized as a country. Everything has been amplified by this sense of high stakes from a political position, and that has been going on for probably at least a decade, and the roots of it certainly extend further back.
You have a situation where the current president kind of speaks to a particular constituency, but has not been successful as a uniter. If anything, he’s tended to divide and further polarize. … It’s gotten difficult for people to reach across divisions to try to reach some kind of consensus.
Q: What do you make of some of the protesters’ demands for police reform, or even abolishing police? What do you think could realistically come out of these protests?
A: I think the cause is a good one. We’ve had historical problems with policing in the U.S. We’ve seen policing increase in militarization, and I think we’re now seeing the consequences. There’s certainly a needed course correction here.
In terms of how it all shakes out, I don’t know. We’ll see. There are calls for what I think are pretty reasonable reforms to policing. Some of them have gone and extended all of the way to abolishing [police], like the “defund the police” movement. It looks like some cities will try to put some version of that into practice. I can’t read the future. We’ll see what happens.
Some of the demands are going to be more reasonable than others. Doing nothing isn’t going to be reasonable.
Q: How did we get to our current situation with regard to policing?
A: We evolved a police force to deal with the situation we had in 1993, which was rampant crime and the highest homicide rate since the 1930s. People then were really worried about crime spiraling out of control.
The 1994 crime bill was meant to address that. And there were probably some reasonable elements to that, but it also meant harsher sentences, policing strategies that were harsh, and the militarization of police departments.
That escalated in 2001 with 9/11. You had the Patriot Act and some other policies that further shifted power in the direction of police and law-enforcement organizations.
From the perspective of that moment, it might have seemed reasonable, and it might have kind of worked in a way, in that we’re now seeing the lowest levels of crime since the 1960s.
But it came at a cost. For example, marijuana seems to be on the path to legalization in many states and maybe eventually nationally, but we have individuals who are serving significant prison sentences because of possession or sale of marijuana, a nonviolent crime.
Q: What do you make of how police in certain cities have been responding to the protests?
A: As the protests began, I remember thinking police commanders needed to tell their officers to be on their best behavior — not to push people around. Obviously, you need to defend human life and that kind of stuff, and if you’re being attacked, you may have to respond to protect yourself and others, but certainly, cameras are everywhere now, so you have to be on your best behavior.
I am shocked and disappointed by how many officers were not. In fairness, some protesters didn’t always behave well, either. But the police are under a microscope. They’re the agents of the state; they should sort of be held to a higher standard.
Those images of police officers attacking unarmed protesters, pushing elderly men to the ground, even arresting protesters who were just peacefully demonstrating, all of those things are going to shift public opinion against police and against policing.
I’m kind of shocked by the lack of foresight among some police commanders and organizations that they didn’t do more to make sure the message had gotten through to all of their police officers to be on their best behavior.
Police strategy has yet to adapt itself to the new realities of cameras in every pocket, and every misbehavior on the part of police officers being reported and amplified.
Whatever else happens to police organizations, they’re really going to have to reconsider their approach in dealing with the public … not leaping to aggression when dealing with people who may be defiant but are otherwise nonviolent.
Q: What can be done moving forward to change policing?
A: So, I think we have to look at what policing we need for 2020, and what is working out and what isn’t working now. Some basic stuff, like banning chokeholds, I’m sort of stunned this isn’t already a thing. This is something we know puts people at risk.
We don’t want to kill suspects. Even if it’s accidental, if you’re using a practice that you know puts suspects at higher risk of injuries or death, those practices should be abolished.
We can look at stuff like if every police department really needs an armored personnel carrier.
In general, police organizations need to foster better communications with the local community.
A lot of the focus on the recent demonstrations has been on police brutality, and that’s definitely part of people’s concerns, but if you listen to a lot of minority communities, they also talk about how they’re not served by the police.
The concern is that when crimes are happening in minority communities, police are slower to respond or don’t respond as they do in wealthier communities.
As far as “defunding the police,” I don’t know if that’s super well-defined. I think for the most part they’re not saying get rid of police altogether, but shift some resources from police organizations into social services and education and the like.
The question there is, will that be politically viable with voters? Public trust in police does tend to remain pretty high, at least prior to the protests. That may have changed in the past couple of weeks.
So, will the public in general be supportive of these “defund the police” movements?
I think what we’re going to end up seeing is this unintentional social experiment. Some cities, like Minneapolis, I think New York City, a couple of cities in California, mostly probably blue cities, seem to be moving in the direction of doing something related to “defunding the police,” and other cities won’t.
So, what we’re setting ourselves up for is an experiment. We can look at data to see what crime looks like in cities that defund the police versus those that don’t. That data will inform us moving forward whether this is a good idea, or not.