Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage 9781626377882

Depolicing—the withdrawal from proactive law enforcement by officers on the line—has become an increasing concern within

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Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

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DEPOLICING When Police Officers Disengage Willard M. Oliver

b o u l d e r l o n d o n

Published in the United States of America in 2019 by Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. 1800 30th Street, Boulder, Colorado 80301

and in the United Kingdom by Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. Gray’s Inn House, 127 Clerkenwell Road, London EC1 5DB

© 2019 by Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data A Cataloguing-in-Publication record for this book is available from the Library of Congress.

ISBN 978-1-62637-755-4

British Cataloguing in Publication Data A Cataloguing in Publication record for this book is available from the British Library. Printed and bound in the United States of America

The paper used in this publication meets the requirements of the American National Standard for Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials Z39.48-1992.

5  4  3  2  1

To my friends at the Berkeley Police Department: Sgt. Michael J. Holland (Ret.) Former Police Chief Michael “Mike” Meehan Police Chief Andrew “Andy” Greenwood

It should be emphasized that it is impossible to overestimate the evil influence exerted on the populace, and their effect upon the extent of crime in the community, when law enforcement officials adopt a non-enforcement policy and permit violation of laws.

—August Vollmer, The Criminal

The phenomenon of depolicing . . . is real and—in my opinion—a widespread epidemic. —Officer #57

I am sure that we have all depoliced to some extent or another, either out of protest or fear. —Officer #11

In my view, the issue of depolicing comes down to a leadership issue. If there is ever a time that a leader must be a leader it is in these difficult times. —Officer #18






What Is Depolicing?


What We Know About Depolicing


A Theoretical Framework


Cops Talk About Depolicing I: How They See It


Cops Talk About Depolicing II: Who’s to Blame?


Cops Talk About Depolicing III: Solutions


Coming to Grips with Depolicing

Appendix 1: Methodology Appendix 2: Interviewee Demographics References Index About the Book



33 53 79

129 157 161 169 171 181 185


Ever since reading Walter Williams’s 2001 editorial “Riot Ideology and Depolicing,” I have been curious about the existence of depolicing—when police officers disengage from proactive policing—and how it manifests in police officers. Over the years, I have talked to many officers and deputies about the topic, asking if the phenomenon is real, what causes it, and, less often, what should be done about it. As the stories continued to reveal its existence, I decided it was time to conduct an empirical study that gave voice to those whose lives are most touched by depolicing: the officers themselves. As I started interviewing officers on the topic, little did I know that during that very summer of 2014, the incident in Ferguson, Missouri, would move the police and the topic of depolicing into the limelight, giving my research a gravitas I had never anticipated. It is my hope that this book contributes to our understanding of depolicing—and why cops disengage—and perhaps offers at least a few solutions for how to effectively deal with the problem. I must thank all the police officers, sheriff’s deputies, and police administrators who took time out of their lives to be interviewed for the book. Their valuable time and willingness to help elucidate the depolicing phenomenon earns my heartfelt thanks. In addition, I wish to thank all the officers from 2001 to 2014 who spoke to me about the topic before I finally decided to pursue a more formalized study. And finally, I must thank Lynne Rienner xiii



and Alex Holzman of Lynne Rienner Publishers, who showed a personal interest in my research on depolicing and have supported its publication from the very beginning. Everyone at Lynne Rienner has been gracious—thank you! —Willard M. Oliver

1 What Is Depolicing?

Writing in 2016, reporter Archita Datta Majumdar dubbed 2015 as the year of “de-policing.” Her article opens, “Ask any law enforcement officer what the best word to describe 2015 was, and the answer would likely be ‘de-policing’” (Majumdar 2016). She attributes the “vitriol toward the police in both social media and the national media” as having “resulted in deadly hesitation in the face of doubt, just when proactive policing is needed” (Majumdar 2016). The sensational language aside, she may very well be accurate in her assertions, for numerous cases from 2015 suggest that police officers are disengaging from proactive policing—not taking the initiative to stop traffic violators, detain suspicious persons, or conduct their own investigations. Rather, they simply take calls for service and handle them with the least amount of effort afforded by departmental policy and law. This is depolicing. Just five days before Christmas in 2014, two New York police officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, were sitting in their patrol car near Myrtle and Tompkins Avenues in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn (Mueller and Baker 2014). Ismaaiyl Brinsely walked up to the front of the officers’ patrol car, pulled out a semiautomatic pistol, and fired several rounds into both officers’ heads and torsos. Both were killed instantly, without even having drawn their own service weapons. Brinsely fled and, as police pursued him, shot and killed himself on the platform of a nearby subway 1


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

station. In the aftermath, New York City police officers, the New York Post learned, disengaged from proactive police work; traffic citations fell by 94 percent, parking violations fell by 92 percent, and arrests for minor offenses, such as public drinking and public urinating, fell by 94 percent, while overall arrests fell by 66 percent (Celona, Cohen, and Golding 2014). Police officers believed they had lost the support not only of the people but of the mayor and city hall. As America rang in the New Year, there was a general consensus among the media, citizen’s groups, and even the Policemen’s Benevolent Association that the New York police were depolicing. The word depolicing became more familiar as 2015 progressed, for as former police officer Randy Sutton (2015a) explained in May, “De-policing has occurred before within a few agencies but never on a national scale.” That same month, the scope of the problem became more visible with national attention to a case occurring in Baltimore, Maryland. On April 12, 2015, Freddie Carlos Gray Jr. was arrested for the illegal possession of a switchblade knife. He was placed in the back of a police wagon without being seat-belted in—a violation of departmental policy—and then transported to booking. During the trip, he had lapsed into a coma, later determined to have been caused by an injury to his spinal cord. Although how Gray obtained this injury, which caused his death, was unclear, public protests against the police became widespread. The mounting public protests led Baltimore state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby to file criminal charges against six Baltimore police officers, including second-degree murder for the transporting officer and “involuntary manslaughter, vehicular manslaughter, second-degree assault, false imprisonment and misconduct in office” for the others (Marbella 2015). Although the officers were later acquitted or the charges against them were dropped, the police department pursued disciplinary measures against them. The public backlash, the criminal charges, and the disciplinary measures negatively impacted police morale in the Baltimore Police Department. Finding that Baltimore citizens and city governance did not support them, police officers engaged in less proactive policing. As in New York City, the rate of arrests and traffic violations declined significantly, and citizens noticed a lack of a police presence (Oppel 2015). Depolicing had come to Baltimore. By the end of 2015, the term depolicing was more prevalent across the country, including in such places as Chicago, where circumstances were similar to those in both New York and Baltimore. The Chicago Police Department found itself under investigation by the federal gov-

What Is Depolicing?


ernment in December of that year, and police officers felt city governance no longer trusted them, as exemplified by the requirement that every officer complete a new two-page report after every stop-andfrisk (US Department of Justice 2015; Konkol 2016). Again, the statistics related to police activity revealed Chicago police officers were doing the “bare minimum”; they were depolicing (Konkol 2016). The evidence that led Majumdar (2016) to call 2015 the “Year of Depolicing” led many others to the very same observation. Doug Wyllie (2015), editor in chief of, a police news website, noted, “In some cities, the practice of proactive policing is in danger of becoming lost to history.” He explained that not only have individual officers depoliced, but depolicing has shown up in agencywide directives. He cites one agency in Greensboro, North Carolina, as issuing a directive that police “no longer initiate traffic stops for minor infractions such as broken headlights or tail lights,” despite the fact that the policing of such minor infractions has thwarted crime and led to the capture of criminals (Engel and Calnon 2004). He also suggests that New York mayor Bill de Blasio, by ending the stopand-frisk practices that originated under Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton, caused a form of agency-wide depolicing (Mac Donald 2014). In 2015, political commentator Colin Flaherty called depolicing the “scariest word of the year”: “This is what cops and their superiors are calling it as they systematically withdraw from stopping, checking, investigating, frisking, pulling over, interrogating, and arresting black people.” Flaherty’s interview with a Chicago police officer suggests something larger than race was involved. “Ten years ago, when we stopped a suspect in a black neighborhood, that person had two choices: run or comply,” the officer explained. “But now more and more suspects are refusing to comply with lawful orders to take their hands out of their pockets, or produce a driver’s license, or answer simple questions about what they are doing in that neighborhood with a bulging backpack at 1:30 a.m. And they know we can’t or won’t do anything about it. Defiance is now the rule.” According to Flaherty, as police officers lose legitimacy in the eyes of the public, they lose the ability to command respect. When faced with such confrontations, fearing that the public and city governance will not support them, police officers disengage; they depolice. The year 2015 even drew the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey, into the fray when he suggested that depolicing was creating a national problem. On October 23, 2015,


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

Comey gave a speech at the University of Chicago Law School in which he discussed the surge in violent crimes in the nation’s 50 largest cities. “What could be driving an increase in murder in some cities across the country, all at the same time?” Comey asked rhetorically. “In today’s YouTube world, are officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime? Are officers answering 911 calls but avoiding the informal contact that keeps bad guys from standing around, especially with guns?” (Wagner 2015). Comey added, “I don’t know whether that explains it entirely, but 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” (Schmidt and Apuzzo 2015). Although he never used the term depolicing, Comey suggested that officers were disengaging in proactive police work because of the negative views toward the police permeating America that year. Although 2015 may have been dubbed the “Year of Depolicing,” this has not been a temporary phenomenon. As recently as April 2017, depolicing was again in the news in California, where police arrests were down throughout the state. According to James Queally, Kate Mather, and Cindy Chang (2017) in “Police Arrests Are Plummeting Across California, Fueling Alarm and Questions,” arrests by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) dropped 25 percent between 2013 and 2015. From 2010 to 2015, felony arrests were down 29 percent, and misdemeanor arrests were down 32 percent. One LAPD officer explained, “Everyone is against whatever law enforcement is doing, so that makes an officer kind of hesitate to initiate contact. A lot of guys will shy away from it because we’ve got dash cams, we’ve got body cams. . . . We don’t want it to come back on us” (Queally, Mather, and Chang 2017). Another officer added, “Not to make fun of it, but a lot of guys are like, ‘Look, I’m just going to act like a fireman.’ I’m going to handle my calls for service and the things that I have to do” (Queally, Mather, and Chang 2017). Yet another said, “Suddenly, you feel like you can’t do any police work, because every opportunity that you have might turn into the next big media case” (Queally, Mather, and Chang 2017). Each of these sentiments describes the phenomenon of depolicing. Depolicing is still around. In the same article, Queally, Mather, and Chang mention a January 2017 Pew Research Center study titled Behind the Badge (Morin et al. 2017) that suggests the phenomenon may remain a problem. In a survey of police officers, the Pew researchers found fully 93 per-

What Is Depolicing?


cent had grown more concerned about their safety, while 76 percent believed “officers in their department have been more reluctant to use force when it is appropriate” and 72 percent felt that officers in their agency were “less willing to stop and question people who seem suspicious” (Morin et al. 2017, 65). Pew concluded that this finding at least “raises the possibility that many officers are responding to these incidents by ‘de-policing’—that is, by not fully carrying out their law enforcement responsibilities” (Morin et al. 2017, 65). There is, in sum, nothing to suggest this problem is going away.

Depolicing Defined

As depolicing is a relatively new word within the policing lexicon, clarification of the term is in order. What exactly is depolicing, and how is it defined? Other terms are often used to describe the same phenomenon. Examples include “passive law enforcement” (Tizon and Forgrave 2001), “tactical disengagement or detachment” (Warner 2005, 83), and “selective disengagement” or “tactical disengagement” (Films on Demand 2001); Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) once called it “retreat” (Bridegam 2005, 101). More recently, the phenomenon has been associated with the “Ferguson effect,” the hypothesis that as officers disengage (depolice), a rise in crime will follow (Mac Donald 2016b; Wolfe and Nix 2016). According to the Encyclopedia of Law Enforcement, in an entry written by Heather Mac Donald (2005), the “phenomenon known as depolicing” is “a result of the intense criticism that accompanies [controversial] incidents,” which leads “many officers [to back] off of assertive policing” (133). In other words, something critical, controversial, or unpleasant and external to officers leaves them angry, frustrated, or in despair, causing them to disengage from proactive policing so as to avoid more of the same. As the phenomenon itself is clearly rooted in the individual officer, we need an understanding of how police officers themselves define it. In one of the earliest articles on the phenomenon, political pundit John Leo (2001) interviewed a Seattle police officer, who characterized depolicing in this manner: “Parking under a shady tree to work on a crossword puzzle is a great alternative to being labeled a racist and being dragged through an inquest, a review board, an FBI and U.S. attorney investigation and a lawsuit.” Once again, withdrawal or


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

work avoidance is an alternative to proactive policing, in this case potentially because of a perceived rather than a direct threat. Many police officers have described similar types of behavior, without placing a name on the phenomenon. For instance, William Dunn (1996) of the Los Angeles Police Department suggested after the Rodney King video came out that many LAPD officers “have all but given up on doing any effective police work. Many of them will only respond to radio calls, and that they do slowly” (185). Another Los Angeles police officer explained how at one point in his career he “did as little as [he] could. Had as little contact with citizens as possible. . . . It didn’t make any sense to do anything—any real police work. Not patrol” (Barker 1999, 129). And outside Los Angeles, Chicago police officer Martin Preib (2010) once described how “more and more cops were less willing to enter the worst circumstances of the city; that is, less willing to be the police” (95). In all three cases, the officers disengaged, stopped policing proactively, and did the bare minimum to get by, suggesting that depolicing is not necessarily a new phenomenon. In addition to active police officers, several retired police officers have tried to define depolicing. Seattle’s Mike Severance, for example, provides a good description when he explains, “In the simplest terms, officers aren’t doing proactive police work. They’ll respond to their calls, you know, if something heinous happens. . . . [I]f they observe an armed robbery in progress, an officer’s going to do what needs to be done. But you’re not going out looking for the bad guys” (Kaste 2015). Another retired officer, Randy Sutton, formerly of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (2015a), defined depolicing as “the conscious decision on the part of police officers to only provide the minimal amount of police service required of them. In other words, handle your calls, write a ticket or two and do nothing proactive.” These definitions merely describe the phenomenon, however, necessitating further investigation into what causes officers to disengage. The cause of depolicing discussed perhaps more than any other centers on race. The previous quote by Colin Flaherty (2015) tied police disengagement to race by stating that it occurs when the police stop enforcing the laws against black citizens. Others attribute the phenomenon to race, but in a different way; for instance, Frank Rudy Cooper (2003) defined depolicing as “a police response to criticism of police tactics toward racial minorities,” which manifests as a “systematic underpolicing of those communities” (1). If police officers are crit-

What Is Depolicing?


icized for heavy enforcement against blacks, they disengage to avoid further criticism. Another commentator, Robert McNamara (2009), defines depolicing as a “law enforcement strategy in which police avoid accusations of racial profiling by ignoring traffic violations and other petty crimes committed by members of visible minorities,” adding that “in a sense, depolicing is the opposite of racial profiling” (32). And Assistant U.S. Attorney General Ron Susswein (2005) relates depolicing to racial profiling when he writes how some officers “have come to believe that it is in their best personal and professional interest simply to look the other way, ignoring legitimate and constitutionally permissible indications of criminal activity because they are afraid of being accused of engaging in racial profiling. This form of timidity is sometimes referred to as ‘de-policing’” (10). Other issues have been cited as causing police officers to withdraw. M. M. Rosen (2005) defines depolicing as stemming from “a decline in support of the efforts of law enforcement from municipal authorities, usually as a reflection of worsening popular perceptions of a local police department” (140). Others have cited depolicing as a reaction to riots, civil suits, or federal government consent decrees (Leo 2001; Warner 2005; Williams 2001). Most of these assertions are, however, merely speculation and based on anecdotal evidence rather than empirical studies. What’s been missing are studies aiming to assess whether there is any basis to the speculation, which is in part the intent of this study. In order to proceed, this study needed a working definition of the term depolicing, so the basic concept was defined as disengagement from proactive police work by police officers due to some external stimuli, real or perceived, as a means of dealing with a real or perceived problem.

The Present Study

There are many important reasons to study depolicing. Depolicing could impact the physical and mental well-being of individual police officers manifesting the behaviors associated with depolicing, signaling withdrawal, despair, and depression. Further, a police officer exhibiting these signs may influence other police officers to depolice, which could collectively put at risk the health and safety of all officers in a unit, on a shift, or in an entire department. Moreover, from a larger, societal perspective, police officers who depolice may threaten the public safety of a community. If police officers disengage,


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

criminal behavior may remain unchecked (recently termed the Ferguson effect), sending a signal to the criminal community that the police no longer care. In order to understand the lived experience of law enforcement officers, I interviewed 60 police officers and sheriff’s deputies from across the United States beginning in the summer of 2014 and ending in the summer of 2016. (For a full account of the methodology employed in this study, please see Appendix 1.) I asked them three main questions: 1. Is depolicing real, and if yes, how pervasive is it? 2. What causes depolicing? 3. How should depolicing be handled?

The rest of this book provides an overview of depolicing in the literature (Chapter 2) and its many concepts (Chapter 3), then goes on to discuss what the interviews revealed about the officers’ views of its nature and scope (Chapter 4), causes (Chapter 5), and solutions (Chapter 6). The final chapter (Chapter 7) presents a summary of the findings.

2 What We Know About Depolicing

The term depolicing has appeared in a wide array of literature, from political commentaries to journalistic reports and scholarly journal articles to police autobiographies, since at least 1980 (Black and Baumgartner 1980; Bratton and Kelling 2012; Cooper 2003; Dunn 1996; Leo 2001; Williams 2001). The first piece of literature to use the word took a unique perspective, arguing that depolicing would yield a positive contribution to American society (Black and Baumgartner 1980). Since then, however, the concept has been more widely perceived as having a negative impact on society, most recently as contributing to the so-called Ferguson effect, in which crime rates rise as police officers disengage. The body of literature on depolicing often attempts not only to explain the extent to which the phenomenon exists but to identify those factors that cause police officers to disengage. In the first body of literature to paint depolicing as a negative and dangerous societal phenomenon, political commentators detailed how, in the aftermath of riots, police officers disengaged. These riots were associated with the developing use of federal consent decrees, also thought to contribute to officers’ disengagement from proactive policing. Other factors associated with depolicing in the literature have included racial profiling and civil suits. In order to convey the wide array of perspectives on what depolicing is, its causes, and how it impacts society, this chapter reviews the 9


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

broad literature on depolicing. The “literature” is not confined to academic studies but rather includes any writing that includes the term depolicing. In most cases, depolicing is used to describe a phenomenon in policing. However, in some cases the term is used for political purposes, occasionally stemming from racist as well as antiracist perspectives; some use it to portray an evil, while a few use it to describe a virtue. This chapter reviews how others have used the term depolicing, perspectives I do not necessarily share. The chapter then reviews police officer autobiographical publications that offer first-person accounts of modern-day police descriptions of the phenomenon. It concludes by summarizing our understanding, as revealed by the literature in the aggregate, of both the causes of depolicing and the behaviors associated with it.

The Origin of Depolicing

The term depolicing first appears in a chapter titled “On Self-Help in Modern Society” in Donald Black’s (1980) The Manners and Customs of the Police. The chapter, coauthored by M. P. Baumgartner, was later expanded into a 1987 article published in the journal Dialectical Anthropology (Black and Baumgartner 1987). Even at the time of publication, the concepts of depolicing and self-help were considered “provocative” and “controversial” (Walker 1982). In the chapter, Black and Baumgartner (1980) discuss how primitive societies are more likely to engage in self-help, while more modern societies turn to the law and more formal means of social control, namely the police. They suggest that an inverse relationship exists between self-help and the law and argue that as societies become more modernized, they become more dependent upon the police. This, in turn, causes the police to intrude more into the daily lives of the people. As “the citizenry becomes increasingly dependent upon the state to define and maintain order,” they posit, “people increasingly cease to take responsibility for their own security and dispute settlement” (Black and Baumgartner 1980, 196). Greater dependency on the police results in “a new and higher level of need for these very services, leading to their ever escalating proliferation” (Black and Baumgartner 1980, 196). Black and Baumgartner (1980) argue that the populace’s becoming ever more needful of the police is problematic, that by abdicating personal responsibility for helping themselves, people essentially become helpless and ineffectual citizens. There is some truth to the

What We Know About Depolicing


statement in that police officers are often the first to be called for minor problems. Even something as simple as a neighbor playing loud music or a dog barking can necessitate a police response. Rather than politely asking the neighbor to turn down the music or to quiet the dog, people call the police. As this dependency on the police escalates, society seeks new and greater police methods to deal with issues, ranging from increasing the number of police officers to using technology to expand their reach. Black and Baumgartner (1980) argue that “cutting back on the police—or depolicing—is almost never considered as a way to ameliorate these problems” (196). Because Black and Baumgartner (1980) believe there is an inverse relationship between the law and self-help, they conjecture, “If police protection were reduced . . . the volume and intensity of self-help would rise correspondingly, reversing the trend toward ever-greater dependence upon law” (197). They believe that with less police presence, people would once again become more aware of their surroundings, would work to settle informal disputes such as loud music and barking dogs, and would be more likely to help each other in a time of need. The authors posit that “making police conspicuous by their absence would lead citizens to draw upon their own resources and assist one another in solving their problems” (Black and Baumgartner 1980, 197). In order to achieve depolicing, Black and Baumgartner (1987) suggest a slow transition from a high level of policing to a high level of self-help so as to avoid anarchy and chaos—a “Hobbesian war,” in their words (35)—although they do note that sudden breakdowns in police response, such as in a natural disaster, have not created chaos. Instead, the affected communities generally respond with organized interest in working together to solve problems through cooperation. Either way, Black and Baumgartner (1980) believe that as the withdrawal of police services occurs, people will rise to the occasion because “self-help engenders more self-help” (199). Thus, in their view, “depolicing would contribute to the growth of self-help in modern society” and “depolicing would in and of itself produce selfhelp to some degree, and this self-help would in turn produce still more” (Black and Baumgartner 1980, 199). A critique by Alan Hunt (1983) of Black’s sociological theory of law enforcement appeared three years later and incorporated some discussion of Black’s depolicing concept. Hunt (1983) is first critical of the political aspect of Black’s theory, noting that Black’s advocacy of self-help treats it as a good while presenting an overreliance on the


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

law as something to be frowned upon. Hunt takes this further by accusing Black of being at least somewhat antistate. He does, however, acknowledge that Black appears not so much motivated by the radical theory of the 1960s and 1970s, aimed at destroying the state, as by the popular movement of finding alternatives to state power among the people, which developed in the 1970s and 1980s (Hunt 1983). This later movement called for less government involvement in people’s lives and more citizen involvement, via mediation and alternative dispute resolution (Barrett and Barrett 2004), as well as policecommunity relations and community-policing (Oliver 2008). Additional criticism of Black and Baumgartner’s theory of selfhelp through depolicing comes from Nicole Stelle Garnett (2010) in Ordering the City: Land Use, Policing, and the Restoration of Urban America. Garnett (2010) argues that the “proponents of ‘depolicing’ advocated decreasing police presence . . . on the assumption that government intervention to promote order is a problem, not a solution” (90). She then explains how “depolicing theory is in keeping with the standard law and economic literature on deterrence, which suggests that high levels of law enforcement create a moral-hazard problem” by reducing “private citizens’ incentives to deter and condemn crime and disorder” (Garnett 2010, 90). Garnett suggests that two arguments made by the so-called depolicers may have been erroneous. The first was that, with self-help, citizens would take more responsibility for their safety by engaging in such things as neighborhood watch, putting bars on windows, and installing security systems. Garnett (2010) argues these preventative measures may send out signals that the community is less safe and therefore attract and embolden those who break the law. The second erroneous argument that Garnett (2010) points out is that would-be victims would not engage in self-help if they believed their neighborhoods were safe. Only when they were not safe would they be likely to take action (self-help). Combined, this means citizens will not engage in self-help unless they have a crime-and-disorder problem, and then the self-help measures they participate in may actually invite more crime into their neighborhoods, not less. Another attack on Black and Baumgartner’s (1980, 1987) definition and call for depolicing comes from police scholar George L. Kelling (1998) and New York police commissioner William Bratton (1998), who have separately and together (Bratton and Kelling 2012) argued that America has already witnessed this form of depolicing with outcomes deleterious to society. Specifically, they point to the

What We Know About Depolicing


reduction in police officers in the 1970s on the heels of the findings of The Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment: A Summary Report, written, ironically, by Kelling himself and his associates (Kelling et al. 1974). The report found that police conducting random patrols on their beats did not deter crime. This finding, released at a time when cities were facing the 1970s recession and local government budgets were stretched thin, conveniently justified a reduction in police staffing levels. This occurred, however, contemporaneously with the widespread implementation of 911, an easily remembered number, which placed an increased demand on police services because of the mandate that officers had to respond to all 911 calls (Sparrow, Moore, and Kennedy 1990). Thus, police departments failed to replace officers in the wake of reductions justified by the belief that routine patrols did not deter crime, only to then discover the need for more officers to answer increased calls for service. Kelling (1998) has argued that depolicing city streets had “tragic consequences” related specifically to “the crime problem” (18; see also Bratton and Kelling 2012). According to both Kelling and Bratton, Black and Baumgartner’s concept of depolicing had been tried and failed dismally. Black and Baumgartner, however, had advocated for a long-term, planned form of depolicing that would over time transfer authority and responsibility for neighborhood safety from the police to the citizens of a community. The rapid depolicing of the 1970s to which Kelling and Bratton refer was actually brought on by a depressed economy, falling city budgets, and the justification that if police officers did not deter crime (Kelling et al. 1974), then there was no reason to keep so many officers on patrol. Despite the work of Black and Baumgartner, those in the police field, the mainstream media, and academia have today completely changed the meaning and, more importantly, the value judgment underlying the word depolicing. While the concept of less police activity and engagement remains central to most definitions, unlike Black and Baumgartner, contemporary analysts do not see depolicing as a positive policing behavior that will benefit society. Rather, the term now has a negative connotation and describes a potentially dangerous phenomenon.

Political Pundits

The first use of the term depolicing in the context of police officers disengaging not as a result of any planned movement (e.g., self-help)


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

but rather as a reaction to some stimuli appears to have come from conservative political pundits, the first being John Leo. A nationally syndicated columnist, Leo in a July 25, 2001, column advanced the term by stating, “De-policing” occurs after riots and demonstrations against police behavior. Shellshocked or resentful, police overlook a lot of suspicious behavior. They stop trying to prevent low-level crime and simply react to 911 calls. Crime soars. This happened in some New York neighborhoods after the Amadou Diallo shooting, and in Seattle after the World Trade Organization riots and the Mardi Gras riots. (Leo 2001, A15)

Leo relayed how a Seattle police officer explained the term depolicing when he said, “Parking under a shady tree to work on a crossword puzzle is a great alternative to being labeled a racist and being dragged through an inquest, a review board, an FBI and U.S. attorney investigation and a lawsuit” (Leo 2001, A15). Leo also explained in his July 2001 column that the timeliness of his article had to do with the Cincinnati riots, which had occurred in April, and what had happened since. He provided data showing that while shootings were up in Cincinnati in the three months after the riots as compared with the same period the previous year, traffic stops had decreased by 55 percent, an indicator that “‘de-policing’ has hit Cincinnati” (Leo 2001, A15). Leo’s column then moved on to discuss the politics of riots in Cincinnati and how other cities had handled the problem in the past. Leo’s article crucially suggested for the first time that depolicing occurs in the wake of a riot, when police, either out of shock or resentment, begin to disengage from proactive policing. He also asserted that depolicing has the detrimental effect of contributing to an increase in crime. This was, however, speculation; he offered no definitive evidence. Traffic stops may very well have decreased for other reasons. One week after Leo’s article, nationally syndicated columnist Walter E. Williams (2001) published “Riot Ideology and Depolicing.” Williams, a professor of economics at George Mason University and libertarian columnist, revisited Leo’s (2001) column by again quoting from the Seattle police officer and reviewing the circumstances in Cincinnati. Williams then broadened the argument by discussing the larger political ramifications of both race and crime. Although Williams’s column essentially echoed Leo’s, the issue

What We Know About Depolicing


clearly resonated with him, and his piece helped popularize the concept of depolicing as a police reaction in the wake of a riot or major demonstration. The following year, another professor and political pundit, Nicholas Stix (2002), authored “De-policing in America’s Cities— Erasing the Thin Blue Line.” Stix (2002), who often examines the intersection of race and crime in America, lists and describes many cases of depolicing or nonpolicing, including the Seattle police, who “were routinely engaging in ‘depolicing,’ ignoring crimes, so as to protect their jobs.” Another political pundit who has also looked at race and crime and focuses heavily on police matters is the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald (2003, 2016b). Several of her columns arose from her observation of the rising violent crime in some cities. “Having spoken with police officers and commanders,” Mac Donald (2015) “hypothesized that the growing reluctance of cops to engage in proactive policing may help explain the spike in violent crime.” In her view, proactive policing had helped lower crime rates in the 1990s, but, she added, “faced with the prospect of ending up in a widely distributed video if an arrest goes awry, and possibly being indicted, officers tell me that they are increasingly reluctant to investigate suspicious behavior” (Mac Donald 2015). One police officer in south-central Los Angeles explained to her that police officers sitting around “in coffee shops are saying to each other: ‘If you get out of your car, you’re crazy, unless there’s a radio call’” (2015). Mac Donald asserted that police disengagement from proactive policing is contributing to a spike in violence in the cities where depolicing is most prevalent. In a follow-up article, Mac Donald (2016a) described the same phenomenon, this time calling it the “Ferguson effect.” She defined the new term as “the phenomenon of officers backing off of proactive policing and thereby emboldening criminals,” despite the definition being more in keeping with the term depolicing. While the phrase Ferguson effect has only come into use since August 2014, it describes more than just the phenomenon of depolicing. It also suggests that once officers engage in this behavior, a spike in crime follows. Much debate over the presence of a Ferguson effect centers on the impact of depolicing on crime rates. Different people conclude there is—or is not—enough evidence to support the correlation between depolicing and rising crime rates (Friedman, Fortier, and Cullen 2015; New York Times Editorial Board 2015; Pyrooz et al. 2016; Rosenfeld 2015, 2016; Wolfe and Nix 2016).


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

Time and additional research may eventually resolve these arguments, but for now the presence of a Ferguson effect seems mostly speculative. The concept of depolicing, as presently defined, was first recognized by conservative political commentators, nearly all of whom have asserted that some stimuli, such as a riot, major demonstration, or antipolice sentiment, causes police officers to disengage from proactive policing in order to protect themselves from greater scrutiny, condemnation, or lawsuits. In many ways, they described police officers’ withdrawal almost as a survival response in the wake of a hostile media or public. These pundits also fear that depolicing will cause crime to go up as asserted by Heather Mac Donald (2015, 2016a).

Of Riots and Consent Decrees

Perhaps it is not all that surprising that the current use of the term depolicing arose with journalists and seemingly centered on the aftermath of riots. After the Rodney King riots and while the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) was operating under a consent decree that entailed mandates by the federal government to enact certain reform measures, there were many allegations that LAPD officers were engaging in depolicing (Cooper 2003, 2006, 2009; Tizon and Forgrave 2001). From the first agencies scrutinized, the Pittsburgh and the Cincinnati Police Departments, to those being investigated in the wake of riots in cities from Seattle (1999 and 2001) to Baltimore (2015), depolicing has often been associated with riots and federal consent decrees. After the LAPD began operating under a consent decree, researchers from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government assessed how policing there had changed (Stone, Foglesong, and Cole 2009). Their report explained, “In every instance where the U.S. Department of Justice has entered into a consent decree with a state or local government to address an alleged pattern and practice of police misconduct, concerns have been raised that the consent decree would lead to depolicing or what one law enforcement official describes to us as the ‘drive-and-wave syndrome’” (Stone, Foglesong, and Cole 2009, 19). The researchers state that “when officers find themselves facing increased scrutiny,” they “will hesitate to intervene in difficult circumstances for fear that . . . their actions will be criticized and they may even be disciplined” (Stone, Foglesong, and Cole 2009, 19).

What We Know About Depolicing


Police officers, as a means of surviving what they consider to be undue scrutiny, disengage from proactive policing. As part of the Harvard study, the researchers conducted several focus groups with many LAPD officers. During these group interviews, the officers often articulated how they would “look the other way” so as not to run the risk of a complaint or a “red flag,” which would bring them under scrutiny by management. As one officer explained, “Now officers just back away because they don’t want to get red-flagged,” and another said, “You’re afraid to deal with people on the street because of false complaints they file” (Stone, Foglesong, and Cole 2009, 19). As the study focused on the LAPD operating under a consent decree, the researchers found that, for many officers, “the decree hurt their pride, hurt their productivity,” in part because they were no longer trusted professionals (Stone, Foglesong, and Cole 2009, 19). However, the researchers also found that depolicing may have had more to do with the immediate aftermath of the Rodney King riot than the consent decree. In addition, their findings suggest that police fear of scrutiny decreased over time, despite the continuing consent decree. While the researchers give an emphatic no to the idea that the consent decree caused depolicing, the correlation may still indicate an impact on the officers, but also an eventual move beyond frustration and anger. Police officers may have simply become used to the consent decree and, once over their dissatisfaction, returned to proactive policing. Either that or enough time had passed since the riots for officers to return more or less naturally to proactive policing practices. After Congress authorized the US Department of Justice in 1994 to enter into consent decrees the first case was against the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Bureau of Police. While there had been no riot in Pittsburgh, there were numerous complaints of police misconduct, brutality, and racism. After the consent decree took effect, the Vera Institute of Justice was contracted to conduct a study of the agency’s experience in operating under it (Davis et al. 2002). Like the Harvard study in Los Angeles, the Pittsburgh study employed focus groups with police officers and found similar claims of officers engaging in depolicing. The researchers received a similar response from community leaders, who suggested that police officers “were afraid to enforce the law because of potential citizen complaints” (Davis et al. 2002, 42). The officers explained they “were less active on the street, making fewer traffic stops” because “a lot of cops are afraid to do their jobs” (Davis et al. 2002, 51). Many of the officers voiced concern that stopping people, especially African Americans,


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

might red-flag them, and one particular red-flagged officer indeed “decided not to stop people for a while” (Davis et al. 2002, 51). The Seattle Police Department also faced close scrutiny after two riots within two years. The first took place in November 1999, during the Seattle World Trade Organization protests. The police responded by employing pepper spray against crowds that would not voluntarily disperse. This sparked a large-scale confrontation between the police and the protestors. The police were criticized for their handling of the protest, which led to the resignation of the police chief. Less than two years later, on February 27, 2001, what has come to be known as the Mardi Gras riot broke out in the Pioneer Square neighborhood. One group of people was there to cause problems; many of the women in attendance were groped, and many others were viciously attacked. A male teenager, who attempted to come to the rescue of a female teenager, was beaten to death. Acts of violence erupted throughout the police-contained area. The police, however, not wanting a repeat of 1999, surrounded the area and did not engage any individuals involved in the many felonious assaults and the murder of the teenager. Only when shots were fired did the police act, at which point they dispersed the crowd with pepper spray and flashbang grenades. This time the police department was severely criticized for doing nothing. Then, in May 2001, police shot and killed thirty-seven-year-old Aaron Roberts, and there was an intense backlash from the black community. In the aftermath of the Mardi Gras riot, police arrests and traffic stops fell off precipitously and questions began to circulate as to whether police officers were backing off. Local media interviews with police officers confirmed “depolicing,” “selective disengagement,” and “tactical detachment.” Some officers even called themselves “tourists in blue” (Tizon and Forgrave 2001). Allegations of police misconduct continued through the rest of the decade, including allegations of depolicing. Everything came to a head in 2011 when the Department of Justice announced it would be investigating the Seattle Police Department. Once again, proactive policing dropped off, and more allegations of depolicing surfaced. The police administration denied it, but officers were not so sure, and a tension within the department was clearly developing. When asked about the possibility of depolicing, one police officer told investigators, “Maybe 20 or fewer officers on patrol are doing proactive work right now” (Spangenthal-Lee 2011). For being so candid, the officer was threatened with the loss of his job; his statement was not what the administration wanted to hear.

What We Know About Depolicing


Despite the occurrence of both the Los Angeles and the Seattle riots, it was the Cincinnati riots in April 2001 that produced a marked increase in journalism about depolicing in a riot’s aftermath. While some suggest that public scrutiny brought about depolicing, others aver that the Cincinnati Police Department actually advocated depolicing, particularly in black neighborhoods (Cooper 2003; S. Miller 2001). Direct evidence of this came in a letter written by the president of the Cincinnati Fraternal Order of Police to the union’s members, which stated, “If you want to make 20 traffic stops a shift and chase every dope dealer you see, go right ahead. Just remember that if something goes wrong, or you make the slightest mistake in that split second, it could result in having your worst nightmare come true for you and your family, and City Hall will sell you out” (McLaughlin and Prendergast 2001). Political commentator Heather Mac Donald (J. Hawkins 2012) argued, “Cincinnati is a perfect example of the ‘depolicing’ effect.” In a 2001 interview she explained that “a Cincinnati police officer fatally shot an unarmed teen-ager, triggering three days of vicious race riots and a tsunami of unjustified media and political charges of racism. In response, the Cincinnati police department pulled way back. Arrests dropped 50% in the first three months after the riots; traffic stops fell nearly 55%” (J. Hawkins 2012). The issue of depolicing resulting from the Cincinnati riots has also been incorporated into at least one policing textbook, Police and Society (Roberg et al. 2015). It details that in June 2000 (preriot), over 5,000 arrests for nonviolent crime were made in Cincinnati, but in June 2001 (postriot), that number declined to approximately 2,500, a 50 percent reduction (Roberg et al. 2015). The textbook cites several newspapers and a magazine article as sources but no empirical studies. However, one empirical study by Lan Shi (2009) did find a significant reduction in police activity in the two years following the Cincinnati riots compared with the two years prior. Shi posited that a reduced workload for all officers, junior and senior, could indicate that the police department or police union may have been orchestrating the slowdown, but variation based on the number of years an officer had served could indicate a more personal response. And indeed, the study found such a variation, with older officers more likely than younger officers to increase arrests, and concluded that “the significant impact of entry years on the change in policing behavior implies that beyond orders from above, officers reduced their policing out of their own assessment of risk” (Shi 2009, 107).


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

Numerous other riots and demonstrations have resulted in depolicing, with perhaps the most visible example post-Ferguson being the Baltimore riots. The Baltimore police arrested Freddie Gray, a twentyfive-year-old black male, who during transportation to jail sustained an injury to his neck and spine. He died one week later. Protests over his in-custody death evolved into a riot. Gray’s death was declared a homicide, and six police officers were charged in connection with it, one with second-degree murder (Graham 2015). While the charges may have been a move to achieve procedural justice, the police clearly felt that they had been “sold out” by the city government (Key 2015) and that the indictments were politically motivated. In the aftermath of the Baltimore riots, CNN interviewed two police officers who asked to remain anonymous. Questioned about the spike in violent crime following the riots, both officers attributed it to depolicing. As one explained, “I think the public really, really sees that they actually softer, less aggressive police department and we’ve given them that and now they’ll realizing that their way of thinking does not work [sic]” (Key 2015). He explained how Baltimore police officers began to see things in the wake of the riot:

You have to look at it like, if I chase this guy who possibly has a gun and he gets hit by a car, what will I be charged with criminal negligence or possible armed suspect that I did not see the gun. That role of the dice is greater than me driving to the next call and writing a report. These are things we’re going to have to weigh when we’re running past a group of guys on the corner. We run the risk of being criminally charged [sic]. (Key 2015)

The second unidentified officer conveyed a similar sentiment when he explained how the entire Baltimore Police Department was depolicing: We’re now in the total reactive mode. This is the result you get. Ultimately it does a disservice to the law-abiding citizens. It does a disservice to business owners, to everybody. But the criminal element, they know that pretty much the whole police department has shifted to a reactive side. You have no more initiated stop. You know, an officer is worried. He’s riding down the street. Even although you have a reasonable suspicion and you see a guy or girl walking down the street and there’s a bulge coming in from their waistband. And there’s different characteristics that

What We Know About Depolicing


we’re trained for to look for in an armed person. And I can tell you this and it’s the truth. Nine out of ten times that officer’s going to keep on driving [sic]. (Key 2015)

The statements by the officers created some controversy, and while Baltimore police commissioner Anthony Batts assured the public the officers were not holding back, he did suggest that many of his officers were worried. As he explained, “There are people, and they’ve said to me, ‘If I get out of my car and make a stop for a reasonable suspicion that leads to probable cause but I make a mistake on it, will I be arrested?’ They pull up to a scene and another officer has done something that they don’t know it may be illegal, will they be arrested for it? Those are things they are asking [sic]” (Linderman 2015). Although Commissioner Batts did not suggest the police were engaged in depolicing, the possibility was present in that scenario. And although he did not believe depolicing was going on in his agency, local citizens had another opinion. One Baltimore citizen stated, “Before it was over-policing. Now there’s no police” (Linderman 2015). He explained, “People feel as though they can do things and get away with it. I see people walking with guns almost every single day, because they know the police aren’t pulling them up like they used to [sic]” (Linderman 2015). He continued, “Usually, you can’t walk up and down the street drinking or smoking weed. Now, people are everywhere smoking weed, and police just ride by, look at you, and keep going. There used to be police on every corner. I don’t think they’ll be back this summer” (Linderman 2015). Even without the issuance of a consent decree, in the wake of riots, it appeared depolicing had come to Baltimore.

Racial Profiling

In addition to the riots and consent decrees, another highly cited causative factor of depolicing prevalent in the literature is racial profiling (Bridegam 2005; Cooper 2003, 2006, 2009; Mac Donald 2005; Rojek, Rosenfeld, and Decker 2004; Rushin and Edwards 2017). Although racial discrimination by the police has been a common concern in America, the phrase “racial profiling” did not enter the lexicon until the 1990s (Novak 2004). In a very specific context it has come to refer to officers’ use of race to identify suspicious individuals, stop them—either through traffic stops or temporary investigative detentions


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

under Terry v. Ohio (1968)—and pat them down for weapons (Eger, Fortner, and Slade 2015; Engel, Calnon, and Bernard 2002; Lange, Johnson, and Voas 2005). In a broader context, racial profiling is defined as the result of systemic racism in the police profession (Eger, Fortner, and Slade 2015; US General Accounting Office 2000). Some authors point to charges of racial profiling or even just the fear of them as the sole reason for the phenomenon of depolicing (Cooper 2003, 2006; McNamara and Burns 2008; K. Miller 2007). Robert McNamara and Ronald Burns (2008) define depolicing as “a law enforcement strategy in which police avoid accusations of racial profiling by ignoring traffic violations and other petty crime committed by members of visible minorities. In a sense, depolicing is the opposite of racial profiling” (68). For Kirk Miller (2007) depolicing may be the outcome of racial profiling. He describes it as “the practice of withdrawing from citizen encounters that would trigger an organizational record of the encounter” (259). He explains that from a research standpoint, “the assumption is that depolicing would be evident if a decrease in encounters between police and racial minorities is observed following the implementation of a profiling policy” (K. Miller 2007, 259). One of the earliest empirical studies to look at this stated that “some communities have reported substantial problems with ‘depolicing’ following allegations of racial profiling,” and its authors cite several newspaper articles as evidence (Smith and Alpert 2002, 679). Later studies, attempting to ascertain a depolicing effect when racial profiling policies are implemented in police departments, have consistently found a lack of evidence for any longterm effects (Novak, Smith, and Frank 2003; Schultz and Withrow 2004; see also K. Miller 2007, 2013). Depolicing’s connection to racial profiling has become so common that it has found its way into case law. When the issue became prominent in the news in New Jersey, with allegations that New Jersey state troopers were making traffic stops based on racial profiles (New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee 2001; Withrow and Dailey 2012), a dramatic drop in traffic stops and searches by the state troopers was noted (Peterson 2001). The issue of depolicing became so prominent in New Jersey that the concept was defined in a New Jersey Superior Court case, Gacina v. State, as “officers, on their own, decid[ing] to stop taking pro-active steps to engage citizens” (Katz 2013, 1421). The court explained that officers believe “if they don’t initiate contact with members of the public, they can’t be accused of using racial biases” (Katz 2013, 1421). It should be noted

What We Know About Depolicing


here that a Public Services Research Institute study did find that blacks were more likely to be stopped and issued tickets by New Jersey state police; several studies since have debunked the methods of the original study, although they themselves have been debunked, leaving us in a position of not knowing if the state troopers were engaged in racial profiling (Kadane 2009; see also Engel, Calnon, and Bernard 2002; Lange, Johnson, and Voas 2005). In the Nebraska case United States v. Hare, a state trooper admitted in court that he typically engaged in depolicing; in this case he had only stopped the defendant, a black male, because he had cut the trooper and another car off when illegally changing lanes. The trooper testified that he “would sometimes intentionally refrain from stopping minority motorists who had committed traffic violations in an attempt to avoid being perceived as a racist” (Katz 2013, 1422). In at least this case, just the fear of being perceived as engaging in racial profiling could motivate police officers to depolice.

Civil Suits

Another causative factor of depolicing is believed to be civil suits filed against police officers (Barker 1999). Forest Scogin and Stanley L. Brodsky (1991) found that police officers fear litigation, but their study did not discern whether police officers change their behaviors because of that fear. Joan C. Barker (1999), however, in her interviews with Los Angeles police officers, found that at least one officer exhibited behaviors of depolicing as a direct result of a lawsuit filed against him, but empirical research in this particular area has not reached the same conclusion. The most frequently cited study comes from Kenneth Novak, Brad Smith, and James Frank (2003), who concluded that police officers do not change their behavior in the face of civil suits. This finding has ample support in the literature in this area, for while studies have found police officers are in fact greatly concerned about civil litigation (Kappeler 2001; Vaughn, Cooper, and del Carmen 2001), it does not necessarily cause them to change their behavior (Garrison 1995; Hughes 2001; Kappeler 2001; Novak, Smith, and Frank 2003; Scogin and Brodsky 1991; Stevens 2000; Vaughn and Coomes 1995; Vaughn, Cooper, and del Carmen 2001). However, even if there is no change in what police officers do, fear of lawsuits may still be at least a contributing factor in depolicing, necessitating further consideration. As one officer explained, civil


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

liability “can seriously erode the necessary confidence and willingness to act. Even worse, law enforcement officers who have an unrealistic or exaggerated fear of personal liability may become overly timid or indecisive and fail to arrest or search to the detriment of the public’s interest in effective and aggressive law enforcement” (Schofield 1990, 26–27). As an unwillingness to act—to do one’s duty—is associated with depolicing, despite the research finding of no behavioral changes, civil litigation is still considered because, at least anecdotally, police officers mention it as a cause.

Academic Studies

Much of the literature reviewed so far suggests that depolicing occurs in the wake of riots and consent decrees (Bridegam 2005; Cooper 2003, 2006, 2009; Davis et al. 2002; Mac Donald 2005; Rojek, Rosenfeld, and Decker 2004; Rushin and Edwards 2017; Shi 2009; Tizon and Forgrave 2001). However, like those studies showing no evidence that police officers change their behaviors when facing civil suits, some empirical studies likewise suggest police officers do not change their behaviors in the wake of riots and consent decrees (Rushin and Edwards 2017; Shjarback et al. 2017; Stone, Foglesong, and Cole 2009). One study by Stephen Rushin and Giffin Edwards (2017) assessed whether public scrutiny or external regulation was associated with a change in crime rates in those agencies under federally mandated reform. They concluded, “We failed to find any consistent relationship between the introduction of mere scrutiny and crime rates”; “the introduction of external regulations to a police department . . . was associated with a statistically significant increase in the frequency of several crime categories—particularly property crimes” (Rushin and Edwards 2017, 39). Neither finding suggests the presence of depolicing in agencies under federally mandated reform. Yet, that runs counter to the Vera Institute of Justice evaluation of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, which found evidence of depolicing following federally mandated reforms (Davis et al. 2002). Subsequent research has attempted to address these mixed results by assessing whether police officers have been impacted by negative publicity, a factor that might contribute to depolicing (Morgan and Pally 2016; Nix and Wolfe 2016, 2017). In their study of the role of managerial organizational justice—employees’ perception of fairness—as it related to the Ferguson effect among officers, Justin Nix

What We Know About Depolicing


and Scott W. Wolfe (2016) found that officers with police supervisors who were perceived as “more organizationally fair” were “less likely to feel unmotivated, perceive more danger, believe their colleagues have been negatively impacted, or feel that US citizens and local residents have become more cynical toward the police in the post-Ferguson era” (12). Put another way, good leaders, by striving for organizational fairness, could prevent officers from feeling the effects of negative publicity and engaging in depolicing. In addition, Wolfe and Nix (2016) also found that officers who perceived their agency as fair were more willing to engage in community partnerships. Another study by Nix and Wolfe (2017) looked at the relationship between negative publicity and police officer self-legitimacy, finding that “negative publicity, which hinders officer motivation, is associated with lower self-legitimacy” (100). The lack of officer motivation, being associated with depolicing (Nix and Wolfe 2017), suggests that negative publicity, even if “far removed from an officer’s jurisdiction,” can be a potential cause of depolicing. Nix and Wolfe (2017) also concluded that a “sizable portion of our sample believes that negative publicity has made it more dangerous and difficult to work in law enforcement” (101), which can lead officers to depolice. A study that looked specifically at depolicing in Missouri police departments in the wake of Ferguson also revealed these sorts of mixed findings (Shjarback et al. 2017). When it came to the “quantity of depolicing,” John A. Shjarback and his colleagues found “mixed evidence” (50). While they did find there were fewer vehicle/traffic stops in 2015 compared with 2014, they found no significant difference in the number of searches and arrests resulting from those stops. They suggest that perhaps “officers were making better stops and conducting searches that more consistently yielded contraband” (Shjarback et al. 2017, 50). They referred to one important finding of depolicing in these agencies as a “racialized de-policing effect” in which departments made fewer stops, searches, and arrests “in jurisdictions with larger African-American populations” (Shjarback et al. 2017, 50). Another example of mixed findings in studies on depolicing comes in the analysis of recorded crime incidents and arrests in Baltimore. Stephen L. Morgan and Joel A. Pally (2016) explored both depolicing and the Ferguson effect by assessing whether police disengagement caused a decline in arrests (depolicing), which then led to an increase in crime (the Ferguson effect). The researchers did find that police officers had disengaged, citing the reduction of police officer arrests, and concluding, “These declines are consistent with


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

the widely discussed conjecture that the Baltimore police pulled back from some routine policing in response to a perceived lack of support from the city’s leadership” (Morgan and Pally 2016, 3). However, the study found no connection between depolicing and an increase in crime, suggesting no Ferguson effect. One final study, conducted by the FBI and set to be released as this book went to press, was titled “The Assailant Study—Mindsets and Behaviors” (FBI 2018). According to the executive summary, the study assessed 50 cases in which police officers were attacked in order to determine the motivations of the assailants. It then studied the police command staff and officers from agencies that had lost an officer in the line of duty from one of these attacks. The study found that in the wake of the attacks, because of “the coverage of the high-profile police incidents, it appears that immediately following the incidents, assailants were constantly exposed to a singular narrative by news organizations and social media of police misconduct and wrong-doing,” which then led to their attacks. The media coverage and the boldness of the attacks left a “chill wind on law enforcement” and “had the effect of ‘de-policing’ in law enforcement agencies across the country.” The FBI report notes that the “intense scrutiny and criticism law enforcement has received . . . has caused several officers to (1) ‘become scared and demoralized’ and (2) avoid interacting with the community.”

Police Officer Accounts

As this study is about giving voice to police officers’ perspective on depolicing, our final look at the existing literature examines first-person police narratives and interviews with police officers in the field. These present further evidence of at least some belief in the phenomenon of depolicing among police officers. Several Chicago police officers describe the job of the police officer and the toll it takes on them as their careers progress. Gina Gallo (2001), a police officer in the 1980s and 1990s, shares the complexities of policing by writing, “Cops are out here, on the line, dealing with human behaviors that run the gamut from mildly eccentric to clinically certifiable. The only thing we know that’s an absolute is to expect the unexpected” (56). She explains how police are often caught in a situation where anything they do is considered wrong. “Cops are the media’s favorite scapegoats. Any major problem, blame it on the cops. If there’s a riot or demonstration, they say we ain’t doin’ our job. When we go in there and try to maintain

What We Know About Depolicing


order, somebody screams, ‘Police Brutality.’ Either way, we’re fucked” (Gallo 2001, 56). She elaborates how this complexity takes a toll on the officers and describes her own personal experiences, commenting, “I feel the frustration, and witness the fallout” (Gallo 2001, 155). Gallo (2001) recognizes that some cops find ways to manage the complexities of the street, while “other cops become emotional casualties of these same mean streets. Their experiences have left them angry, and bitter, and finally apathetic. For them, the job has diminished to nothing more than eight hours in exchange for pay” (155). She is describing a common occurrence in a career as highly stressful as policing: burnout (H. Hawkins 2001; Maslach 1979). Police burnout is not associated with any one incident. It does not arise from a bad crash scene, an exceptionally gruesome murder, or a catastrophe on the scale of September 11. It stems, rather, from an accumulation of stress over time, which Gallo (2001) describes as “the occupational plague that numbs your soul, armors your heart and leaves whatever remains to carry you through the rest of your career” (322). The manner in which Gallo speaks suggests that police burnout results in emotional apathy and behavioral withdrawal, both of which may be associated with depolicing. In On the Job by Daniel Smith (2008), retired Chicago police officer John O’Shea relates the complexities of policing that Gallo mentions, but finds that depolicing manifests not from burnout but from constraints on the police. “What concerns me is the people of Chicago getting less and less service because the police are afraid to do their job,” O’Shea begins. “Complacency is the worst thing in the world. Today’s cop is working within so many constraints, and they keep saying it won’t happen to me. If they’re so restricted, then cops can’t do their job effectively” (Smith 2008, 77). O’Shea is suggesting that too many constraints on the police causes complacency in the police officer, a factor possibly associated with depolicing. O’Shea elaborates on how complacency takes hold:

A cop will wonder, “Why should I chase this burglar down the street. I catch him and he takes a swing at me. So I force him to the ground while some guy is videotaping all of it from a balcony. Then, I get a case put on me for excessive force.” So, what will happen with those cops? Guess what, those that have been slapped on the hand too much, those guys trying to chase the burglars and the criminals, they stop chasing. They ask themselves if it’s worth the risk. That’s my biggest fear: that the


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

aggressiveness of police work will be lost, and that’s central to the work here. (Smith 2008, 77)

From O’Shea’s perspective, police officers have to be aggressive in order to control the streets and keep crime in check. Discouraging them from going after and aggressively pursuing criminals will lead to police officer complacency and withdrawal, which in turn will result in ineffective policing. Although O’Shea, interviewed after a thirty-five-year career, never uses the word depolicing, he describes several factors now associated with the term. Chicago officer John O’Shea spoke about the possibilities of depolicing from his vantage point as a retired officer in the early 2000s. Another Chicago police officer, however, was still working the streets during the same period. In The Wagon, Officer Martin Preib (2010) writes of receiving a complaint from a woman he arrested for stabbing her husband with a knife in front of her child. One of her points of contention in the complaint was that he had intimidated her. Preib explains that the police department was then hit with a court order requesting the release of police complaints so that they would become a matter of public record. The Chicago Police Department at first resisted the court order but eventually relented. This had an impact on the police, and Preib (2010) describes what happened next: Lawyers, we knew, would fish through them, looking for any inconsistency, any detail they could use to build a case and generate a settlement. Offenders became more aggressive, more combative with the advent of the new policies. What was there to lose? In response, more and more cops were less willing to enter the worst circumstances of the city; that is, less willing to be the police. And who, the cops often grumbled in their bitterness, would enter it then? (95)

O’Shea’s fears became Preib’s reality, and as a result of the aggressive scrutiny challenging their every action, officers were “less willing to be the police.” Again, as with O’Shea and Gallo, the phenomenon Preib describes is associated with depolicing, despite his never having used the term. Officers’ descriptions of depolicing extend across the country. One LAPD officer, William Dunn (1996), was a rookie in the wake of the Rodney King incident when the acquittal of the officers resulted in a series of riots in Los Angeles. The scrutiny in the aftermath was felt by

What We Know About Depolicing


police departments across the country but certainly most strongly in Los Angeles. Dunn experienced much of the fallout and described it in his book Boot (1996). He explained how some of the senior officers were “so angry and frustrated by events surrounding the Rodney King video that they [had] all but given up on doing any effective police work. Many of them [would] only respond to radio calls, and that they [did] slowly” (Dunn 1996, 185). In this case, a major significant event, after which the public and the media expressed strong negative views of the police, caused a reaction among police officers that is best described as depolicing. Some officers withdrew from doing proactive police work, only taking calls for service and then doing the bare minimum to get by. Dunn was not alone in feeling this way, as Joan Barker (1999) makes clear in her interviews with other LAPD officers in Danger, Duty, and Disillusion. One African American police officer, a rookie like Dunn, voiced his concern about what happened after the Rodney King riots when he explained that a “whole lot of people pulled back. Didn’t make traffic stops. Would not make a traffic stop” (Barker 1999, 209). The officer explained that calls for service were different and that officers knew they had to handle those, but when they did handle the calls, they “didn’t follow up the kinda things you would normally move on” (Barker 1999, 209). Barker also found for many police officers, depolicing arose when lawsuits were filed against them. One of the greatest problems for police officers who are being sued is that “historically, the city would rather pay than fight” (Barker 1999, 104) because in the long run it is cheaper to pay and admit no wrongdoing than to go through a lengthy lawsuit for the officer to be found not liable. When lawsuits are settled out of court, however, Barker explains, the police officers experience “a much more serious and lasting loss. For them it is the same as saying that the department thinks they were guilty or doesn’t place a very high value on either the job they do, the reputation of the department, or the individual reputations of the officers involved. For police officers, reputation is extremely important” (Barker 1999, 105). Barker also describes the case of one officer who had a lawsuit filed against him who then decided he wanted to leave patrol. In the interim, while awaiting a transfer, he followed the strategy of “withdraw” (Barker 1999, 129). As the officer explained, After that time I did as little as I could. Had as little contact with citizens as possible. I used to work the ‘L’ car [a one-officer unit that handles reports most of the time], so I was only there if they


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

asked me to be there. And there was a record of that. I didn’t do anything else if I could help it. It didn’t make any sense to do anything—any real police work. Not patrol. I didn’t want to go through that again. (Barker 1999, 129)

Lawsuits, however, were not the only reason Barker (1999) found that police officers adopted the strategy of withdrawal. She also found that police officers well into their careers withdrew and disengaged from proactive police work when they experienced burnout. One police officer gave perhaps the best explanation of what leads to depolicing when he stated how “part of it was fear of lawsuits, the other part was frustration” (Barker 1999, 209). Regardless of the motivation, officers began thinking, “Well if I’m not going to be backed, I’m not going to do it. They’re going to pay me the same amount of money so why should I stick my neck out. If they want officers to be proactive then you back us, otherwise just drive down the street and wave and let the bad guys get away” (Barker 1999, 209). Another police author, retired police lieutenant Randy Sutton (2004, 2005), has also written of depolicing. While his two books did not mention the phenomenon, he authored several opinion pieces in May 2015 in the wake of many of the post-Ferguson events and the antipolice attitude that swept the nation (Sutton 2015a, 2015b). He argued, “The police are under siege in the streets, in the media and often by their own administrations and political leadership” (2015a). He articulated how the frustration felt by the police was leading to talk of depolicing, defined as “the conscious decision on the part of the police officers to only provide the minimal amount of police service required of them. In other words, handle your calls, write a ticket or two, and do nothing proactive” (Sutton 2015b). Sutton argues that depolicing aims to “minimize the risk of physical harm and legal and administrative persecution should an incident occur requiring physical or deadly force in an environment where police careers and lives are expendable for political and popular expediency,” but he also insists that “the danger lies in the widespread acceptance of De-Policing as a method of self-preservation by our nations [sic] law enforcement officers” (Sutton 2015b). He explains that good policing is proactive policing, which contributes to the pride of the officer and the safety of the community; if allowed to fester, “de-policing would deal a win to thugs, vigilantes, and criminal opportunism” (Sutton 2015a).

What We Know About Depolicing


One career police officer, Michael H. Schmitz (2015), found the topic of depolicing so important that he self-published a short pamphlet-style book titled When Police Officers Stand Down: Effects of Depolicing in America. In it he explains that “depolicing is a very real and scary phenomenon” (Schmitz 2015, 26) and describes how it “has gripped communities recently and will have drastic consequences once it takes hold across America” (3). After describing the traditional police culture and its adherence to proactive policing, he suggests that officers “aren’t being as proactive as they used to be” and are more and more engaging in withdrawal behaviors (Schmitz 2015, 7). He attributes this behavior to many causes, ranging from issues with the administration to public scrutiny. In his view these lead to depolicing, defined as “when the police are no longer proactive, no longer looking for crimes in progress, no longer looking for violent criminals, no longer willing to risk it all, so the citizens can feel safe in their homes” (Schmitz 2015, 14). He then rhetorically asks if people are prepared to protect themselves, suggesting that as depolicing spreads, citizens will be forced to engage in self-help practices, a notion reminiscent of the original definition of the term depolicing. The most telling line in the book, however, reads, “When a police officer avoids confrontation, as is human nature, the spirit of law enforcement dies” (Schmitz 2015, 20). His entire point is that when police officers begin to depolice, as others have said, they are no longer the police. All of these police officers collectively articulate that a number of factors cause depolicing, including burnout, constraints, citizen complaints, lawsuits, administrative pressure, negative public opinion, and a hostile media. These factors result in police officers becoming apathetic and complacent, leading them to withdraw and disengage from their work. One repeated claim is that, in the end, when these police officers stop being proactive, they have effectively stopped doing their job; they have stopped being the police.


Use of the term depolicing in the literature originated with Black and Baumgartner’s (1980) argument that police officer disengagement would promote citizen self-help, which they believed would yield a positive good for society. Their self-help thesis was quickly criticized and appears not to have been taken as a legitimate option.


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

Beginning with the new millennium, the term depolicing returned, primarily to mean the same thing—police officer disengagement—but as neither a planned concept nor a positive one. Depolicing was now described as a negative phenomenon. Across a wide array of literature, the new use of the term came to describe how police officers’ experience of some event or series of events was causing them to disengage and withdraw from proactive policing. The purported causes include riots, federal consent decrees, racial profiling charges, civil lawsuits, citizen complaints, negative public opinion, a hostile media, and burnout. These factors cause police officers to disengage and withdraw from their work, to become complacent and apathetic about policing. They cease to engage in proactive policing and only respond to those calls on which they are sent. Even then, they take the path of least resistance to avoid as much contact with citizens as possible. There are clearly many drawbacks to much of the literature outside the academic studies. They mostly offer anecdotal information about possible examples of depolicing and often reflect nothing more than opinion and political assertion. The academic literature, which offers more empirically based research, produces mixed findings on the reality and causes of depolicing. And while suggesting some possible motivations for this phenomenon, the literature, academic or otherwise, tends to deal primarily with the occurrence of depolicing rather than with the larger question of why it is happening in the first place. The next chapter reviews the conceptual basis for why depolicing occurs from a variety of theoretical perspectives.

3 A Theoretical Framework

As the literature on depolicing is limited and no researcher has yet established a theory for the phenomenon, this chapter attempts to advance our understanding of depolicing by drawing upon several theories from across many fields. Psychological, legal, and police theories describe conditions that share a relationship with depolicing and share considerable cross-over with both sociological and public administration theories. Workplace withdrawal/disengagement and burnout describe very similar psychological conditions, albeit often stemming from different causes; in some cases, however, the former is the coping mechanism for the latter. The legal concepts are drawn from law professor Frank Rudy Cooper (2003), who took an early look at depolicing as a reaction to racial profiling. He draws on two theories rooted in sociology and Marxism—symbiosis theory and critical cultural theory—to help explain the phenomenon. Finally, a number of concepts in the policing literature, heavily rooted in public administration, share similarities with depolicing. They include the blue flu, police officers shirking their duties, and the styles of police officers (as distinct from the styles of police departments, à la James Q. Wilson [1968]). This chapter reviews each to provide a better understanding of depolicing.



Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

Psychological Theories Workplace Withdrawal/ Disengagement

The first of the psychological theories is workplace withdrawal. This area of research explores the problem of workplace disengagement by American employees across professions and may suggest that depolicing is a manifestation of a common phenomenon found across all professions and occupations in the United States. The scope of workplace disengagement has been studied and widely reported on by Gallup, as in its publication State of the American Workplace: Employee Engagement Insights for U.S. Business Leaders (2013). In this study, Gallup (2013) found that the ratio of disengaged to actively engaged employees is roughly two to one, meaning that the vast majority of US workers (70 percent) are not reaching their full potential (8). More specifically, the poll found that “52% of workers are not engaged, and worse, another 18% are actively disengaged in their work” (Gallup 2013, 12). To be clear, Gallup (2013) defines those not engaged as employees who have essentially “checked out” and are “sleepwalking through their workday, putting time—but not energy or passion—into their work” (21). And they define as “actively disengaged” those employees who are “busy acting out their unhappiness” by undermining “what their engaged coworkers accomplish” (21). The Gallup study was conducted across various professions and occupations in both the private and the public sectors. When it came to government employees, the category under which the police would fall, the findings were nearly identical, with 53 percent not engaged and 18 percent actively disengaged (Gallup 2013). In a follow-up publication that focused solely on government workers at the state and local levels, the findings were, once again, very similar (Gallup 2016). Despite some variance among states, education levels, and generations, workplace disengagement is highly prevalent in all forms of employment and in both the private and the public sectors across America. Research conducted by Dale Carnegie Training Institute (2012c) supports the Gallup findings. Its study found only 29 percent of employees were engaged in their work, while 45 percent were only partially engaged and 26 percent were disengaged in the workplace. It too found differences by generation, education, and income level, but overall the problem spanned all employees in the study.

A Theoretical Framework


The analysis of such things as employees being late to work or calling in sick has a long history and yields an ample body of literature pertaining to reinforcement theory (Albrecht 2010; Byrne 2014). The majority of these studies centers largely, however, on employee motivation and the use of positive and negative reinforcement to change behavior. It is only more recently that workplace withdrawal and employee disengagement have become a greater focus of the research. Some researchers have suggested that past studies focused on the concept of absenteeism, assessing why employees miss work, while more contemporary studies are beginning to assess presenteeism, assessing why employees are absent while being present at work (Albrecht 2010; Byrne 2014). It should be noted, however, that many of the latter studies also assess why employees show up to work sick and the impact this has on their performance (Deery, Walsh, and Zatzick 2014; Goetzel et al. 2004). The body of research in this particular area focuses more heavily on employee engagement in the workplace and, only by default, on the problem of workplace disengagement. The research also suffers the academic problem of consistency of definition within the literature for it is difficult to find two people defining engagement in the same manner (Macey and Schneider 2008). In most instances, definitions focus on workers’ psychological state and how they fill their occupational roles, how active they are in their work, how psychologically present they are, and their moral engagement in their work, which is defined as a “commitment to behaving morally in regards to others despite social pressures to participate in or passively comply with policies and actions that are hurtful to others” (whereas moral disengagement entails working actively against others who are morally engaged) (Kahn 1990; Maslach, Schaufeli, and Leiter 2001; Masson et al. 2008; Rothbard 2001). The literature that does assess workplace disengagement collectively finds that employees succumb to this condition as a result of such things as job insecurity and feelings of unfairness, as well as high restrictiveness, long hours without many breaks, and high stress (Robertson-Smith and Markwick 2009). Underlying many of these studies is self-efficacy theory, which posits that “people’s level of motivation, affective states, and actions are based more on what they believe than on what is objectively true” (Bandura 1997, 2). For instance, in the case of unfairness leading to disengagement, the unfairness itself need not be real, only perceived (Cherian and Jacob 2013).


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

Related to self-efficacy theory is a body of literature related to self-determination theory, which advances the idea that employee motivation derives from intrinsic motivation—that which the individual believes is interesting and satisfying personally (Gagne 2014). The body of research in this area finds that extrinsic motivations do not motivate individuals unless the goal has been internalized, or the extrinsic made intrinsic. Indeed, sometimes good leadership is defined as the ability to do just that, convert extrinsic motivations (the goals of the agency) into intrinsic ones (the goals of the person). This explains the consistent finding that a lack of trust on the part of the employee, especially a mistrust of senior leadership, often leads to workplace disengagement (Pech and Slade 2006). Depolicing may be just a new word for workplace disengagement that applies to police officers specifically. Perhaps police officers are no different from other American workers in this regard. If nearly two-thirds of Americans are disengaged or actively disengaged from their work, it should come as no surprise that many police officers are as well. If this is indeed the case, depolicing may only be a new name for a previously existing phenomenon. Based on the psychological theories for what causes workplace disengagement, depolicing may very well be presenteeism derived from a lack of motivation. The general explanations for this phenomenon—job insecurity, unfairness, long hours, few breaks, and high stress levels—can all be present in policing and may therefore be causes of depolicing. When facing a civil suit, police officers may fear the loss of their job. Or when citizens file complaints against them or accuse them of racial profiling, officers may fear that an outcome of any investigation may very well be termination. Unfairness in the workplace may also drive depolicing. If police officers believe that a citizen complaint, racial profiling charge, consent decree, or civil suit has unfairly targeted them, this sense of unfairness may trigger the depolicing phenomenon. And if self-efficacy and self-determination theories are correct, it will not matter if the unfairness is real (such as a citizen filing a false complaint); the mere perception of unfairness might be enough to demotivate the police officer and cause him or her to engage in depolicing behaviors. Much of this then centers on a police officer’s sense of trust, or trust in the system, trust in senior management, and trust in immediate supervisors. Finally, police work often entails long hours, often with few to no breaks as officers run from call to call. That the occupation is

A Theoretical Framework


highly stressful should perhaps go without saying. If these three factors—long hours, few breaks, and high stress—all contribute to workplace disengagement, one may wonder why the depolicing phenomenon is only recently being discovered. And high stress has long been associated with policing and the general occupational problem of job burnout, which is examined next. Burnout

The second psychological area of research related to depolicing is the problem of job burnout (Maslach, Schaufeli, and Leiter 2001). Job burnout in policing has long been recognized, and an ample body of research focuses on this problem (H. Hawkins 2001; McCarty and Skogan 2012; Schaible and Six 2016). Only more recently, however, have researchers explored job burnout and its relationship with workplace disengagement (Maslach, Schaufeli, and Leiter 2001). This relationship is the key to the psychological theory that may contribute to our better understanding of the depolicing phenomenon. According to Christina Maslach, Wilmar B. Schaufeli, and Michael P. Leiter (2001), “Burnout is a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job, and is defined by the three dimensions of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy” (397). This particular theoretical framework developed out of the pioneering work of Christina Maslach (1976, 1982) in the 1970s and early 1980s and her creation of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (Maslach and Jackson 1981). Some of her earliest work on burnout involved policing (Maslach 1979), and her Maslach Burnout Inventory has often been employed in policing research (H. Hawkins 2001). Maslach, Schaufeli, and Leiter (2001) convey that of the three dimensions they describe, “exhaustion is the central quality of burnout and the most obvious manifestation of this complex syndrome” (402). Police officers report widely on this problem mid- to late career, as Joan C. Barker (1999) details in her study of Los Angeles police officers when she explains, “They say they have ‘hit the wall’ and they don’t care anymore” for “if nothing else they have become exhausted” (116). Once this occurs, Barker (1999) explains how they attempt to put distance between themselves and their work. Maslach, Schaufeli, and Leiter (2001) also recognize this pattern of behavior when they explain, “Distancing is such an immediate reaction to exhaustion that a strong relationship from exhaustion to cynicism (depersonalization) is found consistently in burnout research” (403). At the same time, the


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

feeling of reduced personal accomplishment, inefficacy, begins to settle in, which, according to the research on self-efficacy and selfdetermination, may very well lead to withdrawal. In fact, Barker (1999) highlighted withdrawal as one of the four strategies employed by police officers remaining on the job (the others being recommitment, powering through, and finding a parallel track). Factors that contribute to job burnout have also been highlighted by the work of Maslach, Schaufeli, and Leiter (2001). They identify six factors that can increase the chance of burnout: a heavy workload and a lack of control, reward, community, fairness, and values. As in the research on workplace withdrawal, heavy workloads are associated with employees becoming exhausted in their work, increasing the likelihood of burnout. A perceived lack of control on the part of the employee, where the person’s authority is not commensurate with his or her responsibilities, can also leave the individual burned out. The lack of rewards on the job may also contribute to burnout as the employee does not feel valued, and this may consist of both extrinsic rewards (e.g., financial awards, extra vacation time, etc.) and intrinsic rewards that provide feelings of self-efficacy, self-worth, and selfdetermination in the job. If an employee loses a sense of a positive attachment to the workplace community, job burnout can set in. And, as posited by workplace engagement theory, if employees do not believe there is a sense of fairness in the workplace or their values conflict with those of their employers, this can also lead to job burnout. All six of these factors may very well lead to job burnout, but job burnout can also lead to workplace disengagement as a coping mechanism. It should also be noted that job burnout is only one reason for workplace withdrawal, but the relationship is strong enough that Maslach and Leiter (1997) “rephrased burnout as an erosion of engagement with the job” (416), thus tying workplace disengagement and job burnout together. In fact, they go so far as to advance the idea that workplace engagement is the positive antithesis of burnout, which would make burnout and workplace disengagement synonymous (Maslach, Schaufeli, and Leiter 2001). As applied to policing, there is adequate support for the theoretical framework that Maslach and her associates lay out. Homer Hawkins (2001) found a strong correlation between emotional exhaustion and depersonalization, both of which correlated negatively with self-efficacy. Other research by William P. McCarty and Wesley G. Skogan (2012) assessed the differences in job-related burnout among both police officers and civilian workers in law enforcement.

A Theoretical Framework


Many of their findings demonstrated similarities among the two populations, including the perceptions of unfairness. Another study by Lonnie M. Schaible and Michelle Six (2016) looked at the emotional relationship among these variables and found that the use of coercion was associated with depersonalization, while attempts to develop emotional attachments (personalization) helped to decrease burnout. There is little doubt that police officers experience daily stress across a twenty- to thirty-year career, which can lead to chronic stress and burnout (Martinussen, Richardsen, and Burke 2007). Burnout can result from the heavy workload of policing, including long hours and mandatory overtime as well as running from call to call on any given shift. Police officers also have an enormous amount of job-related responsibility but may perceive that they lack the necessary authority to maintain a strong sense of control because of increasing administrative, legal, and civilian oversight (Martinussen, Richardsen, and Burke 2007). Extrinsic rewards can be few and far between, and intrinsic rewards may lessen over a career as officers absorb the realities of policing. Officers may also lose a sense of attachment to community—both the community they police and their departmental community—especially when confronted with a lack of trust from the community, as evidenced by riots, citizen complaints, or lawsuits, or within the department, such as when they face a departmental investigation or must operate under a consent decree. Feelings of unfairness, regardless of whether they are real or perceived, can also lead to police burnout, as can a clash in values, such as an officer wishing to fight a lawsuit and clear his or her name but the department advocating for settling the case out of court and admitting no fault. These factors may all lead to job burnout, which consists of exhaustion (both physical and emotional), cynicism, and inefficacy. All three of these traits are closely associated with police officers, and many career officers at one point or another experience burnout (McCarty and Skogan 2012). How they cope with their burnout varies from person to person, but as Barker (1999) explained, one reaction is withdrawal or workplace disengagement, which is now more commonly referred to as depolicing.

Legal Theories

In 2003, law professor Frank Rudy Cooper published an article related to depolicing titled “Understanding ‘Depolicing’: Symbiosis


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

Theory and Critical Cultural Theory.” This was one of the earliest scholarly articles written on the subject and the first to advance a set of theories explaining the behavior. Cooper’s (2003) use of the term depolicing, however, was more narrowly focused than later definitions: he defined it as “a police response to criticism of police tactics toward racial minorities” (1). Cooper (2003) asserts that depolicing “has two functions: avoiding further racial controversy over police tactics and threatening critics of the police,” with the latter referring to the serious allegation that police withdraw services from those who criticize them (1). Because this perspective constrains depolicing to issues of race, the theories Cooper advances are limited to this narrow scope. However, because race, racism, and racial profiling have all been identified in various ways in the depolicing literature, the theories that Cooper (2003) draws on are important for understanding, at a minimum, depolicing as it relates to these phenomena. The two theories Cooper (2003) relies on lie outside legal theory; however, because he is incorporating them into his legal perspective as a law professor, they are thus labeled legal theories. In reality, they are more rooted in psychology, sociology, and Marxism. They are specifically Nancy Ehrenreich’s symbiosis theory and critical cultural theory. Simply put, it is identity politics with a cultural context. Cooper (2003) outlines his definition of depolicing by discussing how “we have seen police officers’ lack of identification with certain racial groups manifest itself in systematic underpolicing in those communities” (4). He explains that depolicing is a product of the US Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio (1968)—authorizing police to stop and frisk suspicious persons—which he describes as the “Terry seesaw effect” (Cooper 2003, 5; see also Cooper 2006). He explains that Terry stops are based only on reasonable suspicion, so officers do not fear legal repercussions for stopping racial minorities as long as they can articulate some suspicion. This gives the police officer an advantage to stop minorities (the “see” in the “see-saw”). However, as the media and public put pressure on the police, charging racial discrimination, the police begin to withdraw their use of Terry to stop minorities (the “saw” of the “see-saw”). This, according to Cooper (2003), becomes a back-and-forth between racial profiling and racial controversy. As examples, Cooper (2003) cites cases in Los Angeles, Cincinnati, and Seattle, demonstrating how this see-saw effect ultimately results in the depolicing of racial neighborhoods. His analysis suggests that the law (Terry v. Ohio) has led to these societal prac-

A Theoretical Framework


tices, hence his legal application of nonlegal theories. Cooper (2003) turns to symbiosis theory to explain this phenomenon. Symbiosis Theory

Cooper (2003) draws upon the symbiosis theory of law professor Nancy Ehrenreich of the Sturm College of Law. The theory is rooted in identity politics but focuses more heavily on the intersectionality of identity and how one group’s identity overlaps with another’s. While this intersection may lead to factionalization, pitting the two groups against one another, Ehrenreich focuses on the symbiotic relationships that may result from the overlap among the different groups. Cooper (2003) then sets about describing the two diverse groups who live together, characterizing the police officers as “working-class white males” who conceive of themselves “as superior to men of color” (12). The problem, as Cooper sees it, is that because most police officers are of the working class, they lack power but compensate by using racial profiling to act as if they were superior to people of color. When the public protests, creating a racial controversy, the public scrutiny causes police to lose their power, and so they disengage (see, e.g., Shjarback et al. 2017). The problem with this theory, Cooper explains, is that depolicing, at least as of 2003, was not widespread. Why, then, would it occur in some cities and not others. He turns to a second theory to help explain. Critical Cultural Theory

Critical cultural theory is derived from critical theory, a neo-Marxist critique of society and culture. A particular culture will often have many identities that may either overlap or come into conflict with one another, and this is often best understood within a cultural context. Cooper (2003) argues that symbiosis theory can be supplemented or advanced by the incorporation of the cultural context in which symbiosis occurs. He explains that we must first understand the cultural context by itself, then how the various identities intersect, and how this relates to cultural power. Cooper (2003) traces depolicing through this particular lens, arguing that both racial profiling and depolicing are derivatives of the Terry decision. He explains that racial profiling is performed by those empowered against the powerless; when the see-saw occurs, however, the now subordinate police reaction is, as he describes it, “the discourse of the


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

downtrodden” (Cooper 2003, 19). The see-saw is caused by a related media see-saw. At first the media may support the police cracking down on crime, ignoring its inclusion of racial profiling in order to solve the problems of crime on the streets. But as the reality or perception of racial profiling increases, the media then focus on issues of racism to the detriment of the police. Still later, as the police withdraw, the narrative may change once again to focus on how unsafe the communities have become because the police are depolicing. And then the cycle, or see-saw effect, starts all over again. The struggle then centers on the politics of the situation regarding who controls the narrative, and that may reflect the cultural climate of each city— hence, argues Cooper, the variation among communities dealing with the problems of depolicing. Cooper (2003) makes some very broad assumptions, any of which could threaten to unravel his argument. For example, he assumes most police are white, and while this is true overall, at the department level there is a significant variation; for instance, the Detroit Police Department is 83 percent black. As he argues that critical cultural theory requires looking at differences from city to city, his general statement that all police are white falls flat. He also assumes that all police officers see themselves as superior to racial minorities, an assertion that is far too general to accept at face value. The argument that both racial profiling and depolicing are rooted in the US Supreme Court case of Terry v. Ohio (1968) is intriguing in that allowing police to temporarily detain individuals based on a reasonable suspicion does create a legal basis for conflict. The see-saw effect he advances is also intriguing in that the narrative of the police as “good guys” and “crime fighters” does often see-saw back and forth with the narrative that the police are racists who discriminate through racial profiling. Finally, the cultural context of each community does appear to play some role in determining how events such as a riot play out. While the people of Ferguson rioted in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown, citizens did not riot and were slow to protest when Walter Scott was shot and killed by a North Charleston police officer. Perhaps Cooper’s most important contribution is his explanation that police feel empowered by their role in society, but when the community and media turn on them, they feel “downtrodden” themselves, so their reaction is to disengage as a means of dealing with their loss of public support. While the racial perspective of this argument may or may not explain some of the depolicing phe-

A Theoretical Framework


nomenon, a larger understanding of police identity (protecting society, good versus evil, etc.) may be more apt to explain the full context of depolicing.

Policing Theories

Three theories or areas of research in policing itself may help in understanding depolicing. The first is the blue flu phenomenon in which police officers call in sick to work en masse as a form of protest or, more specifically, in lieu of the worker’s strike in a profession that is not legally authorized to employ that tactic. The blue flu is, in a sense, an early form of police withdrawal associated with depolicing. The second area is research that has looked at three different types of employees: the worker, the shirker, and the saboteur. The shirkers are those employees who avoid performing the duties of their job and may be considered partially disengaged or passively disengaged. The saboteurs are actively disengaged and disrupt the workplace and functioning of those who are engaged in their work. The third area involves the styles of police officers. James Q. Wilson (1968) originally assessed the styles of municipal police departments, but other researchers began analyzing the various styles of individual police officers, and this may help explain, in part, why some officers engage in depolicing. Each of these perspectives is largely rooted in public administration and organizational theory approaches to policing, with studies conducted by those in both the criminal justice and the public administration fields. Blue Flu

In 2015, National Public Radio reporter Martin Kaste addressed the contemporary problem of depolicing in a news report on the topic. He stated that in his research, he found the phenomenon of depolicing went by many different names, including “rule-book protest” (Kaste 2015). Kaste interviewed a retired police officer from Seattle, Mike Severance, who gave a very common definition of depolicing: “in the simplest terms, officers aren’t doing proactive police work. They’ll respond to their calls, you know, if something heinous happens. . . . [I]f they observe an armed robbery in progress, an officer’s going to do what needs to be done. But you’re not going out looking for the bad guys” (Kaste 2015). Kaste also interviewed


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

Aurora, Illinois, police commander Kristen Ziman, but she referred to depolicing as the “blue flu” (Kaste 2015). Ziman explained to Kaste that after her agency was forced to lay off eight police officers, the issuance of tickets dropped by double digits, leading her to believe “that low morale and that anger then really manifested into officers getting in their squad cars and feeling that sense of apathy. And so, for that reason, production went down” (Kaste 2015). The term blue flu has long referred to such a loss of productivity when police officers become less proactive or intentionally slow down their activities. The historical roots of the blue flu date back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During this period of American industrialization, workers began uniting, at first informally and later more formally, with the creation of workers’ unions to fight against poor working conditions and pay (Dubofsky and Dulles 2010). By the close of World War I, the labor unions had made many gains for their workers, but police officers, lacking any unions of their own, fell further and further behind (Russell 1975). In 1919, a number of Boston police officers began communicating with the American Federation of Labor, and in August of that year they requested a charter to join the union. The Boston Police Department ordered the men to dissolve the relationship, but the officers refused and instead held a vote regarding whether or not to use the most powerful tool of the unions: the strike. Overwhelmingly, the officers voted to strike, and on September 9, 1919, nearly three-quarters of the officers walked off the job (Russell 1975). Boston quickly dissolved into anarchy. The governor of Massachusetts at the time, Calvin Coolidge, was forced to activate the state militia to police the streets of Boston, and the most lasting legacy of this incident were the laws that made it illegal for all public safety officers to go on strike. States across the country quickly followed suit, and ever since, government agencies that provide a public safety service are not allowed to strike. The unionization of police in America was also highly curtailed for the next 40 years because of the Boston Police Strike, only seeing eventual growth in the 1960s and 1970s (Fogelson 1977). Although police department unions could, in some jurisdictions, enter into collective bargaining, they could not, when talks broke down, use the most powerful of union tools. Despite that impediment, police officers found alternative methods by which to register theirs protests. One course of action was to engage in a work slowdown, issuing no

A Theoretical Framework


tickets for parking or speeding, impacting the city coffers and gaining attention for police grievances (Pfuhl 1983). An alternative method was a work speedup, or “ticket blizzard,” which had the intended effect of overloading the system so as to cause it to break down (Pfuhl 1983, 489). Finally, one other tactic came to be known as the “blue flu,” whereby officers all called in sick for work, thus creating a shortage of personnel on duty. Sometimes the blue flu was associated with union-like strikes; in other cases it was simply a protest against something the officers found disagreeable. Research into the blue flu phenomenon is scarce. One study by Norman S. Goldner and Ronald Koenig (1972) in Detroit, Michigan, polled citizens regarding their attitudes toward police unionizing. Their survey found that 73 percent of citizens believed that the blue flu was a de facto strike, and 60 percent of respondents believed that striking by police, including the blue flu, should be prohibited. Another study by Erdwin H. Pfuhl Jr. (1983) assessed the relationship between the police “strikes” and crime rates in 11 cities in the United States. He found overall that the police strikes did not affect crime in those cities, discounting the “thin blue line thesis” that the only thing standing between total chaos (excessive crime) and peace is the police (Pfuhl 1983, 490). Other mentions of the blue flu in the literature largely focus on how best to prevent or manage the phenomenon. A book by John H. Burpo (1971) deals with the blue flu within the scope of the developing police labor movement. Casey Ichniowski (1982) found that in those states where rules for arbitration are established, there is less likelihood of blue flu. Lewis G. Bender and colleagues (2005) used a case study approach to show how managers can effectively deal with such occurrences. Depolicing does appear to share some relationship with the blue flu in terms of workplace withdrawal, but it would appear the motivations may be entirely different. Under the blue flu, historically, the police were generally focused on obtaining some gain for all police officers either through petition, arbitration, or some other form of collective bargaining. The protest was against some action that harmed all or large groups of police officers. Because police officers could not go on strike, the only means of demonstrable protest available to them were work slowdowns or speedups and calling in sick en masse. Still, if the phenomenon of depolicing is motivated by disagreements with management, then it at least shares some commonalities with the blue flu.


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

Shirking Another policing theory, rooted in the public administration literature, that bears some relationship to the causes of depolicing is the prevalence of shirking. John Brehm and Scott Gates (1999) best articulated the theory in Working, Shirking, and Sabotage: Bureaucratic Response to a Democratic Public. As the title suggests, bureaucratic employees, including the police, often have very different work ethics: workers are those who do their job, shirkers avoid doing their job, and saboteurs not only avoid doing their job but work to undermine their place of employment. As the subtitle also suggests, these three types of workers exist inside a bureaucracy serving a democratic public. To be very clear, however, Brehm and Gates (1999) succinctly state that these bureaucratic responses, shirking and sabotage, are not systemic problems, but individual problems, for they state, “bureaucratic accountability depends most of all on the preferences of individual bureaucrats.” As Michael Lipsky (1980) once explained, police officers are “street-level bureaucrats,” and their preferences determine much of what the organization does or does not do. Brehm and Gates (1999) articulate four key points in understanding bureaucrats (police) operating within a bureaucracy (police department). The first point is that “the extent of elected officials’ control over unelected bureaucrats depends on supervision and monitoring within an organization.” As applied to depolicing, this means that the degree to which elected mayors and city councils can control the phenomenon is constrained by the degree of supervision and monitoring of police officers within a police department. Brehm and Gates apply principal-agent theory to the relationship by looking at supervisors (principals) and their ability to supervise their employees (agents) within the bureaucratic framework. The second point Brehm and Gates (1999) advance is that “bureaucrats make political decisions in the implementation of policy, decisions which are affected by their own policy preferences.” If the police department wishes to enforce certain policies, such as ticketing for DWI, running red lights, or HOV (high occupancy vehicle) violations, then those policies are only implemented through the police officers’ decisions. Conversely, it could be said that bureaucrats (police officers) also make political decisions in the nonimplementation (nonenforcement) of policies through workplace withdrawal and disengagement. If they prefer not to implement some policy, police officers can do that at their own discretion. They can

A Theoretical Framework


choose to stop someone for a traffic infraction or reasonable suspicion, but they can also choose not to. This leads to Brehm and Gates’s (1999) third point, that “despite significant efforts to constrain bureaucratic choices, bureaucrats possess significant degrees of discretion.” This same point led Lipsky (1980) to argue that police officers are street-level bureaucrats who drive the work of the police department through their personal decisions on the street. Just as police officers may use their discretion to enforce the law, they may also use it not to enforce the law. Brehm and Gates (1999) make the final point that “there are four potential sources of influence over a bureaucrat’s choices to work, shirk, or sabotage: the bureaucrat’s own preferences, peer bureaucrats, supervisors, and the bureaucrat’s clients.” In terms of depolicing, this means police officers have the discretion to engage in their own preference to pull back and no longer take a proactive policing stance, relegating themselves to reactive policing and, when dispatched to a call, employing a form of minimalism—choosing the least active and intrusive response dictated by the situation. The second source of influence is peer bureaucrats or other police officers. Brehm and Gates suggest that while individual police officers may make the decision to depolice, it may be their contact with other police officers that convinces them that depolicing behaviors are the best use of their discretion, protecting them from public ridicule, racial profiling allegations, or civil suits. Brehm and Gates also mention the third source, supervisors, as having some influence over depolicing in that good supervisors can convince those police officers engaging in it to return to proactive policing. The previously mentioned psychological theory of workplace withdrawal/disengagement often cites the immediate supervisor as well as senior supervisors as the means of changing such negative workplace behaviors. The fourth source is the “bureaucrat’s clients,” which in the case of the police means citizens. As Cooper (2003) explains through symbiosis theory, the relationship between the bureaucrat (police) and the client (citizens) can have a see-saw effect depending upon the beliefs and actions of both entities at any given time. As depolicing would most likely be associated with Brehm and Gates’s shirking category, it is important to distinguish, as they do, between employees’ motivations for shirking their duties. Brehm and Gates (1999) describe two categories of shirking: leisure shirking and dissent shirking. The former they describe as “not working


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

because you do not feel like working,” whereas the latter entails “not working because one is opposed to a particular policy output” (30). Police officers are very quick to recognize and acknowledge the difference between their peers who are lazy versus those who are depolicing. Chicago police officer Gina Gallo (2001), in her book Armed and Dangerous, describes how her first partner was slow to take calls, avoided confrontation, and did anything and everything to get out of making an arrest or writing a report. After spending enough time with him, she concluded that he was basically lazy. William Dunn (1996), conversely, describes some very similar behaviors among police officers in the Los Angeles Police Department after the Rodney King incident, but he never calls them lazy, concluding instead that they were engaging in these behaviors out of frustration, as a form of dissent. It is important to note that depolicing is associated solely with the category of “dissent shirking” and not with laziness. Interestingly, Brehm and Gates (1999) recognized dissent shirking, essentially depolicing, prior to the term’s becoming more mainstream among political pundits and the media. They recognized that police officers may disengage from proactive police work as a means of protest rather than simply because they are lazy. More importantly, they identify the relationship between the individual’s own behavior or withdrawal and the influence of peers, suggesting that dissent shirking may be isolated to individuals or confined to smaller groups, such as shifts or units, unless the entire police department is small to begin with. Finally, Brehm and Gates (1999) also suggest, by way of their principal-agent theory, how depolicing may best be resolved: through close supervision by police officers’ immediate supervisors. Although their research points to hiring well and setting high professional standards as guards against shirking (and sabotage), supervisors carry out both within the police agency, making their role crucial in this respect. Styles of Policing

The last of the police theories, also rooted in a mixture of political science, public administration, and police studies, involves styles of policing. In 1968, political scientist James Q. Wilson published Varieties of Police Behavior: The Management of Law and Order in Eight Communities. In his study of eight cities and their police departments, he concluded that because of police discretion and community desire,

A Theoretical Framework


there exist three styles of police departments in the United States: the watchman style, the legalistic style, and the service style. In the watchman style, police departments and their officers serve as a force to maintain order and control crime by its presence. When issues arise, the police intervene to restore order through their use of discretion and coercion, employing such tools as issuing verbal warnings, maintaining a presence, or forcing people to leave the area. Police departments operating under this style typically reserve arrest only for more serious felonious crimes and deal more informally with minor crimes. The legalistic style of policing is generally found in police departments where authority is highly centralized and officers are required to show evidence of their work. Police focus on authority and control through the uniform enforcement of laws, and arrest is seen as the primary means of dealing with problems. Police departments operating under this style actively enforce the law for both major and minor crimes, as well as traffic violations. Finally, the service style sees the police as performing a set of services to the public in order to solve community problems. They are present only to provide service, and arrest is a last resort. The department focuses on community relations, public satisfaction, and treating citizens (the customer) with respect. Wilson (1968) argues that the public influences the government, and the type of government then influences the style of policing. So it is important to understand that because the police are local, the people can control them. Two strains of studies have developed from Wilson’s research. The first attempted to replicate Wilson’s findings; none of them has found much support for his original study (Hassell, Zhao, and Maguire 2003; Liederback and Travis 2008; Zhao, He, and Lovrich 2006; Zhao, Ren, and Lovrich 2010). The second line of research, more germane to developing a theory of depolicing, hypothesizes that if police departments have styles, then individual police officers may have varying styles as well. This latter line of research primarily looks at the police personality to determine what shapes a particular style of policing by individual police officers independently of the policing styles advanced by the police department. Collectively, these studies suggest that police officers’ individual styles commonly derive from three sources: the organization itself, the process of socialization, and the predisposition of the individual to the policing profession (Broderick 1987; Worden


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

1995). Out of this developed two theories of policing. The socialization theory argues that the police personality is developed through training and the bureaucracy (nurture), whereas predisposition theory argues that a type of police personality already exists in individuals who are attracted to policing (nature). The majority of these studies concluded that individual police personalities closely matched those of Wilson’s watchman, legalistic, and service styles (Coates 1972; Hochstedler 1981; O’Neill 1974), often simply using different names, for instance substituting “professional” for watchman (Brown 1981; Hochstedler 1981; O’Neill 1974), “enforcer” for legalistic (Broderick 1987; Hochstedler 1981; Muir 1977; O’Neill 1974), and “social agent” or “helper” for service (Brown 1981; O’Neill 1974). One group of studies stands out, however, as they may hint at depolicing behavior in their use of the term “avoider” (Brown 1981; Hochstedler 1981; Muir 1977); they also employ a slightly different approach to analyzing arrests and include a “no arrest” category (Walsh 1984). These studies suggest that avoiders avoid involvement in all situations and so take a nonenforcement approach. Another set of studies suggest that no- or zeroarrest officers make every effort to do as little as possible. In his famous Rand study Inside Bureaucracy (1967), Anthony Downs advances an alternative to the presence of avoiders or zeroarrest police personalities, which may be entirely unrelated to whether the officer is lazy or a dissenter. In keeping with the research on police types, Downs (1967) finds, more generally, that there are bureaucratic types. He calls them the climbers and conservers, who are both self-interested actors, and the zealots, advocates, and statesmen, who are all mixed-motive bureaucrats. In some respects, the particular bureaucratic type can change over time, and he suggests one late-career bureaucratic type is the conserver. Conservers, Downs (1967) points out, seek “to maximize their security and convenience” (96). In the case of security, these individuals simply desire to hold on to their current level of power, income, and prestige by maintaining what they already have. Maximizing convenience, however, “means reducing one’s efforts to the minimum possible level” (96). Downs suggests bureaucrats become conservers when they believe that they have achieved the highest position possible and more effort will not allow them to climb much further, if at all. Thus, in many cases, climbers reach a point in their careers when they become conservers. Conservers, Downs (1967) explains, “tend to be biased against any change in the status quo” as it threatens to dis-

A Theoretical Framework


rupt their routines; thus they become “change avoiders” (97). Downs (1967) dubs this the “Law of Increasing Conserverism” in that “in every bureau, there is an inherent pressure upon the vast majority of officials to become conservers in the long run” (99). A particular policing style may apply to some individuals who engage in depolicing, but it appears inadequate to describe them all. Police officers, like the bureaucrats described by Downs (1967), can change their personalities as they advance in their careers, so enforcers and legalistic-style officers may eventually become avoiders and nonenforcers. There is likely a reason for this beyond just personality; as Downs (1967) suggests, the avoiders may also be conservers. Downs’s explanations for why there are conservers falls flat when he describes the conserver personality, for it is antithetical to most of the research on the development of a police personality, whether by predisposition or socialization, in the early years of a police officer’s career. A shift to conserving may explain depolicing for officers near the end of their careers but not at the beginning or even in the middle. One other potential explanation for the climber becoming a conserver—or the older officer engaging in depolicing—may be burnout. The psychological condition of burnout often hits officers later in their careers, and they simply disengage as a means of survival. The climber (enforcer) becomes a conserver (avoider). Downs (1967) suggests this when he states, “The longer an official has been in a bureau, the more he has been exposed to the difficulties and frustrations of trying to change its behavior” (99). Chicago police officer Gina Gallo (2001) says the same thing a bit more colorfully when she explains, “It’s burnout, the occupational plague that numbs your soul, armors your heart and leaves whatever remains to carry you through the rest of your career” (322). Depolicing may simply be another term for conserving, describing officers who are well along in their police careers, have gotten burned out, and are simply trying to hold on to what they have by doing the least amount of work possible, while coasting to retirement. However, this would only hold if depolicing only occurred late in officers’ careers.


Themes common to the theories presented in this chapter offer some explanations for why depolicing occurs. Possibilities include a lack of self-efficacy and self-determination, a loss of trust in immediate


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

and senior supervisors, a sense of unfairness, a mounting level of stress that leads to exhaustion and job burnout, a movement to conserve what officers’ have obtained late in their careers as they near retirement, or the individual’s own police personality. The particular examples presented in the literature suggest some of these causes, be it a civil suit settled out of court (unfairness, loss of trust in the department), a consent decree (loss of self-determination and selfefficacy, unfairness), or stress (burnout, conserving). These motivating factors then cause the police officers to engage in behaviors described as workplace withdrawal, shirking, conserving, or dissent, all of which are closely related to depolicing. Although these theories, individually and collectively, do not necessarily present a holistic understanding of the depolicing phenomenon, they do help us recognize what characteristics and traits to look for when interviewing police officers. Did their agency experience a riot or consent decree? Have they ever been accused of racial profiling or been sued? Are they experiencing stress or job burnout, or are they close to retirement? Each of these may suggest a police officer’s reasons for engaging in depolicing and thus assist in guiding the researcher in knowing what to look for and what to ask. We turn now to the police officers’ own words.

4 Cops Talk About Depolicing I: How They See It

Political pundits, newspaper reports, and some firsthand accounts written by police officers suggest the existence of depolicing. Political pundits generally base their assertion on newspaper reports that are specifically about or mention depolicing. While many of those reports often claim that depolicing exists, they typically offer little evidence as support. Sometimes their “evidence” consists of an interview or two with police officers who themselves assert that the phenomenon exists. A reporter angling for a story on depolicing is not, however, going to quote someone who does not think it exists, and the accounts of a few officers writing first-person narratives provides little more evidence. The empirical evidence from the academic literature is more reliable and offers more validity, but it is also very mixed, focusing mostly on the quantity of police (or the lack thereof). As John A. Shjarback and his colleagues (2017) explain, “To date, there have been few studies on depolicing in general and the evidence is mixed in those analyses that do exist” (43). Still further, they confirm that “allegations of de-policing are more likely to be based on political rhetoric, speculation, and media sources as opposed to comprehensive, data-driven analysis” (Shjarback et al. 2017, 43), the same problem we saw in the review of all literature mentioning depolicing (see Chapter 2). The present study, while limited in scope, hopes to contribute at least some insights into police officers’ and sheriff’s deputies’ beliefs about the 53


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

depolicing phenomenon. While not revealing definitive evidence for or against the reality of the phenomenon, this study does offer a glimpse of the personal, lived experiences with depolicing of law enforcement officers working in the field. This research initially aimed to interview police officers in the field, from across the country, to ascertain whether depolicing is real or simply exists in the imagination of political pundits and the machinations of newspaper reporters angling for a sensational news story. As I came in contact with officers from across the country, I began asking questions, which developed into formal interviews. From the summer of 2014 through the summer of 2016, I interviewed 60 police officers (see Appendix 1 for more on the methodology). The officers interviewed were 80 percent male and 20 percent female, in keeping with the national distribution of officers by sex in the United States, and 24 percent of the officers were minorities, including 12 percent black, 10 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent other (see Appendix 2 for a table listing basic demographics of the officers). The average age of the officers was 40, their average number of years in law enforcement was 14.2, and most worked for a municipal agency, with 15 percent working for a sheriff’s office or department. Nearly half of the officers in the study worked for agencies with less than 100 officers (46.6 percent); 35 percent worked in an agency with over 1,000 officers. After securing a commitment to be interviewed about a current topic in policing, I first asked the police officers whether they had ever heard of depolicing, and, if so, whether they believed it existed. If the officers had not heard the term used, I then described it as “workplace withdrawal,” “cops no longer engaged in proactive policing,” or, for those with military experience, “retired on active duty.” Four of the police officers interviewed had never heard the term, but two of them immediately recognized the behaviors based on the quick description. One of the other two had always called these behaviors the “blue flu,” while the other had never heard the term and did not believe the phenomenon could exist. The latter, it should be noted, had three years’ experience in policing and was assigned to an agency that employed dashboard and body cameras with microphones. Overall, 98 percent of the officers interviewed believed depolicing was a real phenomenon. From that discussion, officers sometimes voluntarily admitted to engaging in depolicing themselves, while others stated they personally knew of other officers who were depolicing. I never asked the officers directly if they were depolicing so as not to put them in an uncomfortable position, but I asked generally, “Do you know of any

Cops Talk About Depolicing I: How They See It


cases of depolicing?” This sometimes elicited first-person experience with the phenomenon. A minority of these officers (23 percent) did admit to engaging in the phenomenon themselves, while 42 percent reported knowing other officers who were depolicing. Only four officers (7 percent) stated they had never experienced or seen the phenomenon, while the rest (28 percent) did not answer the question directly. Instead, these officers talked around the question, often in language indicating they believed it existed but ignoring both specific personal examples or any within their agency. Due to the sensitivity of this question, many officers who had themselves depoliced may have refused to say so, avoided the question, or spoken of “others” engaging in the phenomenon, while never admitting to their own depolicing. Therefore, the percentage of officers who had themselves engaged in depolicing may have been higher. I then asked officers about the scope of depolicing. In early interviews, I asked about the “scope of the problem” but soon realized that some officers took offense to my calling it a “problem.” Because the word problem is generally perceived in the negative, has moral implications, and injects some bias into the question, I changed the phrasing to ask how prevalent and widespread the phenomenon was. However, even after I changed the wording of the question, over a dozen of the police officers labeled depolicing a “problem” themselves.

“Depolicing Is Very Real” (#17)

When asked whether depolicing was real, many of the police officers replied in the affirmative with statements such as “Depolicing is very real” (#17), “Yes, depolicing is real” (#49), and “From an officer’s perspective, the concept of depolicing is intriguing and real” (#14). Although some of the officers answered in the affirmative, many added qualifiers to their affirmation, such as officer #50, who stated, “Depolicing, I believe, is something that does happen” (#50). Additional officers who added qualifications included officer #57 (“The phenomenon of depolicing, as you put it, is real and—in my opinion—a widespread epidemic”) and officer #16 (“As far as the concept of depolicing, it absolutely exists, even if it cannot be recognized or accurately measured, make no mistake it exists, and it can do a large amount of damage to an agency”). Many of the police officers were very straightforward in answering when asked if they had ever heard of depolicing. One officer


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

stated very succinctly, “Yeah, I’ve heard of it and seen it. See it all the time. Lots of cops depolice, you know?” (#59). Another officer explained, “The concept of depolicing absolutely exists. I work in an agency with over 5,000 officers, and you see or hear about guys that used to be workers back in the day, but something happened and now they are lazy and do the minimum. I think it is a common response to some of the issues [today], but it is avoidable” (#12). Many of the officers referred to the past in a variety of ways. For officer #12, some who had once been proactive police officers were today engaging in depolicing. Other officers invoked the past because they believed the phenomenon of depolicing was nothing new and had always existed. As officer #55, using a biblical reference, articulated, “I am familiar with the concept, and I do believe it exists. In fact, I think in some ways it has always existed, it is only more recently that it has a new name. You know, ‘Old wine in new bottles.’” Another officer agreed with the sentiment that depolicing may have always existed:

If you had asked me this even five years ago, I would have told you no, I had never heard of it. Seen it, maybe, but never heard of it. Now it is a well-known term. Everyone knows what it means. Of course, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t present before five years ago, we just called it something else. It was like being in a funk, being fed up with the whole system, being fed up with people and managers and citizens; just being fed up. Now, though, it’s not the one officer here, one officer there sort of thing. I think it’s now more a climate within the department, or at least those of us still on the street. I recently rotated back to the street after receiving a promotion. It’s different now. Everyone is aware of the problem and the climate. No one talks about it much. We talk about officer safety and other things, but not about not policing—depolicing. (#60)

Another officer spoke to changes that have occurred over time, but—like the others above—mentioned an older term to describe present-day depolicing. “I have heard of depolicing, because for me, being an instructor at the basic level, we do talk about it. Usually we talk about it from the blue flu and work slowdowns perspective, but it has changed fundamentally over the past two decades; kind of like a roller coaster ride. But what we are seeing is officers working slower so as to avoid any kind of complications in their minds” (#37).

Cops Talk About Depolicing I: How They See It


Many of the police officers alluded to both the past and the present in their answers when elaborating on whether depolicing was real. They spoke of the past in terms of older police language to describe modern-day depolicing; they spoke of present problems in America and in American policing to describe the phenomenon of depolicing; and many of the police officers commented on the changes that have occurred over time. One officer captured all three when he explained, Depolicing is certainly real, especially these days with such an antipolice attitude. There are now cops being killed for wearing a uniform, so why put yourself in harm’s way in this kind of climate? Although even sitting in your police cruiser, pumping gas, or having lunch at Panera Bread can get you killed. So, yeah, the police are disengaging. In the old days they used to call it cooping, I think. That’s what we do, we coop all day. (#52)

One officer, after acknowledging he had heard of the term, then proceeded to articulate a disagreement he had with academics. He explained that labeling phenomenon such as depolicing often has a very defining effect on the phenomenon itself, especially when it becomes a way to impose a simplistic moral judgment—to label something as being good or bad.

Depolicing. I’ve heard the term. You know you academics are funny, although I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt since you were a police officer, but the names that get attached to certain things such as “zero-tolerance policing” or “community policing,” and then they take on a whole new meaning. What police do is then labeled, and then that label becomes either good or bad, and almost always oversensationalized. Zero-tolerance policing is bad, community policing is good. Yet, when it comes down to it, the cop on the street is just doing his job. He sees a suspicious person, he pats him down and interviews him. He does a Terry stop. This becomes zero-tolerance policing and something horrible. Or a cop helps teach parents how to properly seatbelt a car seat and they are doing community policing, and, of course, that is good. So, cops react normally to something that happens to them, and now all of a sudden it is depolicing. My guess is it is not going to be seen as being something positive. (#54)

One of the officers, when answering the question, became visibly excited. This officer did not hold back from highlighting that his


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

department was under scrutiny, that its officers were depolicing, and that he too was disengaging from proactive police work. He referred to the McKinney, Texas, incident when, on June 5, 2015, a police officer was called to a domestic disturbance at a pool. There, the officer struggled with a teenager, placing her in handcuffs, and soon thereafter he pulled his handgun on the crowd. All of this was captured on video. A lawsuit was brought against the officer. His lawyer, explaining the officer’s behavior, stated that he had been on two suicide calls prior to the pool incident, one of which had been successful, and that he had not been himself at the time. The police officer later resigned from the department. The officer being interviewed explained,

Look, I’ll be honest with you, depolicing is real. And it is a real problem. I know you want this to remain anonymous, and so do I, but I’m from one of the departments in the news and, hell yeah, the officers are depolicing; myself included. The backlash from the public is unbelievable. Every little incident is now blown out of proportion, so much so, a police officer can’t make a mistake. Think about the case in McKinney, Texas. He made a mistake, but he shouldn’t have been forced to resign. There was no sympathy for the calls the officer had already faced or the issues he was dealing with. He lost it. Sure. We all lose it. Show me someone who says he has never lost control in their life, and I’ll show you a liar. (#48)

At this point in the interview, the officer began talking faster, clearly agitated by the current tensions centered on policing in America. He made quick references to four major incidents that were still in the news when the interview took place. The officer first mentioned an incident that occurred in North Charleston, South Carolina, on April 4, 2015, in which a police officer shot and killed Walter Scott as he was fleeing. The second incident was the Ferguson, Missouri, episode that occurred on August 9, 2014, when police officer Darren Wilson, after struggling with Michael Brown, shot and killed him. A negative reaction to the police and a series of riots ensued. The third incident the officer mentioned was the April 12, 2015, arrest in Baltimore, Maryland, of Freddie Gray, who suffered a spinal cord injury while being transported in a police van and died a week later. The officers involved were charged with murder, although all were later acquitted, or the charges were dropped. Finally, the fourth incident the officer mentioned took place on July 17, 2014, when Eric Garner was confronted by police officers for selling “loosies” (“onesies” as the

Cops Talk About Depolicing I: How They See It


officer says), which are single cigarettes, and, after resisting arrest, died as a result of an officer placing him in a chokehold. The interviewee’s frustrations spilled out clearly when he vented,

But it gets worse. When you have a rogue cop, like down in South Carolina, who shot the unarmed man, everyone says, “See, all cops are like that.” All cops are not like that! The majority of us are out here trying to do a hard job, but no matter what we do—it is wrong. If we pull you over for a traffic infraction, I should be doing something more important like fighting crime. If I fight crime, I am aggressive and abusive. If I try to help someone, I’m just doing it to make people like cops. If I am fighting crime, but someone calls a cop for something minor and it takes me time to get there, then I am hated because I didn’t respond fast enough. No matter what we do, we are wrong. And that is hard enough when the public supports us, but when the public turns against us? When we take people like Michael Brown and make them heroes and start movements over them, but then we hate the cops in New York who are doing their job, we hate cops when some crazy-ass guy in Baltimore breaks his own damn neck in the paddy wagon— and we arrest the cops? What the hell? Or when we tell the cops to go enforce dumbass laws passed by dumbass politicians like in New York City, because some guy is selling onesies and he refused to get arrested. When we turn on the police because we are doing the job the citizens—through their dumbass elected officials—want us to do . . . yeah, you’re going to get depolicing. (#48)

The officer then returned to the realities of depolicing by suggesting that one reason police officers depolice is a lack of public support. He suggested that this diminished what he saw as his job as a police officer and clearly frustrated him. You reach a point where you just say, “I’m done.” I try to make the world a better place by helping the good guys and taking down the bad guys. But when the public turns on us, I am not sure why I do it anymore. In other words, it stops becoming a profession and it becomes a job. It is not a passion anymore. It’s something I no longer love anymore; the love is gone. It’s a lousy stinking service job, no different from flipping burgers at McDonalds. So why not be like every other service industry worker; I’ll do what I have to, but no more. (#48)


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

The officer then switched the focus of his answer by attempting to explain what depolicing is, as well as to justify, or at least rationalize, the phenomenon.

Look, if I pull over people and give them tickets, or even a warning, that is all on my discretion. I don’t have to pull them over. I don’t have to give them a ticket or even a written warning. If I do, I might get a complaint. If I don’t pull anyone over, how can I receive a complaint? If good policing—like many of you academics seem to conclude—is not getting complaints, then why should I put myself in a position to get complaints? I will respond to the calls I am dispatched to. I will still do my job. But I won’t do my profession, because the people and the media have turned against me for doing my profession. I’ll stick to my job. I’ll take the call, handle it with the most minimal response possible, and then go away, hoping I made everyone so happy that they won’t complain on me. If they don’t complain on me, then I get to be a good cop. At least in the eyes of the administrators. (#48)

The officer continued his discussion of the realities of depolicing by demonstrably venting his frustrations even further.

I’m just done. You know what sums it up best? I saw a fellow cop from another department. He had on a T-shirt. It said, “Those who would make war on their police had better make peace with their criminals.” And I know a bunch of liberal academics are fighting against this, but ever since Ferguson, crime in the big cities is going up. We can pretend it doesn’t exist, but it does. And in those cities where I betcha depolicing is going on, crime is really going up. And guess what, when we start to learn in a few years that crime is really going up in America, guess who the hell they’re going to blame? You got it, the police! Because we didn’t do our job. You can’t win, so why try? (#48)

Although one of the more outspoken interviewees, officer #48, like many of the other officers interviewed, confirmed that depolicing is real. By claiming that either they or others in their departments do in fact depolice, officers demonstrate that depolicing is more than a phenomenon made up by political pundits or crafted by reporters who cherry-pick officer quotes. It is truly the lived experience of many of these police officers. We now turn to police officers who voluntarily confessed to the behaviors associated with depolicing (23 percent).

Cops Talk About Depolicing I: How They See It


“I Have Had Firsthand Experience with [Depolicing]” (#05)

Due to the sensitive nature of the phenomenon, I never asked the officers I interviewed if they had ever depoliced or were doing so at the time. Some of the officers who were depolicing were not proud of it, and many seemed embarrassed. Nearly all attempted to justify it in some manner, with some resigned to the belief they had no other course of action under the circumstances. When describing their personal experience with depolicing, many of these officers also suggested reasons for the phenomenon, and while that is the focus of the next chapter, those explanations are included here for both continuity and clarity. One officer, unfamiliar with the term depolicing but knowing the phenomenon as the “blue flu,” when asked if it was real, stated, “I had heard of the blue flu, and I will admit I have suffered from it a time or two. I suffered from it every Saturday and Sunday for over three months after I was arbitrarily removed from our narcotics unit. I didn’t really think of it from a depolicing view, but now that you mention it, that is exactly what it was” (#05). When asked if he knew of any cases of depolicing, he admitted, “I have had firsthand experience with it from both a line officer perspective and a supervisory point of view” (#05). He elaborated,

At one point in 2002, the local sheriff’s office where I worked did not routinely write traffic citations, especially since the sitting sheriff was from the old school [meaning an advocate of past or traditional methods] of law enforcement. However, on my shift we had a sergeant who was a traffic junky himself, and we routinely wrote citations every shift from the interstate highway to the backroads, especially if citizens had filed a complaint about speeders. One morning, a deputy wrote a ticket on ____________ Road, which is the road the sheriff lived on. The sheriff apparently knew the person who received the citation and subsequently ordered all deputies to quit writing tickets on ______________ Road and that any officer who did so would be terminated. It actually went out on an official memorandum. It caused a ripple effect through the agency, and there probably wasn’t a ticket written in six months unless there were no other options. Although ticket revenues from the sheriff’s office were not a major factor in the county’s budget, it even had an effect on the overall numbers enough that the commissioners’ court asked what was going on. (#05)


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

This officer then described his experience with depolicing as a supervisor: “There was another incident where our commissioners’ court actually reduced our retirement by half of a percent. There was a major work stoppage in the agency, and I observed the effects in the criminal investigations division as a supervisor. It took a department meeting and several one-on-one counseling sessions with the investigators to get them back on track” (#05). The police officers who were already familiar with the term depolicing described their experience with it in a variety of ways. One said it centered on the issue of race and the demands made of officers by the command staff: Where I have seen depolicing—and have fallen victim to it myself as a young officer—was when we had piss-poor leaders, either in our command staff or at city hall, who saw race as a factor in policing, or who lacked the backbone to stand up to those that did. When officers feel as though they are going to be thrown to the wolves if something goes bad, they are far less likely to do anything. I have been there. I have policed African American citizens less stringently than other citizens because we were encouraged, even demanded, to do so. I am not proud of it. I don’t condone it. And I would never allow it as a leader, but I know how it happens. If you have a toxic culture in an organization where officers are forced to see race as a factor, either racial profiling or depolicing—or perhaps both—are a virtual certainty. (#30)

Another police officer described his personal experience with depolicing after having been shot while off duty: I can speak from personal experience on depolicing. In 2012, I was shot point-blank off duty during an aggravated robbery. I felt like my spirit had been broken because how could this happen to me? I was off duty! I returned to work seven weeks after the incident and rode with my partner for a couple of weeks. After two weeks of not wanting to deal with the public and just being a warm body in the car, I decided to ride alone and get out of the slump. However, I found myself only taking selective calls and not doing any traffic stops, which is unlike me. I just didn’t want to deal with people or take the chance of getting shot again. My second week by myself I forced myself to take every call I could and to pull over every car for anything and every-

Cops Talk About Depolicing I: How They See It


thing just to get over what I know was fear. So, I know I had been depolicing and didn’t want to continue that routine; it’s not why I joined the police department. (#34)

Another officer described his experiences with depolicing as stemming from the line-of-duty shooting of a fellow police officer and the death of a deputy from another agency:

One of our officers was shot a few feet from the front doors of city hall after the suspect had killed a deputy. With only a small department in an even smaller town, we did experience depolicing for a few days after this incident—to the point that other departments covered our city and parts of the county. After approximately four or five days after the incident, things were back to normal. (#15)

Based on the literature reviewed, these particular examples are unique descriptions of depolicing, but they are, especially to these officers, legitimate forms of the phenomenon. The rhetoric surrounding depolicing deals mostly with police officers’ reaction to things that might cause indirect harm, whereas these officers detailed situations of direct personal injury as the cause of behaviors associated with depolicing. Although these officers might have a different understanding of the causes of depolicing, the latter officer (#15) did go on to describe another example that is very much in line with the literature on depolicing: On the other hand, a few years ago I was sued, along with a couple of other officers, for a use-of-force incident. I can personally attest, after I learned we were being sued, it changed my work ethic and thought process for a couple of years. The thought was in the back of my head, What if? Will I get sued again? What happens if I do get sued again? These were real thoughts and fears, and it affected the way I did my job on a day-to-day basis. I did not completely stop and become a door rattler, but it did change my thought process and actions to a degree. (#15)

Another police officer relayed his personal circumstances surrounding several occasions in which he withdrew from proactive policing:

Depolicing is absolutely a real phenomenon in today’s police organizations. I have experienced it as a consequence of a number


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

of events. At my previous department there was a period of depolicing that stemmed from some very harsh critical analysis of scene and case management. There began to be an attitude that the little you did, the better off you were, as you were not as likely to be heavily criticized or labeled negatively. Some of these occurrences also stemmed from a very botched promotional process that took over seven years to remedy. (#28)

These officers’ personal experiences with depolicing cut across states, ages, years of experience, and the type of agency served. The officers whose personal experiences have so far been described (#05, #15, #28, #30) came from four different states; they spanned three age groups, numbers of years’ experience, and types of agency, which included municipal, university, and railroad police. All four of these officers were male, but it appears the depolicing phenomenon is no different for female police officers. In one example, the depolicing stemmed from the fact the officer was female, while in the second example the policy was unrelated to sex. The first female officer explained,

I worked for a department where I was typically on shift alone. If I had an assigned shift partner, it was almost always a sergeant that was lazy. I was the only and first female officer at this department. Because of my gender, I was essentially not trustworthy to work with men. For a while, I did get a shift partner who was awesome. I became close friends with him and his wife. We worked well together. We split up report calls and helped each other. I finally felt happy within this department. Then he was moved to another shift, and I got the lazy sergeant back. He would not leave his office except to take meals. He was usually unable to be found when I needed a cover unit. I had to begin to rely on the agencies that neighbored us. The entire situation made me unhappy. I got to the point where I didn’t want to come to work. I didn’t want to take calls. I didn’t want to associate with the community. I would literally just shut down and sit in my car. My issue wasn’t so much that I was suffering from a fear with the public, but more like a fear from within the agency. I think this qualifies as depolicing. I actually did attempt to discuss this issue with multiple people. It was addressed with the chief, sergeant, as well as the HR [human resources] director. They were not willing to correct the situation. In fact, the situation got worse because I addressed it. I think they saw me as someone who was going to

Cops Talk About Depolicing I: How They See It


file a lawsuit—which was not something I ever considered. I chose to leave the department pretty quickly thereafter. (#27)

The other female police officer who reported a personal experience with depolicing worked for a university police department. She described her experience of almost the entire police department depolicing when she told this story:

In 2011, a former ________ police officer left the campus to respond to an officer-down call at the Greyhound bus station downtown. The bus station is roughly three miles from the university. Subsequently the officer left his assigned patrol post on campus and failed to advise dispatch and the on-duty supervisor. An hour later, the officer contacts the on-duty supervisor by phone and advises his off-campus location. There were only two officers left on campus. The supervisor, bound by policy, has to report the officer’s actions to the chain of command. Three hours later the chain of command responds to campus, and the officer is placed on administrative leave. Roughly two weeks later, the officer was terminated for dereliction of duty. Following the termination of the officer the entire police department, as well as university administrators, was subjected to harsh criticisms from law enforcement, the general public, and the media. This incident was one of the most stressful periods of my law enforcement career. Every officer, including myself and the supervisors, shut completely down. The officers only responded to specific dispatched calls for service. There was little or no initiative for proactive policing. No traffic stops, no agency assists. Officers were hesitant in leaving campus to go to public places like restaurants in fear of being embarrassed or ridiculed. The uniform during this time did not represent anything good. It appeared as though the entire community was angry with us even though neither I nor any of the other officers terminated the officer. (#47)

The police officers who admitted to having personally experienced depolicing came from a wide array of agencies and had varying personal characteristics. Their circumstances and explanations for why they had personally depoliced also varied greatly. One thing did not vary, however: the behaviors themselves. The police officers spoke of a change in their thinking and behavior (#15 and #28); they developed the attitude that they were better off not doing anything, especially


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

anything proactive (#05, #28, and #47); and while most described having shut down, two of the officers actually used that phrase (#27 and #47). While these were the lived experiences of those officers who admitted to having experienced depolicing firsthand, one must wonder if those who witnessed other officers experiencing depolicing would describe the phenomenon in a similar manner. Let’s see.

“I Personally Observed Many Coworkers . . . Start to Partake in Depolicing” (#39)

Although some of the officers admitted to depolicing themselves (23 percent), many more stated they had firsthand knowledge of others exhibiting the phenomenon (42 percent). I should reiterate that some of these officers may themselves have depoliced but for personal reasons chose to conceal this and only talk of others having done so. In addition, it should be further noted that qualitative research does not exclude hearsay (Copes and Miller 2015). In these interviews, the officers explained they had firsthand knowledge of other police officers depolicing and offered their personal explanations for the reasons. To these officers, depolicing by other officers in their department, on their shifts, and in their units was real. One officer with 25 years of law enforcement experience explained his perceptions of depolicing in this manner: Depolicing. I believe that depolicing does exist, in that I have experienced the phenomenon in two separate police agencies where I was employed. In both agencies, depolicing occurred after a significant major event or issues came to the forefront. Most of these involved what was perceived as a questionable use-of-force incident and what the rank and file saw as a politically correct, knee-jerk, save-my-political-ass reaction on the part of administrators. Basically, the officers felt like at the first sign of conflict, the powers-that-be were all too happy to throw the officer to the wolves, get themselves as far away from the officer as they could, and distance the agency from the officer in an effort to save themselves from ridicule or any inference of impropriety on their part. It is a very real phenomenon. (#08)

Two of the police officers who were aware of depolicing in their departments both believed it was associated with the post-Ferguson climate in America. After the death of Michael Brown, a negative police

Cops Talk About Depolicing I: How They See It


sentiment spread across the country and may have motivated police officers to withdraw. This is also what led many to argue for a Ferguson effect: that depolicing by police officers left some American cities less protected, leading to higher crime rates. Regardless of whether the Ferguson effect is real or not, from these police officers’ perspective, the post-Ferguson climate led to depolicing in their agencies. The first officer, from a large metropolitan police department, explained,

I believe that depolicing is a recent phenomenon in our police departments. I feel that every police department within the United States experiences some of their employees involved with depolicing. I strongly believe that depolicing does come in spurts and mainly after a widespread case involving an officer or law enforcement agent getting indicted or involved in some sort of scrutiny criminal case. One example is the Ferguson case. This case went viral with different views stating that the officer was wrong and others believing the officer was justified in his actions. This case brought about many protests and built a separation between the police and the neighborhood citizens. Many citizens around the United States were not fond of the police and did not want them to interact with them. After this case, I personally observed many coworkers in my law enforcement agency start to partake in depolicing due to this case. Many felt that due to the public-wide concern about this racial issue, they felt that it would be better to just decrease their police-to-citizen interactions to reduce their risk of being complained on or from being televised on the media for being considered a racial officer. (#39)

The other officer, from a small county sheriff’s office, explained,

I have a perfect example of how a situation can make an officer hesitant to perform at their job. It is such a shame that events have occurred to make such a divide, an “us against them” attitude with so many of the public. There was a situation where I live that happened a couple months after Ferguson where a police officer was called to a domestic disturbance call and ended up shooting a suspect before he shot his live-in girlfriend. The officer saved the woman’s life, and she actually praised the officer that day. Lo and behold, a few days later some activists were in town from _________ trying to determine if the suspect—who did die—was in fact really armed and going to shoot the female. The woman tried to change her story and say that he wasn’t going to shoot her.


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

Things got a little worked up for a while during the investigation, and the officer was put on leave. We all depoliced after that. Thankfully, the evidence did show that her initial statement and that of the officer was the true facts. It’s just disappointing that officers who do their job go under such criticism and scrutiny. When that female needed help, who did she call? Who saved her life? Yet who was she so quickly ready to throw blame to? I think because of events like this depolicing is a real scenario today. (#29)

In addition to observing depolicing occurring for reasons cited in the literature on depolicing and in post-Ferguson America, some police officers also explained how fellow officers were observed depolicing for unique reasons. One officer described it as a reaction to a line-of-duty death when he articulated the following:

Personally, the only thing I’ve seen that is similar to depolicing is after an organizational line-of-duty death. A few years ago, we had an officer shot and killed during a self-initiated traffic stop. Because we are a small, tight-knit department, in the following months, officers had a similar depolicing effect, and officers would only respond to calls for service and avoid self-initiated contact with citizens—a similar effect under different circumstances. So maybe it is something that can occur after a jobrelated traumatic event? (#14)

In another case, a police officer from a large municipal police department described how depolicing occurred among many of the older officers in his department: When I first got on the department, I would see the older officers and think, “Man, they are lazy!” Then I realized that the majority of them got in trouble for no fault of their own and were depolicing. They had good intentions, and whether it was a bad decision at the time or someone just flat out lied, they suffered the consequences. I think for the most part, people become police officers because they want to make a difference. No one does it for the money or hours, because they are horrible. But then throughout their career, they get beaten down by the negative treatment they receive from the community and/or their supervisors. The funny thing about police work is that if you don’t do anything—depolicing—you can’t get in trouble. Its only when you do something, whether it be proactive or just regular work, you can get in trouble for it. (#42)

Cops Talk About Depolicing I: How They See It


A female officer from a county sheriff’s agency related,

I know firsthand that this phenomenon is real in policing because we have experienced it within my agency. My agency had a chief that became involved in a lawsuit, and the plaintiff was paid a large sum of money in a settlement. Since then, he was demoted to a captain and his entire style of policing changed—depolicing—which in turn affected many other officers. Much less was expected from the deputies as far as selfinitiated activity. (#46)

The police officers who reported firsthand knowledge of officers in their agencies depolicing described very similar experiences to those who reported having depoliced themselves. While the reasons for the depolicing were again widely varied—including everything from line-of-duty deaths to police shootings, from lawsuits to administrative issues—the behavioral outcomes appeared to be the same. Officers reported that their fellow officers became more disengaged in their work (#39, #42), were no longer proactive in their policing practices (#09, #14, #33, #42), and only took calls for service so as to minimize their contacts and chances of experiencing negative situations (#14, #33). So, while the perceived experience of fellow officers engaging in depolicing and the behaviors associated with the phenomenon were the same, the reasons it occurred differed vastly. The next chapter addresses this latter issue; for now the point to make is that whether depolicing themselves or seeing others wrestling with depolicing, officers report both the phenomenon’s presence and its associated behaviors similarly.

“I Don’t See This as Widespread but . . . ” (#33)

The police officers so far have conveyed that depolicing is real. One police officer further explained how depolicing poses a danger not only to the police but to the community as well: The concept of depolicing is, in my opinion, both real and invasive, and is more of a common phenomenon than most agencies are likely comfortable admitting to. The danger to the community—and to officers on the street—associated with depolicing is very real. Depolicing leads to apathy, apathy can lead to routine,


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

and routine, in the officer’s world, can often lead to death. It is a serious and often misdiagnosed, misunderstood, and, in my opinion, unaddressed phenomenon that can have serious consequences if not immediately recognized and addressed. (#08)

This officer’s statement raises the question of the nature and scope of depolicing in America. Is the phenomenon isolated to just a few individuals in a police department? Or is it experienced by various groups within policing, such as those assigned to certain shifts, sectors, or units? Still further, when experienced by an individual police officer, does it have a contagious effect? And do the behaviors of depolicing spread to other officers by way of social interaction? The officers were asked about the scope of depolicing as they saw it within their police departments. One officer described how he believed depolicing was primarily an individual phenomenon by which an officer responds to some event. He shared this story about an officer he knew:

Depolicing does exist, but I have not seen it go outside of the officer experiencing the traumatic experience. My example is a person who used to be a co-worker of mine a long time ago. This person was involved in a use of force that went wrong. Without going into specific details, the officer used force against a prisoner who was already restrained. The agency attempted to fire the individual, but they were able to retain their job on a technicality during the civil service process. From that point on, the officer did the bare minimum and began the depolicing process. The officer told me that they were not going to put themselves in a situation where they could get in trouble again, so the less contacts they had with the public, the better. The officer would not conduct traffic stops and did everything he could not to have contact with the public. (#33)

Another officer, with nearly three decades of police experience, also believed that depolicing was isolated to individuals and was usually short-lived: I believe that depolicing happens, but I feel it is within a couple of people during very specific time periods. I have observed employees that were disciplined for one reason or another and get upset for a few days—or a couple of weeks—and then just stop everything. Over a period of time, if their coworkers didn’t

Cops Talk About Depolicing I: How They See It


make it end because they were having to pull the extra slack, then the supervisors stepped up and put a stop to it. (#26)

A female police officer who worked for a county agency agreed that depolicing is more typical of individuals than of groups and generally short-lived:

I have worked at an agency in the past where several officers were involved in civil litigation. These officers suffered what I associated with as a drop in morale. I would not say that their interactions decreased, however, they became overly conscious about their interactions within the community. It was almost as if they were walking on eggshells—temporarily at least. I would say that this likely happens more to individual officers than an entire group. Each officer is going to react differently to being involved in a situation like this. (#27)

Another county sheriff’s deputy, however, believed that while the phenomenon itself may be limited to just a few individuals, the ramifications of officers exhibiting these behaviors can, in fact, be felt by all. He explained his beliefs in this manner:

I don’t see this as widespread but it definitely affects more than just the officer committing the depolicing. Other officers get overworked and stressed out due to the officer’s ineffectiveness and unwillingness to have public contacts. The root cause according to the officer was the agency’s attempt to terminate them because of use of force. They still, to this day, dislike the organization and expresses discontent for the agency, yet still remains working for this agency. (#33)

While there are many cases of individuals engaging in depolicing, it is perhaps not surprising that those officers can influence the other officers they work alongside. On the one hand, other officers may have to pick up the workload of the police officer who is disengaged. On the other hand, the disengaged officer may provide his colleagues with an example of how to respond to some external event, either real or perceived, that they may one day face themselves. One female officer believed that depolicing is no longer limited to just one or two police officers: “Now, though, it’s not the one officer here, one officer there sort of thing. I think it’s now more a climate within the department, or at least those of us still on the street” (#60).


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

Another police officer said depolicing can be a small-group phenomenon, usually among a close-knit group of officers. He shared this story to explain his perspective:

I’m not aware of any widespread and identifiable incidences, but anecdotally, I did see some examples of small groups of officers deliberately taking a less active role and attempting to encourage others to do the same. In the late 1980s my department came under a great deal of scrutiny, and there was a small clique who took the attitude that the more you did, the greater your chance to get involved in something that would get you disciplined or fired. This small group—maybe 10 officers on a deep-night’s shift— would engage in minor harassment of anyone they felt was doing too much proactive police work. However, the majority of the department pulled their weight and did what needed to be done, so I don’t believe this group achieved anything outside of garnering a reputation for being lazy. (#09)

Another officer also articulated how depolicing may be a smallgroup phenomenon:

At our department, recently, we had a group of officers have a simple dress code issue spiral to the point of a criminal trespass warning [CTW]. Our officers did everything they could to handle it peacefully, but in the end they couldn’t get a word in edgewise because the person would not stop yelling. The next day the administration of the community I work in dropped the CTW after he complained he was singled out due to race. One of the officers was the same race as he was by the way. So now, as officers, how are we to approach similar situations knowing we will not be supported by the officials in charge? This definitely affects how officers did their job and what situations they choose to put blinders on for. (#32)

The officer who felt that depolicing was both “real and invasive” (#08) also noted that it can very well be a group phenomenon: The results I saw were blue flu, rapidly declining citation issuance numbers, fewer arrests, and officers only responding to calls for service. In both agencies, self-initiated activity plummeted. No one wanted to be the next person in the crosshairs. The easiest way to do that was by doing nothing unless one was dispatched to it. Even then, response times were inordinately slow, probably in the hope

Cops Talk About Depolicing I: How They See It


that everyone would be gone or that the situation in question would have worked itself out by the time the officers got there. Not much effort was made to locate either complainants or “hooks” during these instances. (#08)

This officer believed, based on his experience, that whole shifts can depolice. He concluded that it was more common than most people in and out of policing are willing to admit: “I believe it is a very common response and occurrence to many of the issues [today]” (#08).

“It Ain’t Happening in My Department” (#58)

Four police officers in this study reported having no knowledge of depolicing. Two of them had never heard the term, and all four explained that it was not possible for depolicing to occur in their department. While these four were the exception, I report some of their responses here to examine the reasons they give for it not existing. One officer stated, “This is the first time I have ever heard this term” (#18). After the phenomenon was described to him he replied,

After hearing about it, I can honestly say that I have never seen the phenomenon occur in my jurisdiction. I can say that there might be fluctuations in enforcement based on situations and circumstances ongoing in the community and the agency. For example, when a new chief comes aboard, some officers increase their performance, and others pull it back because they don’t want to get any negative attention like complaints. At best, the officers are just less proactive and more reactive. Never would I have characterized those fluctuations in the context of depolicing. (#18)

Although this officer acknowledged there were ebbs and flows in enforcement, he never saw this as amounting to depolicing. Another officer, when asked about depolicing, stated, “Never heard of it” (#21). After then hearing it described, he flatly stated, I am not sure that is possible anymore. At least in our department it would be hard to do that because of the MVS system. That’s the Mobile Video System. Each patrol car has a dashboard camera and we are hooked up to a body mike. At the end of every shift our video gets submitted electronically to the chief ’s office and it is


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

reviewed. So the discretion of the officer has largely been taken away. It would be impossible to not patrol or self-initiate calls, for the chief ’s office would see that the officer is not doing anything and would call them out for not doing their job. The technology has changed things a lot in policing. (#21)

The first officer who had never heard of depolicing (#18) served in a relatively large agency (170 officers) and had 11 years of law enforcement experience. The second officer had six years of law enforcement experience and worked for an only slightly smaller agency (130 officers). The amount of experience may explain the more forgiving answer of the former compared to that of the latter. This limited experience may also explain the belief of one officer, who had heard of depolicing, that it could not occur in his department. He had two years of experience in a slightly larger police department (355 officers):

I’ve heard about depolicing, but it ain’t happening in my department. We are so tracked it is unbelievable. You got trackers on the cars, cameras on the dashboards, and open mikes and body cameras on us. Being a cop is like being that dude in the big brother book. Not to mention all of the paperwork we have to do and upload electronically. Plus you have the daily quotas—don’t call it a quota though, you’ll get your ass in a ringer—it is the daily activity report. We have to have so many points a day and everything has a value. So I have to get my points. If I want a raise, I have to get lots of points. So I do my job, I get the points, and I get a raise. You get complaints, sure, but I get my raise. It sucks being tracked, it sucks being watched all the time, but heck, if it’s not the soups [supervisors], it’s the citizens. Every time I show up on a scene they bring out their cell phones and start filming. I’m not getting away with nut’in. I have no discretion, but I ain’t gonna be able to depolice. (#58)

These officers appear to work in agencies where the methods of supervision prevent the possibility of officers disengaging from work and refusing to engage in proactive police work. While they are the exception and not the rule among the 60 police officers interviewed, they do raise some insightful observations as to what might mitigate the depolicing phenomenon. This in turn raises the issue of further

Cops Talk About Depolicing I: How They See It


supervision diminishing police discretion—a debate not dealt with here but an important one nonetheless.

“Depolicing . . . Is Representative of a Child Throwing [a Tantrum]” (#31) While some officers did not believe depolicing could occur in policing today, others felt that when the behavior did occur, it was entirely wrong. Indeed, most of the officers interviewed were not supportive of the depolicing phenomenon, but they voiced an understanding of why police officers engage in such behavior. Many, however, vociferously voiced their opinion of police officers who engaged in depolicing. One of the deputies in the study likened it to a child throwing a tantrum: Depolicing, to me, is representative of a child throwing his or herself on the ground in the middle of the grocery store because mom or dad wouldn’t let them have a candy bar. The actions of the child send glares of distaste and anger for the child’s actions even if the child has never reacted in this manner before. The parent—the administration—is seen as unable to control the child’s behavior and next time the adults meet in the store, this image of the parent’s lack of control may bring a lack of respect or evenness to the conversation. Officers’ actions of depolicing in response to unagreed outcomes puts a bad taste in the community, leading to further backlash from the community when salary or police resources need to be addressed. (#31)

Another municipal police officer stated the same sentiment in a different way: “I don’t subscribe to the concept. They signed on to the job, they need to do the job. It’s kind of like the blue flu. They don’t want to go to work, they’re upset about something, and so they won’t do the job. And now, with what is going on these days, and with the community against them, I can see more of it going on. I hope that doesn’t happen” (#56). These officers clearly seem to split with most of the other officers in the study. Most of the other officers do not look highly upon their own depolicing behaviors or those of other officers, but they understand why they occur. These officers are not only highly critical but condemn the officers who are depolicing, including themselves. A difference clearly exists among how officers perceive depolicing; the nature of that difference, however, is not yet entirely clear.


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

“Making the Greatest Headway . . . with the Community” (#18)

Throughout the interviews, nearly all the officers spoke of depolicing in negative terms. They described it as a far more widespread problem than most people are willing to admit. This is largely in keeping with the literature on depolicing (see Chapter 2), with the exception of the original concept of depolicing as a positive that would lead communities to engage in “self-help” (see Black and Baumgartner 1980; Black and Baumgartner 1987). Two officers interviewed suggested depolicing can have a positive effect. The two vignettes described below should be seen as cautionary tales. Both are examples of depolicing yielding a positive result in the wake of a major event, and all the police officers in the agency described were engaged in depolicing at the time. The benefits of depolicing in these cases were seen through the eyes of the police officers without any corroborating evidence. That said, however, they do suggest that at least some consideration should be given to Black and Baumgartner’s (1987) ideas. The first officer worked for a municipal agency and had over 10 years of experience in the department. As he related,

When hurricane __________ hit, the city staff and chief ’s decisions towards the police were amplified due to the difficulties and stress everyone was under. We were worried about the possibility of the structure we were in falling on top of us. The basic needs were at the forefront. After the storm was over and we hit the streets hard to address rescue, body recovery, and loitering, as well as opening pathways back into the island as we were cut off for a while except by air. I recall after a month of that—working 12-hour shifts, six days a week, all of the politics and recovery— all the departments in the city went into the react mode due to fatigue. As well as out of a sense of the notion that there was already enough destruction, so we were focused on helping propel, reestablish, and rebuild their lives. Petty crimes and issues were not the focus. The community and the police department came together so even though stats may have reflected that we weren’t doing much legally speaking, we probably were making the greatest headway as far as our relations with the community than we had over the past 20 years prior. We are still riding that wave, and fluctuations have occurred in times since, as well. (#18)

Cops Talk About Depolicing I: How They See It


The officer believed that while having to focus on basic needs, the department had no time to heavily enforce the law. This form of depolicing, in which officers shift what they are proactively engaged in, caused the community to see the police as a positive rather than a negative force. Another police officer had a similar experience, but it came in the wake of a riot rather than a natural disaster.

Let me explain from my own experience. When I was a young cop, not long on the force, the department was heavily engaged in community policing. We had a lot of programs aimed at the youth, the elderly, and particularly the minority communities where a lot of the crimes occurred. The chief was an advocate for community policing and was widely known as one of the leading c.o.p. [communityoriented policing] chiefs. Then things went bad with one traffic stop. Two officers, both of them white, one was a female officer, stopped a car with two black suspects in a stolen vehicle. When they approached, they ordered the occupants to show their hands. They didn’t. Then the car started moving, and they ordered the individual to stop. The officer was hit, the other officer tried to break the window to get at the passenger, but the car turned toward her. The other officer opened fire, and the suspect was killed. A crowd had gathered, and things turned real ugly. Bottles and rocks were thrown, and even though more officers arrived on scene, the crowd wouldn’t disperse, and we were outnumbered. Then all hell broke out, and all that community-relations stuff went to shit. There were fires all over town, a lot of looting, another officer was shot, and more [police officers] had to come out and back us up. When the officers were no-billed [when no formal charges were filed by the grand jury], the riots started back up. The chief tried to work with the community leaders, but the cops on the street weren’t having it, and so we stopped being proactive. Nearly all of us felt that way, and it wasn’t like we really had to say anything; it was just we figured if they didn’t care, we didn’t care either. Arrests were down, ticket writing was down, and we all just ignored the rougher neighborhoods where most of the rioting took place. Then a funny thing happened. The relationship between the police and community improved. And I’m not talking the white neighborhoods, I’m talking the minority neighborhoods. It was like because we left them alone, they liked us more. Crime still occurred there, and we still responded, but we were not as proactive as before. Now, the city will tell you it’s because they


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

worked with the community leaders and dumped a lot of money into economic development, but the reality is that was more for the benefit of the middle to upper class—the white folks—than it was for midtown’s blacks. I think what is called depolicing today is what was responsible for improved relations with the minority communities. Instead of being proactive, we became more reactive and pretty much left them alone. I think they liked being left alone. Since then, I haven’t really seen it as much. I know some officers get burned and they withdraw. I think there was some of that going on after we lost three officers in a short time period, but I think others reacted by getting more aggressive. I’m not sure. In my current position, I don’t see as much of what is happening on the street as I used to. (#55)

While these officers offer some support for the original belief that depolicing would provide a benefit to the community, among those interviewed they are assuredly outliers. Again, perhaps Black and Baumgartner’s (1987) hypothesis should not be dismissed outright but given further consideration.


The interviews with the 60 police officers from across the United States, in a wide array of agencies with varying sizes and functions and across many personal characteristics, suggest for the most part that depolicing is a real phenomenon in American policing. Many of the police officers interviewed gave personal accounts of their own depolicing, while others described how many of their fellow officers were doing so. Some of the officers suggested the phenomenon was limited to a few individuals; others believed it was limited to certain individuals but impacted other police officers; still others suggested it was or can be a group phenomenon. While some did not like the interviewer calling depolicing a “problem,” nearly all the interviewees described it as something that has a negative impact on the police officer, police department, and community. Two police officers, however, presented examples of depolicing that they believed yielded positive results. The lived experience of these police officers suggests that depolicing is real and that the scope can range from individuals to larger groups of police officers. Given that at least for these officers the depolicing phenomenon is real, the questions to the interviewees next centered on why it occurs.

5 Cops Talk About Depolicing II: Who’s to Blame?

The diverse literature on depolicing (see Chapter 2) posits several key reasons for why it occurs, including riots and consent decrees. The discussion of riots is very limited among the officers interviewed in this study, and most of those references pertain to the news coverage of events in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland. In addition, as none of the police officers in this study worked for agencies operating under a consent decree, that topic was never mentioned as a cause of depolicing. But the interviewees did discuss two additional causes often cited in the literature—racial profiling and civil suits—corroborating the literature’s listing of both of these as reasons that officers depolice. But the reasons officers cited for depolicing went far beyond those commonly discussed in the literature. The officers interviewed mentioned a wide array of causes, many centered on citizens, citizen complaints, and community backlashes against the police. A few also mentioned the role government plays in influencing community backlashes, particularly in New York City. Other officers asserted that the willingness to depolice lies with the individual police officer, particularly his or her personal motivation, ethics, and accountability; many stated that it has to do with an officer’s age and that depolicing is more common among younger officers. Still other officers pointed to problems within police departments, discussing how their nebulously described “agency” caused 79


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

them to depolice, as did their supervisors, unfair discipline, Internal Affairs investigations, and egregious departmental policies, with use-of-force policies mentioned most frequently. Many of the officers interviewed also indicated that major critical incidents had triggered depolicing. Many who cited civil suits explained that everything from fear of having a civil suit filed against themselves to seeing other police officers being sued could elicit this reaction. Another external factor mentioned was race, specifically racial profiling. Race, however, was not as widely discussed among the officers interviewed as it is in the extant literature on depolicing. Several other factors the officers alluded to as causes of depolicing were legislative changes in the law, the use of technology— mostly cell phones, dashboard cameras, and body cameras—and the media. This chapter explores each of these factors through the police officers’ own words as they describe what they believe are the causes of depolicing behavior in American policing today.

“It Happens in Many Different Ways and for Many Different Reasons” (#57)

When asked why the phenomenon of depolicing occurs, many of the police officers listed or described a multitude of factors. The first police officer interviewed gave two of the main explanations seen in the literature—civil liability and public scrutiny—then added additional factors that may cause an officer to disengage. “Although being the subject of liability and negative scrutiny by the public and the department can be the catalyst for depolicing, it may also be based on other related professional frustrations such as conflicting public and departmental expectations, vague objectives, and the realization the police have limited impact on the overall rates of crime” (#01). Many of the police officers cited two primary factors time and time again: civil liability and citizen complaints. One of the interviewees, the only federal police officer in the study, explained, “It is a function of individual professional survival to avoid the harms of civil liability or citizen complaints encountered by an officer or observed encounters by colleagues” (#51). A municipal officer echoed the same sentiment in a different manner: “Mostly it comes from lawsuits, citizens complaining, stuff like that, you know?

Cops Talk About Depolicing II: Who’s to Blame?


When the supervisors get in your shit, that’s when it really kicks in. Know what I mean? That’s when they don’t want to do nuthin. Nuthin to bring no attention on ’em. That’s bad news, man. Cops not doin’ nuthin ain’t gettin’ the job done. It makes it dangerous for the rest of us out on the street” (#59). Officer #59 also cited problems with supervisors as another possible cause of depolicing. A deputy sheriff from a county police agency also noted the issue with supervisors and took it even further: Depolicing is a real phenomenon that appears to be the first-line officer’s method of actively disagreeing and disengaging from proactive discretionary actions of police. The action can involve a single officer after an arguable reprimand, a single shift in disagreement of their supervisor’s actions or inaction, and/or the entire agency revolting against the government council or disagreement with media perception of a major civil litigation or possible officer indictment. (#31)

A female municipal police officer expressed the same sentiment when she articulated that a change came because of the shooting and follow-on riots in Ferguson. She explained depolicing before that particular incident: “I think before, when it was one officer or another, it was more of an individual thing. So, it was caused by a complaint, a supervisor coming down hard on them for something, a lawsuit” (#60). Then she discussed the phenomenon after Ferguson: “Now, the facts that it is felt by everyone on the street makes me think it is the political climate” (#60). Another female police officer, who serves as a constable, also believed the post-Ferguson environment has led to more officers depolicing based on an article that mentioned the phenomenon. She was clearly influenced by the article, but her own experience came through when she explained some of the other causes of depolicing.

I believe that depolicing can happen under several circumstances. Yes, I believe it can happen after being disciplined and after a traumatic event. That is why you are typically taken off patrol and given administrative leave following a major incident. But I recently read an article that talked about depolicing as it applies to the latest nationwide events involving police being targeted, even off duty. In some instances, I don’t think it has much to do with that officer’s ethics but rather the frustration


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

of being targeted and constantly judged by the public. This career is unique in a lot of ways, but one particular way is that we are constantly held to a higher standard by the public. We are one of the only careers that is highlighted, a lot of the times negatively, in the media. That frustration only, having one officer’s mistakes affect the careers of police across the nation, is sometimes a difficult pill to swallow. So I think depolicing can be applied in a lot of different ways, on both micro and macro level. (#38)

Police officer #57 listed many factors he saw as causing depolicing: “It happens in many different ways and for many different reasons. Lawsuits are a big one. The feelings of abandonment from the department. Sometimes the changes to laws or department policies can have detrimental effects on the police because they show that those making the laws and policies don’t care about the cops on the street” (#57). Just these few short statements about the causes of officers engaging in workplace withdrawal cite civil liability, public scrutiny, departmental issues, citizen complaints, supervisors, local government, the media, traumatic events, being disciplined, and changes in the law. Thus far more factors cause police officers to disengage than the limited literature would suggest. To explore these multiple reasons for depolicing, I needed to categorize the responses to better understand them. To do this, I first grouped many of the responses into a citizen-related category. The second category related to characteristics of the police officers themselves that certainly cause them to depolice. The next category included factors related to the agency—or the police department. The fourth and final category includes factors external to the citizen, police, or police department. I should mention here that these categories are not mutually exclusive, and the police officers never talked about them as if they were. The purpose of categorization is to simply assist in making sense of the police officers’ narratives describing the various causes of depolicing. Also note that the quotes used for each of the categories were not the only quotes related to these topics. I selected those that best represented the nuances of why the police officers felt a particular factor was a cause. For instance, while many saw citizen complaints as a causative factor of depolicing, they did not all necessarily agree about why it was a cause.

Cops Talk About Depolicing II: Who’s to Blame?


“Officers Are Human and That Is What the General Public Fails to Comprehend” (#44)

Many of the police officers interviewed took a very broad view of the causes of depolicing. This was evident when they discussed the problems involving the citizens they policed and the social relationship they had developed with them. One young deputy sheriff argued that depolicing derives from the failure of our social institutions. “With the general decline of institutions of social control, police have become more involved in general discipline of children to arguments over who gets the last parking spot at the gas station. Overall, legal remedies in the public’s eye have become the go-to for correcting a discrepancy. This concept holds true for police agencies as well” (#31). The police have to deal with more and more of society’s problems, but those problems are no longer being resolved in a communal way. Rather, society resorts to legal actions to resolve their issues. This has led to workplace disengagement on the part of the police because the less contact with citizens, the less the risk of being sued. Another police officer echoed this sentiment in a different way. He argued that the community has lost sight of the communal relationship between the police and the public. In his view citizens have come to view the police as nothing more than automatons. Yes, officers are human and that is what the general public fails to comprehend. Every single person will eventually make a mistake at some point in their life. Officers should be held at a higher standard, but people should also be aware that no one is perfect. It can take a jury or judge a week to make a decision on a case, while an officer has a split second to make a decision in a life or death situation. Everyone can Monday quarterback. (#44)

A female police officer with 20 years of experience in policing echoed some of these same sentiments, but she felt the need to note that when police officers disengage, they are not doing it to punish the community. The realities of depolicing is that this phenomenon is not intentionally done to harm, deprive or punish the public; it is more of a time to step back and see the big picture. To evaluate and make more cautious decisions will help us [police officers] realize what public interactions are really necessary. Depolicing is not a problem


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

because the police will always be available if and when the public needs them, but the public will have to make the first step. Nothing can really be done to end depolicing because it is something that happens when we [police officers] are placed in a position of threat. No one wants to see their picture and name all over the news so depolicing is like a precaution for law enforcement. (#46)

In a sense, she here echoed the original meaning of the term depolicing (Black and Baumgartner 1980; Black and Baumgartner 1987), which held that it may be healthy for police officers to depolice. Doing so provides them a chance to step back and consider which encounters with the public are necessary and which should be discontinued or severely limited. However, another police officer, who did not believe depolicing is intentionally done to “harm, deprive, or punish the public” (#46), did believe the end result is the same: “Depolicing is not meant to punish the community, but rather a way of slowing down and evaluating. However, it definitely punishes the community” (#42). Some of the officers asserted that certain communities are influenced by what is happening nationally as conveyed by the media, which may lead to friction between the police and the public. One university police officer had seen this occur on his campus:

Depolicing factors filter to all those associated with a particular community, whether we are talking about a national issue like Ferguson, a state issue, or some more local issue that arises due to local political attitudes or district attorney prosecution habits. Citizens start to pick up on what the police will act on and what they won’t, criminals start to realize where the line is drawn by law enforcement, and law enforcement officers can become involved in internal conflicts over how to police with blurred lines. (#32)

The officer articulated an interesting dynamic that exists between the police and the public, with the criminals often creating instability between the two. When something occurs at the local, state, or national level to disrupt that balance, then all will react in some manner to protect themselves. For the police, depolicing may simply be the manner in which they insulate themselves from a temporary instability in the relationship between the police and the public, which is reminiscent of Frank Rudy Cooper’s see-saw effect. However, it is believed that criminals sense this instability and take advantage of it when it arises.

Cops Talk About Depolicing II: Who’s to Blame?


“You’re Going to Get Complaints” (#10)

The police officers interviewed often mentioned the problem of citizen complaints. For them, these were a routine part of the job, and they accepted that more proactive officers are more likely to get complaints. A female police officer with a municipal agency explained this sentiment: “Simple statistics would indicate that the more contact you have, the greater the potential of someone being dissatisfied with your performance. That coupled with a litigious society increases, in my opinion, the number of potential complaints officers receive” (#40). While the police officers all seemed to recognize the need for people to be able to complain when they feel wronged, they also found it highly frustrating because in their view many citizen complaints are unfair or malicious. One female state police officer stoically explained, “I’ve had a few complaints. A tenured game warden once told me that if you’re out working, you’re going to get complaints and to not expect to go through this job free and clear. I guess I remember that when I get told about complaints and just try to do the ethical thing in situations” (#10). With regard to false complaints as a causative factor of depolicing, she did add, “And as for depolicing, when false complaints come in this should be a time that we learn from this, however, sometimes others in the agency look down upon the officer for no reason” (#10). Police officers’ belief that they are receiving too many complaints, especially those they see as unwarranted, can possibly lead to workplace withdrawal. Even when the complaints are verified as false, other officers may look on the officer as causing problems, hence the officer, under scrutiny by his or her peers, ceases to be proactive. One officer suggested citizen complaints cause officers to change not only their behaviors but their assignments: I believe there is nothing that can be done about depolicing; it is more prevalent than one might think. Many officers that I personally know have left patrol and transferred to a position where there is less contact with the public due to this mere reason. Officers do not want to risk their careers or [be] put through the paperwork and stress that comes along with receiving a complaint. When officers see things like this taking place within their department, they begin to second-guess themselves when it comes down to making an important decision, and this split second can get an officer seriously hurt. (#44)


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

For this officer, the ramifications of citizen complaints can lead to poor police decisionmaking, resulting in depolicing behaviors for those who remain on patrol or motivating them to transfer to assignments considered “safe.” One officer best summed up the relationship between citizen complaints and depolicing: “No citizen contact, no citizen complaints” (#57).

“We Also Had [Depolicing] Come About After a Community Backlash” (#22)

While the police officers interviewed mentioned citizen complaints as a factor in depolicing (n = 27), most did not elaborate on why that was the case. However, some raised the issue of community backlash and elaborated on it at length (n = 12). Again, this may have had much to do with the time period during which the interviews were conducted (2014–2016), those first few years after the Ferguson incident (August 9, 2014). Officer #22 explained that his agency received many citizen complaints and a community backlash after the implementation of two police strategies: zero-tolerance policing and hot-spots policing. The former rested on the notion that allowing minor crimes or some criminal activity to go unchecked leads to an increase in crime; thus police crackdowns on crime, including minor crimes, will better control community crime problems. Hot-spot policing is based on data indicating that certain locations at certain times, often involving specific people, account for much of the crime in a city, and so these hot spots receive targeted enforcement. An officer explained what happened in his agency: We also had it [depolicing] come about after a community backlash. We had implemented zero-tolerance policing, but then that policy got some really negative publicity. We later changed it to hot-spot policing, but, at the time, we were getting complaints from the community. Many of the complaints were not just from minorities, so it may not necessarily be a racial thing. In some ways this is a micro-version of it [depolicing]—it is not across the board— but individual officers just say, “I won’t do it all anymore.” (#22)

Another police officer described his agency’s experience with depolicing resulting not so much from a community backlash in the jurisdiction but from the national backlash against the police: “We haven’t experienced any major incident and, thankfully, any loss of

Cops Talk About Depolicing II: Who’s to Blame?


life. In fact, I would say our community has come out more in support of us since Ferguson and all of the other issues. It seems that the national feeling is antipolice whereas our local community is propolice. But, we are still seeing a disengagement of sorts. Officers aren’t as proactive as they were” (#52). He also explained his belief that the national sentiment is for police to back off and that depolicing should be considered acceptable. As he stated, “The thing is that [depolicing] is supposed to be okay; yet everyone is all up in arms about it” (#52). He then explained the conundrum as he saw it:

You see the liberals are all condemning the police for depolicing; yet they won’t admit the Ferguson effect is real. I think it is real because there is no other reason for some of our officers to depolice than the negative attitude toward police. But officers don’t have to be proactive. We’re supposed to have discretion. In fact, that’s the funny thing. The liberals complain we are depolicing, but if we weren’t depolicing, then they would complain we’re too aggressive. You just can’t win. (#52)

Many of the police officers spent much of their interview discussing the national community backlash that came in the wake of Ferguson, which they believed caused police officers to disengage. The following is a representative example from a female county deputy sheriff with 15 years of police experience:

Leaders of certain groups know all too well most officers do not want to be put through any of this. Even officers who have never been labeled as bad or corrupt are afraid, not physically afraid, but afraid to have one individual put them to the test, cause them to do something that will put them in the spotlight. This is exactly why the leaders of certain groups call to action and condone the riot mentality. If officers back down, then the criminal element gets to do whatever they want. The ultimate goal of these groups are not to get payback for an injustice; it is to break down law enforcement to the point where they are able to conduct their criminal activities without fear of jail or death. This mentality spreads quickly. I know I use the phrase “Catch-22” way too much in my daily life, and who would have known that a book I was forced to read in high school would become such a staple of my life? So many examples of this phrase, and in this realm it is definitely all too real.


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

Here is what happens: A person who is being accused of a crime fights with an officer, with or without a gun. That subject gets injured or killed during the struggle. This becomes an outrage, and everyone wants that officer to pay, with jail, death, and money. No one stops to look at the criminal background of the individual who is dead, no one believes the officer’s video, audio, reports, witness statements, etc. No one believes that officer’s life was in danger, when the person who came after them did not have a gun. No one believes people can die without a gun. No one believes that officer really was just protecting his own life and the life of others. Instead, they label him as a racist or murderer depending on the race of the deceased, of course. This causes everyone to have attitude and anger toward officers and causes them to try to kill other officers. Officers are again forced to protect their lives, and thus another person dies and the outrage continues. Riots begin—which really just results in a lot of people obtaining a lot of things from stores for free—and causes panic throughout that city and country, because no one can believe the officers are allowing this to happen. But the officers cannot protect anyone because those who are much higher up the food chain say things like “Give those who wished to destroy space to do that.” Officers then become disgruntled because it feels like the entire world is against them. Everyone is condoning criminal behavior and lumping all officers as racist and corrupt. Why work harder if working harder is going to wind you up in an inquest or dead, because people who think the world would be better off without officers will continue to lodge complaints whether true or not. So, officers slow down on proactive work and only wait for 911 calls [to] emerge. Then people complain because crime rates are up. If you would like to see what the world will be without officers, pull up pictures from riots. No one would feel safe, and after all is said and done, the US would look like a third-world country, and thus the military would come in, and I am certain no one wants that either. If they think cops are bad, just wait. As an officer, I do not believe depolicing is a conscious act; nor is it something that they are told to do by their superiors. It is merely a mental block. After watching one of their own being chastised, drug through hot coals and back, called everything from a racist to the scum of the earth on the news, who wants to be next? During times like now, people feel they can complain on any officer for any motion, true or not. Citizens feel as though they are in

Cops Talk About Depolicing II: Who’s to Blame?


control and based on the actions of those higher on the food chain, they are. If your mayor, chief, and even the president of the United States basically condones the behavior of the citizens, demeans the officers in public view, and does nothing to assist the officers only the public, what recourse does an officer have? They do not have a leg to stand on, so for fear of saying or doing something just the slightest bit wrong and having a citizen blow it completely out of proportion, they just slow down. If no one cares if they are making arrests or not, why work harder for nothing? (#49)

This officer is highly representative of the other officers interviewed and their anguish over what they feel is an antipolice climate in America, to which the natural reaction is depolicing. Yet many officers like officer #49 express a sense of frustration with the act of depolicing. Visibly, in their body language—facial expressions (e.g., scowls, narrowing of eyes, pressed lips, etc.), crossed arms, stressing a point by stabbing either the table or the air, or pounding the table— police officers demonstrated signs of frustration and anguish over the reality of depolicing. Many, like the officer above, justified the phenomenon even though they clearly did not like or condone it; they simply understood it. For instance, a male municipal police officer with 28 years of experience reflected,

I do believe that whatever the root of depolicing, it is a problem both to the organization as well as the community. First, we are sworn to protect and serve our communities. I don’t feel that doing only what you have to do as opposed to what’s best for the community is a problem. The citizens are getting the protection and service they deserve, and if the issue becomes deep rooted within an organization, it can tear apart the trust and partnerships that were previously forged with the community. It also can bring larger workloads on fellow employees and just delivers a black eye on the organization. (#26)

Officer #26, like so many of the other officers interviewed, did not like depolicing, but he understood it.

“Helping to Create an Anticop Atmosphere Throughout the City” (#29)

When many of the officers talked about the community backlash, they mentioned the role played by government, particularly mayors and city


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

councils. Whenever this connection was raised, all the officers mentioned what had occurred in New York City in the fall of 2014 and early 2015. When Bill de Blasio became mayor, at a time when many of the national issues centered on New York City, especially after the choking death of Eric Garner, a tension developed between him and the police. The police began to see him as siding with demonstrators and rioters and not with them. Many of the officers (n = 15) believed that this perceived antagonism on the part of the mayor had delegitimized the police and, in part, led to the assassination of two New York City police officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, on December 20, 2014. When the mayor spoke at the funeral service, many of the New York police officers turned their backs in protest of his actions. While none of the officers interviewed was from the New York Police Department (NYPD), many were familiar with the New York City incident and raised it in their interviews (n = 13). For instance, one officer interviewed, a county deputy with 15 years of experience, explained how he saw it: A prime current example is the events that have unfolded in New York City the last few months. I found a great article if you have time to read it from the National Review in response to the mayor of NYC, Bill de Blasio, slandering the city’s police department and helping to create an anticop atmosphere throughout the city. Following the high-profile Ferguson case, we all know racial tensions were on the rise as well as police scrutiny in our country. The mayor actually allowed major bridges and highways of the city to be shut down for activists chanting their desire for “dead cops” and enraged that police were the biggest threats facing young minority males. The article actually mentions broken window policing and that the mayor and the New York Times declared the siege-based tactics of broken windows policing were responsible for NYPD officers oppressing minority males. This is obviously going to lead to depolicing. With this attitude among citizens, with the added fuel from the mayor and the media, officers rightly believed that offenders would resist arrest. If this resistance led to violence, and if the suspect was in fact a minority, the arresting officer could expect absolutely no support from the mayor’s office. There are numbers to back up depolicing in this example. In the weeks following the December 20, 2014, ambush assassination of two NYPD officers, Ramos and Liu, the number of summonses written for misdemeanor and traffic offenses dropped nearly 95

Cops Talk About Depolicing II: Who’s to Blame?


percent citywide and 100 percent in many precincts. A precinct commander was quoted as saying, “We don’t want to put ourselves at risk for a city hall that is illegitimate. Why deliver public safety for an ingrate who does not support us?” This is obviously an extreme example where it is a severe widespread epidemic. (#29)

While many of the police officers echoed this sentiment, not all were in agreement with the officers’ turning their backs on the mayor at the funeral service. Approximately half of the officers (n = 7) raising the New York City issue disagreed with this behavior. Another county deputy with eight years of experience was representative of this sentiment:

I don’t agree with what the NYPD officers did to the mayor. We are held to a higher standard and while we are in public in a government-issued uniform, we need to be reminded we represent the city, county, or state we are working for, and the public knows it. If the officers were displeased with the mayor, then voice it to city council or through the patrol officers’ union. I am not saying officers do not have the right to protest against someone or something that is [un]just, but just not in an official uniform. I think what the officers did only hurt the connection with the public and made a more us-versus-them mentality. (#33)

Just as the public held various opinions of the officers’ behaviors, so too did the police officers in this study, showing just how controversial New York City and the New York Police Department had become. Whether the officers agreed or disagreed with the behaviors, none of them discounted how this type of public and political backlash could lead to depolicing among the officers.

“Depolicing Is Related in Many Ways to Motivation . . . Accountability and Ethics” (#01)

The first interview was with a municipal officer with 19 years of experience, who believed that individual officers’ character was responsible for depolicing behaviors. Although several other officers did mention the issue of individual motivation, or personal accountability and ethics, only the first interviewee developed the concept of self as causation. Early in the interview he stated, “Depolicing is related in many ways to motivation and a significant issue with police officers. It is more


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

likely to be evident amongst individual officers based on a cumulative amount of personal and professional experiences that degrades not just interactions with the public but also overall job performance” (#01). He then discussed aspects of motivation, particularly describing what does not motivate a police officer and thus leads to depolicing. Later in the interview, he explained, “Depolicing is related to accountability and ethics behavior in many ways because it’s basically officers refusing to do their jobs for any number of reasons. It is very much a real issue, but I’ve seen it happen more often than not on an individual basis or by officers in small groups/cliques” (#01).

“I Would Expect a Younger and Less Experienced Officer Would Suffer from Depolicing” (#27)

Only a few officers interviewed mentioned personal motivation, accountability, and ethics, but that was not the case when it came to the age of an officer as a cause of depolicing. Over and over again the interviewees cited the age of an officer as a major contributing factor to whether he or she would likely disengage. Many of the officers, when explaining that depolicing is more likely to occur among younger officers, couched their comments in suppositional language, such as officer #27: “I would expect a younger and less experienced officer would suffer from depolicing more frequently than an officer who is considered to be a veteran. I would consider depolicing to certainly be a problem within the police community. If this reaction continues then the entire community served by the officer will likely suffer.” Many officers in this study (n = 11) used this type of language to conjecture that younger officers were more likely to withdraw from proactive policing. Many police officers had also worked with younger officers either as instructors at the police academy or as field training officers (n = 7). These officers based their opinion not on firsthand knowledge of younger officers depolicing but rather on their sense that newer officers exhibit certain attitudes and behaviors that might catalyze depolicing. As one officer explained, I noticed a trend in the thought process of cadets out of the academy, and they were scared. I fear we are going to see a huge uptick in officer-involved injuries and deaths because this current media scare is causing these young officers to freeze. This is

Cops Talk About Depolicing II: Who’s to Blame?


a job where we are going to encounter violent people who are trying to inflict harm on both us and the general public. We will have to use force at times to keep them at bay. (#41)

In this case, the officer explained that an officer might freeze for fear not of confronting a suspect but of how the media would portray his or her actions, creating a situation harmful to either the officer or the agency. An example of this occurred in September 2016, when an officer was beaten unconscious by a man at an accident scene. When asked why she did not draw her weapon, she replied that “she didn’t want her family or the department to go through the scrutiny the next day on the national news” (D. Hawkins 2016). Other officers spoke of younger officers as being more likely to depolice because they tend to be more aggressive and proactive in their enforcement and thus to receive more complaints. As the officer above contends, both the citizen complaints and backlash may then contribute to workplace withdrawal among these younger officers. Yes, depolicing is an actual occurrence in today’s police world. Especially nowadays with how much influence media outlets have on society today. Take a look at recent occurrences with Baltimore, Ferguson, and now McKinney. Officers want less and less encounters with the general public due to the fact of receiving a complaint or being civilly sued. From my experience, it is more likely for a younger officer to receive a complaint than it is for an older officer to receive a complaint. This is due to the fact that an older officer is more seasoned and has more experience at handling scenes and interacting with the general public. (#44)

A number of senior officers in this study (n = 9) had firsthand knowledge of younger officers changing their behaviors because of factors such as citizen complaints and community backlash. One police veteran of 18 years relayed this story: A week ago, I had a younger officer, fighting for his life, and he said he had to stop and think to what extent could he shoot the guy. He had been in a pursuit, then he began fighting with the guy to get the cuffs on him. He Tasered him, but the guy just pulled the leads off of him. He then charged the officer and knocked him out. He was only out for a second, but he grabbed his spray to no effect. He was being beaten on badly. A neighbor


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

saw it and called 911. It was predominately an African American area. He was toe-to-toe with this guy. He had lost his baton. Lost his radio. His last option was if he doesn’t give up, he was wondering if he could shoot. He knew what he could do. You’re about to pass out, and it is you or him. When he thought about it later, he realized he should not have taken the time that he did to finally react. But with the media, citizens speaking out against the police, officers being shot, he had thought about it. Younger officers put a lot of focus on how much should they actually do, how far should they actually go. I don’t know how many reports I have read where a suspect had pulled a knife and immediately the officer goes for the Taser, when deadly force is authorized, and they should go—are taught to go—for their firearm. (#37)

As many of the officers, like #37, explained, younger officers faced with these types of troubling decisions often depolice as a defense mechanism. The fewer citizen contacts they have, the fewer troublesome dilemmas they will find themselves in. A number of officers (n = 6) did discuss generational differences, noting that depolicing is not just a younger officer phenomenon and that older officers also disengage, though for different reasons. Officer #37, the police veteran who spoke of the younger officer’s quandary about whether he could shoot a suspect, elaborated on this difference: “I think this is occurring among many officers in many departments, at least in my state. It seems, however, to be a generational issue. All the officers of the same age bracket seem to think that way” (#37). With regard to the older officers, however, he explained,

The reality is that depolicing seems to be a younger generational thing, but then the older officers do it as well, just for different reasons. The older officers come to the end of their career and they start to slow down. They just want to show up and not make any waves. They don’t want to build cases or do court time or have anything that hangs over them. They are basically doing what is called being “retired on active duty.” On paper, however, they are looking like they are working hard. In _____, we have a 30-year retirement and the amount [of pension] is based on [the] average of high 5 and last 5. In the last five years, the officers start working every overtime assignment they can get. Most are able to double their salary in the last five years. During normal shifts, however, you can’t find them. But when they are work-

Cops Talk About Depolicing II: Who’s to Blame?


ing overtime, they work or do what they have to do in order to get by. They are just simply waiting on their retirements. (#37)

In the case of depolicing among older officers, officer #37 suggested that as officers start to reach retirement age, they begin to become conservers, which Anthony Downs (1967) described as people who want to maintain the status quo and simply ride out their remaining years with as little trouble as possible. For a young officer facing a 25- or 30-year career, however, that is not possible. Normally, Downs (1967) suggests, these officers would be considered climbers, willing to take risks to climb the ladder. Officer #37 agreed, with one caveat: The younger officers are normally productive, and they want to work. They want to be proactive. Or at least they used to be. These days, they are just afraid to work. They question everything. What happens when you use the baton? What happens when I use the Taser? Will I be sued? There was a case of two deputies making an arrest and using force. They were later arrested and indicted. There is talk of a federal civil rights violation investigation, and the FBI is looking at it. The evidence in the video is hard to see. All you see are multiple officers, uniforms, legs, etc. Despite that, the officers were indicted. (#37)

Among the officers who raised the generational issue, there seemed to be a consensus that depolicing was occurring more often among the younger officers, mostly out of fear of what might happen to them when faced with citizen complaints and public scrutiny. Those who did mention older officers depolicing attributed it primarily to a desire to reach retirement without controversy.

“Depolicing Is a Real Effect Officers’ Struggle with After Being Burned by the System” (#23)

Many officers (n = 29) argued that the causes of depolicing lay with “the department,” “the agency,” or “the system.” They often spoke of the institution as a nebulous entity that had power over their lives and suggested that this detachment often motivated depolicing. An example of this rhetoric comes from a younger state police officer with three years of experience:


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

Depolicing is a real effect officers struggle with after being burned by the system. It can be equated to a disgruntled employee. An officer who feels that he or she did his job and was punished for doing it can create an apathetic attitude and environment. A feeling of why should I stick my neck out there if all I’m going to get is punished has the potential to create a disgruntled officer. This atmosphere could turn cancerous and affect other officers. This could have a detrimental effect on other officers. (#23)

Like most interviewees using this language, this officer used modal verbs that suggest what “could” happen. However, once officers began detailing what occurred in their own agencies, the hypotheticals were replaced by tangible examples. For instance, a female deputy with 19 years of experience said, The phenomenon of depolicing is real in my agency, although it is not widespread. I have had conversations with officers that promote the premise that the agency has done a great job of making great officers mediocre. The officers haven’t completely lain down; they just aren’t as proactive as they used to be. They don’t shirk responsibility or sacrifice citizen safety intentionally or spitefully; they are just more deliberate and thoughtful about what types of work they get involved in. My experience with depolicing has been limited to a handful of officers in a 100- to 110-person watch. (#40)

Many of the officers, when explaining the causes of depolicing in their own agencies, also became distanced. Instead of using the first person regarding their experiences or the third person when discussing others, they began speaking in the second person. Officer #07, a municipal officer with 18 years of experience, was a case in point: Depolicing can impact an agency or even a remote area of law enforcement at any time. It is a natural reaction to a legal implication that is experienced by a department or individual as a result of their professional actions. It speaks directly to the primitive law of survival. One observes that an individual, acting in good faith, commits an act that is interpreted as being contrary to public or political thought, and the individual is punished. As an observer, your reaction is not to commit such an act yourself; otherwise you would experience the negative consequences. So you dial it down. Example: Some of your fellow officers have been making more vehicle stops and searches on minorities. This

Cops Talk About Depolicing II: Who’s to Blame?


has caught the attention of the media and subsequently the public. Consequently, there are expectations tacitly expressed in the morning briefings that the number of such stops should be dialed back. So be it. As a result, less such stops occur. The data emerge that because there are fewer stops, the crimes associated with the stops are down. The politicians are happy, the public is happy, and . . . your immediate superiors are happy. Do you see the paradox? You are rewarded for depolicing! (#07)

Although many of the officers spoke in general terms about “the agency” or “the system,” most eventually moved on to talk about their specific department, and they gave more concrete examples of why the agencies led officers to depolice.

“The Biggest Problem Is the Supervisors” (#59)

One factor overwhelmingly mentioned (n = 47) as a cause of depolicing was supervisors. In cases where police supervisors were named as a contributing factor to depolicing, they were listed as one among many, and they were never listed first. They were generally seen as a factor that exacerbated the phenomenon. Interestingly, although considered a causative factor in depolicing, supervisors were also often listed as the solution to it (see Chapter 6). One municipal officer with 21 years of police experience gave a specific example of how supervisors can cause depolicing behaviors among police officers: The pressure can come from different directions too. Not just the community, but the police department administration. There was pressure from above at one point where there was a very strict policy on court attendance. First absence resulted in a written reprimand—no warning, no verbal—straight to a written. The next was automatic suspension. The chief later backed down from this, but this was because of the huge backlash from officers. The number of traffic citations written plummeted; officers quit writing tickets. The assumption was it was a direct reaction. It was essentially a work slowdown. (#22)

Some interviewees (n = 13) shared specific stories of officers depolicing. One described how a supervisor was in a sense depolicing, which led his officers to engage in similar behaviors.


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

I too have seen this happen in agencies. This is becoming all too common, and it is a scary thought that the powers that be will throw their own people under the bus on a whim. I personally know a captain that won’t do anything that stirs the pot and anything that will even remotely get him noticed. He doesn’t even like good attention, because the good attention brings notice, and notice sticks around. Usually [it] is a good thing, but when the notice sticks around and you slip up on something small, you become an example to be had. Very sad. (#02)

Another officer described how police supervisors can exacerbate the problems that lead to depolicing:

I believe that depolicing is a normal avoidance phenomenon that does occur. Perhaps it can even become systemic if exacerbated by police management failure. Crime statistics may be compared with turning an aircraft carrier about, because it is a function of community values and mores, and it takes many cycles of statistical data to show a valid effect. Depolicing is a function of an independent [officer]—perhaps influenced by group concerns. Officers’ desire for avoiding perceived unfair treatment is like the turning of a speed boat. (#51)

After stating depolicing was normal, the officer alluded to the possibility that management failure to support police officers could make it worse. Becoming aware of depolicing and changing officer behavior takes time, while officers can decide to disengage after nothing more than an incident, a new policy, or a reprimand from management. One interviewee, a municipal officer with eight years of police experience, colorfully explained how supervisors are often the cause but can also be the solution: The biggest problem is the supervisors. The soups [officer slang for supervisors] get in the officer’s shit and don’t support ’em, you know? Then cops depolice. If the soups ignore them when the suits or the complaints come in, then cops gonna depolice. The funny thing is, it’s the soups that are the ones that can stop it, you know? If they show them they gots the officer’s back, there wouldn’t be no depolicing, you know? If they kick ’em in the ass and tell ’em to go back to doin’ their job, then they wouldn’t be able to depolice. You see what I mean? They don’t do that, policeman’s gonna depolice. (#59)

Cops Talk About Depolicing II: Who’s to Blame?


Supervisors’ failure to support their officers can lead to depolicing, but if they watch for depolicing and can identify the behaviors, they have the power to stop it (see Chapter 6).

“It Is a Reaction to What Is Viewed as Unfair Discipline” (#16)

Many of the interviewees (n = 24) said depolicing also stems from discipline viewed as unfair by officers. Many voiced an understanding of the need to discipline officers, for they acknowledged all officers make mistakes. However, from their perspective, treatment, disciplining, and termination viewed as unfair led to depolicing. Some officers citing discipline as a factor spoke of fear of discipline, not actual discipline, as a causative factor in depolicing. One county deputy provided a good example of both:

I think some other reasons for depolicing is the fear of discipline from the department, the fear of a community outcry, and the other biggest thing I see is morale and maybe various facets that go with that, like a loss of pay increases, county not funding things, you know, loss of benefits. In my state we have no unions. So when the ____________ Police Department threatened to cut the benefits of its officers, over 500 officers called in sick. It cost the city a fortune. It destroyed police morale. (#37)

In explaining the causes of depolicing, officer #37 mentioned that his state had no police unions. Only one other officer mentioned this particular factor, and he tied it to discipline: “I also suspect that depolicing might be more prevalent in departments with collective bargaining and strong unions. Officers in those types of departments tend to have a much better understanding of what one can and cannot be disciplined for than officers in non-CB type municipalities” (#09). Although supposition on the officer’s part, this statement does at least suggest the possibility that unions play a role in how police discipline shapes depolicing. When many of the officers (n = 8) spoke of police discipline, they addressed its effect on officers, which often contributed to depolicing, such as when a female municipal officer with 22 years of experience explained, I believe that most depolicing is usually short-lived. It may occur in the aftermath of a lawsuit, but time usually cures the skepticism.


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

I have seen this happen after a police officer is disciplined—at least to some extent. If an officer is corrected for a poor decision or bad behavior, many of their peers feel intimidated by the process and fear similar reprisals. If the process was fair, most everyone recognizes that they have nothing to fear. (#11)

Most of the officers who mentioned police discipline spoke of unfair discipline, like the following school resource officer with 19 years of experience:

In my own experience, it is not always a reaction to the issues often talked about in the news, but more often than not it is a reaction to what is viewed as unfair discipline by the brass. It’s an unpopular decision by the city or governing body or a perceived injustice that has been allowed to linger unaddressed to the point where the rank and file troops become disgruntled. Officers that see another officer getting disciplined in an unpopular manner for what the officers believe is unfair, the city council declining a pay raise or purchase of equipment that officers see as an urgent need, or news of an unpopular court decision or administrative ruling simply decide not to risk engaging in that particular behavior or activity to send a message or protest the result. (#16)

One officer who worked for a county and served in a supervisory role conveyed his understanding of how police discipline can contribute to depolicing behaviors. He explained how management attempts to control the problem: When officers are disciplined or terminated, everyone tiptoes on eggshells, so officers do nothing that will bring attention to them. Unless they are on calls, they are hiding, doing nothing proactive so as not to be recognized. We have tried to rely on officer statistics to determine if officers are actually working. We see how many arrests, how many tickets they write, but the problem is these are not a great indicator of how officers work. Some of the managers in the past said we have to look at numbers. That drives morale down, and when officers know they are being followed for their numbers, they do just enough to get by. Then when crime goes up, they are told to work harder, but that is akin to mandating a quota. So officers stop working in defiance of being given a quota. (#37)

Cops Talk About Depolicing II: Who’s to Blame?


This testimony suggests that police disciplinary issues, when perceived as heavy-handed or unfair, play a role in depolicing. Because the individuals carrying out the disciplinary action are supervisors, once again they are seen as causing depolicing. While most police discipline action is for minor incidents and carried out by police supervisors, some cases are considered egregious and turned over to the Internal Affairs (IA) unit.

“We Have All Seen Depolicing After Internal Investigations” (#11)

Many of the police officers (n = 36) brought up Internal Affairs investigations during their interviews. Although these investigations commonly follow a major event (e.g., a shooting) or a citizen complaint, many of the officers saw them as a cause of depolicing. Most of the officers included IA investigations on a list of things that cause the phenomenon, and some spoke of the complaints initiating the investigations as “false” and investigations as “unjustified.” Even when the officers believed their behavior was in the right and they knew the complaint would be deemed unfounded, depolicing still occurred because of the investigation itself. As one veteran municipal officer with 10 years of police experience explained, “I believe it [depolicing] absolutely exists. I have been subject to several internal investigations, for events where my actions were completely justified, and I knew they were, but I still felt the need to avoid situations that may place me in similar predicaments. I soon got over it, realized people don’t like to go to jail, and continued to work” (#36). In most of the interviews when officers expounded upon IA investigations, they explained that the investigations usually involved complaints about a use of excessive force while working patrol. One officer, employed by a municipal police department engaged in community policing, presented a unique scenario when he described how even in a department operating under a modern strategy of police deployment, officers can face IA investigations and engage in depolicing as a result. I’ve also seen this with quality-of-life policing as well. The way the ordinances are written, if someone violates certain criteria—like garbage piled up in one’s yard—you can write them a quality-oflife ticket. Also you can enforce this every day, so you can write


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

a ticket each day for the same offense until they clean it up. We had an officer who took the ordinance to heart and did just that. Well, he received in IA complaint, and he immediately changed his behavior. He stopped writing any of these tickets. In fact, his colleagues in the unit stopped as well. He was cleared by IA of any wrongdoing. He was enforcing the ordinance as written, but he and the unit wrote less of these tickets because of the IA complaint. So, yes, officers will choose to police less aggressively for fear of some type of repercussion, like a lawsuit. (#22)

An additional insight came from an officer who was now a supervisor and admitted to depolicing as an officer:

It is remarkable that we tend to see things differently as we move up the ladder. We have all seen depolicing after internal investigations and all recognize that time usually lessens the impact. I am sure that we have all depoliced to some extent or another, either out of protest or fear. However, this allows us to understand the perspective of the rank and file. It seems as if we all agree that it is our responsibility to demonstrate that fair and equitable accountability is a part of our organizations. If you do not abide by the rules, you will face sanctions. However, because we have “all been there” we want to make sure that the discipline matches the infraction and there is a lesson attached. We have to teach not just punish. The lesson will be learned by the individual and the organization. (#11)

A theme common not only to the issue of IA investigations but also to citizen complaints and other areas is the perception by officers that complaints, investigations, and punishments are unfair. Many acknowledged the need for a system by which officers engaged in unlawful and unprofessional behavior could be held accountable, but they also believed the system should be equitable. Some suggested it was not.

“Some Officers Were Upset with Some of the Policies of the Agency” (#56)

Almost half the officers interviewed (n = 27) attributed depolicing to police policies. Nearly all of them spoke of poor police policies issued

Cops Talk About Depolicing II: Who’s to Blame?


by management as the basis for their either disengaging from a specific area of enforcement or disengaging in general because the poorly perceived policy affected their performance of all their duties. An example of a policy that contributed to depolicing in a specific area of enforcement came from a municipal officer with 21 years on the job:

Now we have also had policy implications affect behavior because of lawsuits as well. We had a differential response unit that was dealing with the issue of illegal game rooms. You know those game rooms that have slot machines for fun and they pay in prizes, not money, but you see pictures of people on the walls with big cash payouts. Well, going into these gaming rooms is difficult because you have to know someone to become a member. They are behind closed and locked doors with a security guard. And then once in, you have to win and have the payout to make a case and then you had to see the entire slot machine (today you can just seize the motherboard—takes up less space in the property room). Well, we had an injunction placed on one aspect of the case, and so rather than continue investigating these cases, we just stopped doing it while the lawsuit was pending. This was kind of a policy form of depolicing. (#22)

Another municipal officer with 25 years of experience gave an example of a more general policy cause of depolicing:

Different situations affect different people differently. So, how certain officers react will depend on the officers. I know some officers were upset with some of the policies of the agency. Like when I was under investigation one time, the person lied. I asked, “What are you going to do to him?” They said, “Nothing.” They basically communicated to us they had a policy of nonenforcement against anyone who files a false complaint and lies. You can see how that can affect someone. If you bring a false complaint to me, I will go after you. But the policy was— that is not allowed. So that led to depolicing. (#56)

Although police policies are a form of police supervision—blanket rules that govern the organization—perceived poor policies, like poor supervision, caused depolicing as well. In the first case, the police policy derived from a formal process—an injunction—while in the latter case it developed from a nonenforcement stance on the part of the


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

police administration. The interviews do not make clear whether the policy of nonenforcement against those filing false complaints was formal (written) or informal (unwritten). Because formal policies entail more organizational enforcement controls, poorly perceived informal policies might lead to more instances of depolicing than poorly perceived formal policies. This is still largely conjecture, however, as most of the discussion regarding police policies centered on formal policies.

“Our Department Started Documenting Use of Force. . . . This Has Led to Depolicing” (#34)

When the police officers spoke of formal police policies as a cause of depolicing (n = 25), overwhelmingly the policy mentioned was police use of force (n = 23). However, the officers did not discuss these particular policies in a vacuum—as in the police administration issues a policy and the police, rejecting it, depolice. Rather, the depolicing had to do with a host of factors, including the belief that the policies were misguided, reactionary in nature, increased the amount of needless paperwork, constrained officer discretion, were too broadly written and left officers open to punishment based on supervisor interpretation, endangered officer safety on the street, or were issued to satisfy the demands of some entity outside the police department. One officer articulated an inverse relationship caused by these types of policies: “The number of use-of-force instances decrease as the bureaucratic processes increase. I think this is proof of depolicing” (#36). Of course, it is possible the use-of-force policies are effective and have achieved their goal, decreasing use-of-force incidents, but the officer did not see it that way. He expounded on his reasoning when he said, I know from the current institution of new policies that increase the paperwork and documentation necessary on any use of force, even drawing a Taser, that officers I work with have stopped attempting to be proactive. This new ridiculous policy, that defines pulling a Taser as use of force, causes every officer on scene, even if they did not see the incident, to do a separate report. Officers riding in the same car now have to do separate reports rather than adding their individual statements to one. Regardless of the policy, the fact remains that due to the increasing bureaucratic processes, the overall incidents with uses of force have decreased. (#36)

Cops Talk About Depolicing II: Who’s to Blame?


A female police officer from a large municipal police department echoed this statement about the increased paperwork leading to depolicing. She then suggested that fear of how the policy might be used to punish officers triggers depolicing behaviors. Not too long ago our department started documenting use of force and requiring both the officer and their supervisor to complete a supplement articulating the details of the force used. This has led to depolicing either because the officer doesn’t want to do the extra paperwork or because, if not articulated correctly, it could lead to punishment by the department, thus leaving a permanent mark on your department record. (#34)

All the officers who contended that the increased paperwork led to depolicing also asserted that this was not about police officers being lazy. They all articulated, in one form or another, that it was not about a reluctance to do necessary paperwork but rather about not wanting to do frivolous and redundant paperwork. Still further, they all expressed concern about how the additional paperwork would be used and a fear that it might be used against them. A female police officer with 19 years of experience explained,

I see inaction more often on the part of officers worried about Internal Affairs. Because all uses of force are documented in a report system separate from the offense report system, and because most complaints are going straight to Internal Affairs instead of to the division supervisor, officers start second-guessing if they should put hands on people or not. It’s a huge officer-safety issue. In my current personal position, if I lost my job over something I believed was right but the department thought was wrong, I’d be okay. Many officers can’t say the same—they need the income. Rather than risk separation they risk injury. (#40)

That final point—that officers would rather risk injury than lose their job over a use-of-force incident—drives much of the fear over these policies and leads to depolicing. The officers hesitate or avoid going for any form of weapon to defend themselves out of fear that they will be fired or have to face a civil lawsuit that could ruin them and their families. Officer #37 referred to this same hesitation when he described how a younger officer delayed when dealing with an offender resisting arrest: “He knew what he could do . . . [W]hen he thought about it later, he realized he should not have taken the time


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

that he did to finally react. But, with the media, citizens speaking out against the police, officers being shot, he had thought about it” (#37). Having to use force, especially deadly force, also takes a toll on officers. A male officer from a small municipal police agency described what happened for one officer in the aftermath of a shooting incident: “We had an officer who quit. He had to shoot someone. But for a while, before he quit—about 6 months—he was depolicing. Quit doing cases. Quit writing tickets. People like that, they are just doing the motions” (#56). Workplace withdrawal in the wake of a police shooting is not uncommon, as police scholar David Klinger (2004) found in his study of police officers’ use-of-deadly-force incidents: “The ways the justice system, the press, officers’ families, and other third parties react to shooting incidents can exert their own effects on officers following shootings” (204). He describes the impact on the officer of the initial IA investigation into the shooting, the criminal inquiry into the legality of the officer’s actions, and, finally, the fear or reality of civil litigation (Klinger 2004). Klinger details a number of behaviors associated with depolicing, such as when one officer explained after his shooting, “I started to try to avoid situations where I might have to shoot,” “I was very, very cautious on the calls that I went on,” and “I pretty much got lazy” (247). Klinger does point out that most officers do not face civil litigation, or if they do, it is short-lived. Regardless, the mere fear of civil litigation, not just actually facing it, can lead to depolicing. One officer in the study mentioned knowing an officer who was facing civil litigation for use of force and noted how citizens may be more likely to file such suits because of the changed climate in communitypolice relations. As she explained, “I know an officer in the department [who] is being sued by some people because they said he used excessive force. I don’t think five years ago anyone would have even thought it was excessive, but now everything is excessive. If I say hi to you, I was mean, and that was excessive” (#60). She adds, lamenting, “The climate sure has changed” (#60).

“[Depolicing] Usually Occurs More on an Officer Level When a Critical Incident Occurs” (#50)

According to the literature (see Chapter 2), major critical incidents, such as riots, are a cause of depolicing. These types of encounters

Cops Talk About Depolicing II: Who’s to Blame?


often bring national attention through news media coverage and cause officers to disengage. Because none of the officers in this study had been involved in a major riot and only one was from an agency that had recently been involved in a critical incident, there was not a lot of discussion regarding this particular theme. However, what the two officers who mentioned something along these lines said is important, for critical incidents are not limited to full-scale riots that garner national attention. One of the officers, from a school district police agency, explained how depolicing comes about:

I believe that this phenomenon can spread quickly, affecting many officers, and usually occurs more on an officer level when a critical incident occurs with the community or a legal proceeding. When a negative incident occurs and the media, the community, as well as social media tends to attack that officer that was involved in a brutal way, it can affect other officers’ actions or response. There are many reasons why this will affect an officer: the officer does not want to be put in a negative perspective in front of the local or national community; the officer does not want to bring shame or danger to their families; the officer does not want to go through that stress—period. I believe that due to these reasons an officer will reduce their response or will hesitate to take an action that could lead into an attack from the community, media, or social media. (#50)

As with many of the other themes related to depolicing, this officer explains that the phenomenon occurs when officers do not want public attention, feel the need to protect their families, or do not want the stress that these incidents can create. Thus, police officers reduce their community engagement for fear of what could happen to them. One police officer captured this sentiment quite well when he stated, “I think one of the main causes of depolicing is when an officer is threatened with a potentially career-ending repercussion that he or she may not feel they had any control over. The event breeds the tendency to avoid rather than confront” (#28). Again, the officer alludes to fear of repercussions resulting from police-citizen encounters over which they have little control—little control in terms of what the citizen does and little control over how the media, community, and administration will perceive their actions. In order to gain some semblance of control, officers avoid confrontations rather than engage. All of this echoes the sentiment of no contact, no complaint.


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

“The Specter of Civil and Criminal Liability” (#01)

Although David Klinger (2004) has shown that civil litigation against police officers is rare, he also states it is “one sort of inquiry that makes many officers wary” (206). As interviewees nearly unanimously cited civil litigation as a cause of depolicing (n = 57), this particular theme warrants closer inspection than many of the others. While it does not appear many of the officers interviewed were personally sued (only four discussed their own civil litigation), many knew of others who had been sued. Overwhelmingly, the fear of a lawsuit seemed to create a near-universal belief that civil liability causes police officers to depolice. An officer from a large municipal agency with 19 years of experience said, “The specter of civil and criminal liability and departmental sanctions can have both a positive and negative impact on police behavior and ethics. On the positive side, it can provide guidance and a certain amount of security when the police actions you take are questioned. On the other, it can cause depolicing, indecision, and fear to take action” (#01). Once again, indecisiveness and fear are mentioned as results when officers depolice. Another officer, from a small-town police department with four years on the force, echoed the same sentiment:

Fortunately, I have never been civilly sued by anyone. However, I could imagine that it is quite traumatizing for officers who have. I see how it could create quite a bit of doubt in an officer’s mind, and it has the potential to be detrimental to an officer’s confidence while on the job. Every action an officer takes from then on, he or she begins to ask himself or herself, “Am I going to be sued for this?” So it is easy to see how an officer after being sued might try to minimize the number of citizen contacts. (#14)

The officer himself was never sued, nor did he mention knowing of any officers who had been sued, but he felt he could foresee the impact of such civil litigation. Just like the previous officer, he mentioned indecisiveness and might have been subtly describing fear. The latter is implied by the officer’s statement because, like many of the other interviewees (n = 9), he added the following with a nervous laugh: “Although there is something I’ve been told quite a few times, ‘You’re not doing your job unless you’ve been sued!’” (#14). Interviewees only ever said this as a throwaway line, as if they did not quite believe it but it helped them to deal with the fact that police

Cops Talk About Depolicing II: Who’s to Blame?


officers do get sued. While I may be reading this rationale into why these officers made this statement, further discussion about civil suits seems to confirm these suspicions. One officer, a county deputy with 18 years of experience, took the fear of a lawsuit further by noting that lawsuits can change the way departments work, essentially creating fear of future lawsuits. While the officers quoted above recognize this fear can affect individual officers, this deputy explained how it can impact departments:

My thoughts on depolicing is that when there is a scenario similar to the one that occurred in Cincinnati, departmental policy changes will occur to protect the department/city from future litigation. Officers approach their jobs differently. Also, when one of your officers are involved in a civil lawsuit, it increases awareness in how we conduct our duties. It could create a kinder, gentler, more compassionate police force based upon the fear of a lawsuit. A department-wide slowdown will occur in this situation, and I feel it is a common response within departments. (#04)

The deputy suggested that past lawsuits raise the specter of future lawsuits, which then causes a work slowdown. The fear projects the realities of the past onto the future, motivating officers to depolice.

“I Know of Several Officers That Have Been [Sued] Who Did Not Return to ‘Working’” (#36)

While 57 out of the 60 police officers interviewed mentioned civil litigation as a cause of depolicing, only 11 mentioned knowing a fellow officer who had been sued, and most were officers with over 15 years of experience. These officers’ descriptions of the circumstances surrounding the lawsuit and how the officer reacted surely describe behaviors of workplace disengagement associated with depolicing. One officer in the study, with only two years of experience, had already seen what happened in his department when officers faced civil litigation: I know of several officers that have been the focus of more substantial civil lawsuits, who did not return to “working.” After the lawsuits they worked patrol for a short time, usually avoiding calls and never being proactive, only to end up transferring to a position out of patrol within a limited amount of time. This seems


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

to be a fairly common occurrence, at least in the officers I associate with, and a common reason for this is the lack of support from the department as a whole, but the immediate supervisors I have noticed are very good about supporting officers. (#36)

The officer mentioned a lack of support as one reason for depolicing and for requests to transfer to positions with less contact with citizens. Other officers (n = 7) also mentioned the lack of support by the department. One officer, with far more experience, 32 years, echoed this same sentiment when he explained,

I have seen a lot of officers get very upset and depolice when their actions, whether correct or incorrect, have been challenged by the filing of [a] suit against them and/or the department. Everyone assures the officer he did the right thing; he was cleared by inside investigations as well as DA investigations. Then the city does all the math on the lawsuit and settles the case out of court, usually with no admittance of wrongdoing, but the officer feels he should have been backed by the city and didn’t get his day in court to be vindicated. (#24)

Despite recognizing that the city is, in such cases, acting in its best financial interest, this officer and many others believe it is sending the wrong signal about the officer’s conduct. If the officer did the right thing, then why settle the case? They believe that the settlement works to destroy the officer’s credibility and reputation. As the officer added, “The officer’s reputation—integrity—aren’t worth the settlement” (#24). The officer did, however, use the qualifier “correct or incorrect” in his discussion (#24). Only one other officer mentioned the possibility that a civil suit with which she was familiar may not have been frivolous. A younger female police officer from a major metropolitan police department explained quite frankly about some of the officers in her department being sued: Officers are highly affected when confronted with a civil suit. I personally haven’t experienced one, but I know officers who are currently going through one now. Many of them have brought it upon themselves, and others are dealing with a pissed-off person. I do believe police departments attempt to instill good ethics and integrity within the force. I just think some people don’t care and

Cops Talk About Depolicing II: Who’s to Blame?


get caught up in the police culture, and others eventually find themselves committing the same crimes as their suspects. It’s sad. (#19)

Such an admission that a lawsuit may have been justified is rare. In any event, whether justified or not, lawsuits seemingly lead to depolicing. The officers describing their knowledge of other officers facing civil litigation also brought up two themes that run through many of the explanations for the causes of depolicing: fear and indecisiveness. The former appeared often when these officers talked about the causes of depolicing, and the latter was often mentioned as an outcome. For example, one deputy sheriff who had 18 years of experience and worked with many of the new deputies explained,

All of the officers are worried about civil liabilities, especially with the use-of-force. Regardless of whether it is deadly force, whether it is a baton or their Taser, or any use of less than lethal force, they are concerned about how it is going to look and what will happen to them if they use it. The bottom line is, I have had one-on-one conversations and group conversations with younger officers, and it all comes back to “I don’t want to be sued.” I tell them, they know the difference between right and wrong, legal and illegal, then they may get sued but they will have no liability, and it will end there. (#37)

Like so many other officers, again seemingly as a means to deal with the specter of civil suits, he added, “It is not if they are going to get sued, but when they are going to get sued” (#37). A university police officer with 14 years of experience offered one example of the discussion of indecisiveness by many interviewees: Several years ago, my department was involved in [a] civil case that involved a subject who was Tasered while resisting officers. There was no sign of wrongdoing on the part of the officers involved. The department settled the case for a dollar amount that was significantly less than the potential cost of defending the case in court. A few months later, I responded to a call where a suicidal subject was walking into oncoming traffic in an attempt to harm himself. When I arrived, I found that there were over ten officers on the scene, and most of them were attempting to control traffic even though it was extremely light. The few that


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

were making contact with the subject warned him over fifty times that they were going to deploy a Taser on him, but they never did. The subject was finally taken into custody utilizing openhanded techniques, and several officers admitted that they had not deployed their Tasers because they believed that their department would not support them if they did deploy their Taser. It is because of this and several other instances that I have observed that I believe that depolicing does exist. (#25)

Once again, indecisiveness and changed action arose from the notion—the fear—that the police department would not support them and they could potentially become the target of a civil suit. Depolicing can have real and dangerous consequences for both police officers and citizens alike.

“I Was Sued for Doing My Job. I Backed Off. I Withdrew” (#54)

Four officers in the study relayed the circumstances related to civil suits that had been filed against them. Although more officers in the study may have faced lawsuits, only four spoke of them. The details shared by a university police officer with nine years of experience was indicative of these interviews, for all four told nearly identical stories:

Depolicing is absolutely something we, as an industry, deal with. Personally, I was sued in 2011 for a use-of-force issue. I was exonerated by Internal Affairs, and the lawsuit was taken care of with little effort. However, the time between the incident and the final resolution was difficult on my work habits because it seemed to always be on my mind whenever I would interact with people. At times I know I did not engage people when before I would not let small issues go by the wayside. I was also very aware that I would go to physical force later in an interaction than before. It took a long time to get to what I would call normal again. (#32)

The other three officers all described the same chain of events, from being sued to how their behaviors changed and they began depolicing, to resolution of the lawsuit in their favor. One other

Cops Talk About Depolicing II: Who’s to Blame?


officer’s interview should be conveyed, for, as an officer with 32 years of experience in a major metropolitan police agency, he had a unique way of telling his story. As he often did in the interview, he applied the same circumstances to my profession as a professor when he said,

So, depolicing, as you academic types call it, is just normal behavior. Would you change your behavior if a student sued you for doing your job? Let’s say you raise an issue they take offense to and they complain on you, which leads to the administration censoring you or the student sues you. Would you go on raising that controversial issue or would you just say I am just going to teach what’s in the book? (#54)

It should perhaps be noted that this officer served as an adjunct professor, teaching policing to college students, so he was keenly aware of the academic situation. He then described his own lawsuits and what occurred, which, again, reflected what the other three officers had to say. I’ve been sued several times in my career. It happens. In one, the lawsuit was dismissed. In the other, the plaintiff lost. When I got sued, yeah, I was pissed. I was sued for doing my job. I backed off. I withdrew. Hung out at the fire station. Watched TV. Read the papers. Took long lunch breaks. And did some shopping— gotta keep those book stores safe! But you know what? Eventually I drifted back into doing my job, being more proactive. That’s life. (#54)

Like the others, in the face of the lawsuits, he depoliced; once the cases were resolved, he eventually returned to proactive policing. During the interview, he shifted back one more time to addressing the study and its use of the term depolicing when he said, “So, you know, you can put a label on the behavior, that’s fine, but the problem is once you do so, people are going to pass judgment on whether it is a good label or a bad label. Which do you think it’s going to be? That’s the problem with terms like this. I hope you don’t sensationalize this” (#54). The point was well taken. Indeed, the media has already labeled the term depolicing as something negative when there have been charges that police officers are not doing their job (see Chapter 1).


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

“Civil Liability Is Exactly What Begins the Separation Between Officers and Citizens” (#41)

Many of the police officers spoke of the impact on them, other officers, the department, and the community of depolicing as a result of a civil suit. Many made specific points in this regard (n = 17). For example, one officer explained, “I believe that depolicing is a phenomenon that is real. I think it can definitely affect an individual, especially if they are the center of a lawsuit, but can affect groups of officers, even an entire department as well” (#29). A state police officer with six years of police experience explained the peer process:

Agencies play a big role in making certain things a negative experience. This is passed down within the department from generation to generation. When any complaint comes in or civil liability suit (valid or invalid), the department points this person out. Peers wonder what you could have done wrong, even when they don’t know if it is substantiated or not. In essence we as organizations are causing this depolicing of an officer. This should [be] stopped from the get-go. I know others will probably talk about this, but I think we need to learn from our own mistakes and other officers’ mistakes; as a whole that will help to educate us on what we can and cannot do. (#10)

This officer (#10) again added the qualification “valid or invalid” in her answer, noting, like the others, how civil suits, regardless of why they are filed, have a serious impact on an agency. Yet she attributes to the organization itself the turmoil these lawsuits cause, the way they tear an agency apart, and how they ultimately lead to depolicing. As another officer from a large metropolitan agency explained, a lawsuit that leads to depolicing hurts not just the officers; the community also suffers: “I loved the community I patrolled. We would try to go out of our way to train and teach our rookie officers to have a heart for the community. However, it simply became more and more difficult. The civil liability is exactly what begins the separation between officers and citizens” (#41). The impact he described has serious ramifications if true. Not only do civil suits impact the officers and the community; they undermine police-community relations. This would make the need to deal with depolicing all the more critical.

Cops Talk About Depolicing II: Who’s to Blame?


“He Was Already Afraid That if He Gave Too Many Tickets to Blacks He Would Be Accused of Racism” (#22)

Although the scant literature related to depolicing emphasizes that it is a reaction to allegations of racism and particularly racial profiling, the officers in the sample did not spend much time on the topic. Only half (n = 29) mentioned it, and then mostly in passing. For instance, when including examples of what causes officers to depolice, they might list lawsuits, the media, allegations of racial profiling, and other factors. When the officers did expound upon depolicing (n = 9), they tended to give an explanation without citing many specifics. For example, officer #07, from a small municipal agency with 18 years of experience, talked about racial profiling and depolicing in this manner:

Sadly, the concept of depolicing has many variations, both in law enforcement as well as in the private sector, due, for example, to the term racial profiling. It is a viable concept, even if it lacks empirical evidence. For example, if an officer is labeled as racist for making sidewalk stops and searches of a certain type of people and he is called to task for it and his career is put in jeopardy, then you as his partner will have no wish to experience the same punishment. Survival mode kicks in . . . as well as some ethical conflicts. You know what is right, but you hesitate to follow your ethical base. (#07)

Some interviewees (n = 4) were more specific in their description of the issue of race and depolicing. A female officer from a large metropolitan police agency with three years of experience described how depolicing can occur when an officer feels limited on doing his job because a citizen/suspect may feel that they are being treated unfair due to their race. Oftentimes, officers are faced with the scrutiny of the media and the community as to how they handle their scenes. I’ve seen and heard [that] many officers become affected by this and do not feel comfortable arresting or confronting the assailant. I believe the people fail to realize no two suspects, scenes, chases, assaults cases will ever be treated the same; each are very different with different motives, and the officers’ only concern is their safety as well as the citizens’/victims’. (#19)


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

This officer describes depolicing in the wake of allegations of unfair treatment toward people due to their race and explains how every situation is different and race is just one factor. Yet, like other officers interviewed, she seemed both puzzled and irritated by the notion that officers are unjustly accused of focusing on race when doing their job. According to many interviewees, depolicing becomes almost a natural response to such an allegation. One officer conveyed how his partner reacted to antipolice sentiments in the wake of the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles. The officer, who had been in policing for 21 years in a major metropolitan city police department, explained that depolicing is more of your own fear of repercussions, real or not, because of certain demographics. Let me give you an example. I rode years ago with a new officer—this is back in the early 1990s, before racial profiling became a buzzword. We policed a community that was 98 percent African American. We used to write a lot of tickets in the area. I was riding with him one day as backup, and he pulled a guy over for something rather minor, and he gave the guy a ticket. I asked him why he gave that guy a ticket for such a minor offense and not a warning. His reply was, “’Cause he was a white guy.” This was in advance of the racial profiling issue, and he was already afraid that if he gave too many tickets to blacks, he would be accused of racism. (#22)

This officer then spoke of the growing national concern during the late 1990s and early 2000s with racial profiling as well as the growing sentiment among cops that the public believed all cops were racist. In his view, that growing antipolice sentiment ceased with the events of September 11, 2001, especially because of the heroic actions of so many New York City police officers and others. He then explained how 10 years later, the issue of racial profiling returned: Since then it has been mandated by the feds that we keep demographics on tickets. So a lot of people say, “I’m not going to stop people because of this.” They won’t engage in certain types of behaviors because there are additional steps. After issuing a ticket, they have to file the demographic report. So, because of the extra step, they stop writing tickets. We saw departmentally a steep decline in the number of tickets written because of the mandate. (#22)

Cops Talk About Depolicing II: Who’s to Blame?


This led the officer to conclude that depolicing was more an individual than a departmental phenomenon, which in turn led him to recall some additional information about what had happened in the early 1990s: “So, it is more of an individual thing than a department-wide thing. Now, coming on the heels of the Rodney King incident, that affected police departments nationwide. It affected all officers. I personally experienced some fallout, when I went to arrest a guy, he fell to his knees and yelled, ‘What are you going to do, Rodney King me?’” (#22). He further discussed depolicing behaviors in the 1990s, describing them as the old concept of depolicing and comparing them with today’s concept of the phenomenon, which he felt was becoming more department-wide: I think the old concept of depolicing is a very individual concept. Unless the agency has a rule or the chief encourages the officer not to do something, it is an individual thing. It comes from those officers who sit down and become what we call broke. Because he got complained on, because he got sued, he stops policing. As for the newer concept and racial profiling? I think the same thing applies. My partner worried about being accused of being racist and wrote every white he stopped in that all-black community. Me, I saw it differently. I figured, what are they going to do— dude, I work in a community that is 98 percent black; of course I am going to give more tickets to blacks than whites. (#22)

The officer’s final comment epitomized how the interviewees treated the issue of race and racial profiling. It was simply one more reason that officers disengaged. One officer may have received a citizen complaint, another got sued, and still another was accused of racial profiling. These officers did not treat race and racial profiling as the single cause of, or a major reason for, depolicing, which contradicts Cooper’s (2003, 2006, 2009) belief that the phenomenon derives solely from accusations of racial profiling.

“Laws Can Change the Way Police Operate” (#57)

Changes in the laws were often cited as a cause of depolicing (n = 26). Like race and racial profiling, officers typically only mentioned this factor when listing what they believed to be the causes of officer


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

disengagement. Fewer than one quarter of interviewees (n = 11) spent any time describing how changes in the law affected officers. Among those who did elaborate, a female officer from a small municipal agency who had listed “legal issues that officers have to deal with” as a causative factor, offered a typical explanation: “By adding policies and adding laws, that it just limits the officer’s actions even more, which is why they are not wanting to be proactive as much as they used to be. With all these rules the administrators and civilians are basically waiting for a reason to either get a write-up, get fired or sued, all of which it is the officer that is getting punished and whose name is getting burned” (#45). New laws that remove discretion from officers and potentially could result in their being punished if they make a mistake were commonly cited as causing police officers to disengage. Three officers gave very specific examples. The first came from a police officer with a school district who had 28 years of law enforcement experience. He explained how a change in a state law led police officers to depolice, at least with regard to that specific law: For me being a police officer for a school district police department I would say it does exist but on a higher level. The new laws that remove the power for officers to enforce violations committed by minors during school time while on campus would be an example. Even before the laws were passed, many in the departments stopped or reduced enforcement of certain violations committed by minors on school grounds. (#20)

The second example came from an officer with seven years of experience in a large metropolitan police department: Then there are changes in the law. For a time in my jurisdiction narcotic trace cases were felonies. Then, later, they were turned into misdemeanor offenses. The purpose was to alleviate the overcrowding of our jails. Well, of course, arrest levels went down because no one wanted a misdemeanor. This caused burglaries to rise because most of your suspects were normally arrested for trace cases on the street. So, laws can change the way police operate. (#57)

In this particular case, police officers were deincentivized to make arrests for trace amounts of narcotics because they no longer received

Cops Talk About Depolicing II: Who’s to Blame?


credit for a felony arrest. In a sense, the change in the law caused the officers to depolice in that they no longer took a proactive stance against trace amounts of narcotics. This, the officer believed, had a specific effect in increased burglaries because the suspects with trace amounts were no longer being arrested. His example suggests that a change in the law can change how police officers perform their duty— that is, it generates a cause and effect that can lead to depolicing. Finally, a rural officer with 18 years of experience in a county sheriff’s department told of how a judge changed the way a law was enforced:

We are a rural area, and so we have many people who try to fight officers. The court system over the past decade has seemingly made the argument that fighting a cop is somewhat justified because the person did not want to lose their freedom. I am dealing with a case of an officer using force—a Taser four times—to subdue. The judge said the person wasn’t resisting, wasn’t fighting, and just wanted to maintain his freedom. The DUI was the only charge upheld. Officers are asking, “Why should I work hard and be proactive if cases are going to be dismissed?” (#37)

When police officers engage in proactive policing by enforcing the law, they expect to be supported by the legal system; they want procedural justice. So when the system, in this case a judge, does not support their work, they feel that their work has been devalued. Such frustration can lead to depolicing.

“The Camera Itself Could Cause the Depolicing” (#22)

Another cause cited by the officers interviewed was technology, specifically cell phones, dashboard cameras, and body cameras. A majority listed one or more of these technologies as a cause (n = 46), and many went into detail about at least one of them (n = 33). For instance, one officer from a large metropolitan police agency with 14 years of experience noted, “Many officers these days are afraid to do their job. Many officers do not want to lose their job over a silly cell phone video that was shot and only shows one side of the story. This can easily get a police officer hurt if he or she is too timid to act” (#44). Officer #35, who was from a smaller agency and had less experience (two years), echoed these sentiments:


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

In today’s connected society where virtually everyone has a cell phone camera at their immediate disposal, I believe the propensity for officers being less quick to act on a matter is a reality. I have often heard of officers second-guessing themselves in situations where they know they are being watched in fear of making a mistake. The fear isn’t of doing something necessarily wrong; it is of being persecuted for a decision not understood by the many who could possibly watch a few seconds of a video captured by a passerby. The current generation of police officers have come up in an era where dash cameras are just another tool in the routine of their jobs. However, this technology is continuing to evolve to the point the president of the US has vowed to offer federal grant money to put body cameras on officers. At some point, there will be little that cannot be reviewed in the future. I believe this all leads to less aggression, a positive, and more second-guessing by officers, a negative. (#35)

This officer highlighted the love-hate relationship with the use of technology. Many interviewees talked about the negative aspects of technology, particularly describing how it can be used against them, especially when limited in what it shows. They also talked about the positive aspects, and many noted that reviewing the video on a cell phone, dashcam, or body camera had resolved a citizen complaint in their favor. In addition to sharing these two perspectives, many of the officers (n = 19) addressed the realities of technology:

We have stopped putting more cameras in cars because most of the incidents take place out of view of the dashboard cameras. We are now testing the use of body cameras. They are manually activated but are supposed to be turned on on all calls. They are spot-checked and archived and reviewed as needed. The camera itself could cause the depolicing. An officer will say, “I’ll run my calls, do what I have to do, but I am not going to initiate anything.” Then again [removed for protection of the officer’s identity] was very concerned about wearing a camera and body mike and saw it as big brother. However, after six months he found the camera backed him up on several occasions. He was accused of cursing a driver on one traffic stop, and a review of the video and audio showed he had never done any such thing. He changed his behavior about the cameras

Cops Talk About Depolicing II: Who’s to Blame?


rather quickly. It really comes down to the personality of the individual. If I go to roll call, I can identify five guys, if I give them a camera, their productivity will drop. Another five guys, and we’ll see their productivity increase. We even had some guys buying their own cameras before we fielded them, because they wanted the protection. (#22)

Another officer echoed the sentiment that the cameras can be a “double-edged sword”: First and foremost, the biggest change in police work is the introduction of the body cams. Now a jury will have weeks, months, and maybe even years to pick apart what you had a second or so to act on. The body cam is a double-edged sword; it can get you out of trouble, or it can get you into some serious trouble. I think the body cam is the best tool if you want to hold police officers accountable for what they do. Sure, I guess an officer can always turn off the camera, but he would have to explain it later to a supervisor, or worse, to a judge and jury. (#42)

Like these two officers, when addressing the issue of technology as a possible cause of depolicing, interviewees mentioned it as a factor but then mostly addressed the issue of deploying the technology and its negative and positive aspects. Far fewer (n = 7) actually addressed how technology causes depolicing. One of these was an officer from a large metropolitan police agency with seven years of experience. Case in point: When my department adopted the use of body cameras it caused most of the officers to stop policing the way they normally did. It caused many of the officers not to care about arresting anyone. They were concerned they would be caught on camera violating some department policy or other and get in trouble for the arrest, not rewarded. It also took away our discretion. And that created problems which caused officers to stop policing. An example. You pull over a grandma and she’s got weed in her front seat in plain view and the body camera catches it on film. Well, now you gotta take grandma downtown because the camera just caught her in possession. Most cops would not take grandma to booking but would tag it TBD [to be destroyed], give granny a stern


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

lecture, and let her go. Now you gots to arrest grandma. So, yeah, that’s a real dilemma. (#57)

Some officers (n = 4) said they did not believe technology was associated with depolicing. One, a municipal officer from a small department with 28 years of experience, stated,

My department, which is a middle-sized agency, embraces the use of video whether it be body cameras or in-car cameras, which patrol uses to take statements as well as record incidents. We have not had any indication of depolicing as a result of the camera use. We have assigned cars and if a camera isn’t working, they [other officers] don’t want to go out until they can locate a fellow officer’s car to use. (#26)

Several others believed not only that depolicing was not associated with technology but that the technology discussed prevented the phenomenon. These were the same officers who previously (see Chapter 4) did not believe depolicing could exist—at least not in their agencies. As one officer explained,

I am not sure that is possible anymore. At least in our department it would be hard to do that because of the MVS system. That’s the Mobile Video System. Each patrol car has a dashboard camera and we are hooked up to a body mike. At the end of every shift our video gets submitted electronically to the chief ’s office, and it is reviewed. So the discretion of the officer has largely been taken away. It would be impossible to not patrol or self-initiate calls, for the chief ’s office would see that the officer is not doing anything and would call them out for not doing their job. The technology has changed things a lot in policing. (#21)

Another elaborated,

It ain’t happening in my department. We are so tracked it is unbelievable. You got trackers on the cars, cameras on the dashboards, and open mikes and body cameras on us. Being a cop is like being that dude in the big brother book. Not to mention all of the paperwork we have to do and upload electronically. Plus you have the daily quotas—don’t call it a quota though, you’ll get your ass in a ringer—it is the daily activity report. We have to have so many

Cops Talk About Depolicing II: Who’s to Blame?


points a day and everything has a value. So I have to get my points. If I want a raise, I have to get lots of points. So I do my job, I get the points, and I get a raise. You get complaints, sure, but I get my raise. It sucks being tracked, it sucks being watched all the time, but heck, if it’s not the soups [supervisors], it’s the citizens. Every time I show up on a scene they bring out their cell phones and start filming. I’m not getting away with nut’in. I have no discretion, but I ain’t gonna be able to depolice. (#58)

Interestingly, some officers believed the technology caused depolicing, while others believed it prevented it. Chapter 6 explores the possibility that the technology may prove to be a solution for dealing with depolicing behaviors.

“Depolicing Is Real, but It Ain’t What You See in the News” (#53)

Nearly all the officers (n = 53) listed the media as a factor in depolicing. The subject also appeared to make officers the most visibly irritated or angry, with some of their comments becoming quite vituperative. Some cited the media not as a cause of depolicing but as a contributing factor. For example, “I think the media contributes to the problem as well. When video is shown and cases discussed, others who may not have considered filing suit might consider a suit on the off chance they can get a settlement” (#40). Others believed that the media creates much of the controversy over the police, which may lead indirectly to depolicing: “The media sure stirs things up and then once the people get going, it gives them more to report on, so it just starts feeding itself. Then the next incident that occurs gets blown out of proportion and all the old baggage gets put out on display again. And that gets people more riled up. I think that is what’s causing it to be more widespread. The other stuff still happens” (#60). Still others laid the blame on the doorstep of the media: “Media is to blame for how society or citizens view the police. Every city in the US has seen the images, videos and riots on television. Depolicing is widespread through law enforcement, causing concern to not only individuals but to entire agencies” (#46). Another officer believed, “Depolicing happens when the events such as the Ferguson case where the media does nothing to remedy the situation; they only cause even more chaos and turmoil with their one-sided, biased coverage” (#29).


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

Many of the officers, although still blaming the media, tried to explain how and why it contributes to the problem. One officer at a mid-sized department explained,

I believe this might become more of an issue in the future due to the recent media attention on police misconduct. This attention from mainstream media is not all good, however. I believe it calls into question justified actions as well as those that are done with ill intent. It is all too easy to sit in an air-conditioned office and watch a video showing what the camera caught of a very dynamic situation and cast judgment on the actions of a police officer in the given scenario. People often fail to recognize the full fluidity of a situation and the context in which it occurred. The media often shows only the few seconds of the police action in a video and fails to display the events that led up to that action. (#35)

This was a common complaint, that news reporters, not understanding what happens so quickly on the street, pare it down to a short clip and give their opinion as to the correctness of the officer’s behavior. Other officers go a step further and argue that the media are looking for a story that sells, and so they sensationalize news stories about the police. One officer from a large metropolitan police agency with five years in the department, explained,

We can see daily in the media how things are being presented and sensationalized from a perspective which claims police have no accountability. Society as a whole wants us to be held accountable, and honestly we as police officers have no issue with that. We do, however, have an issue with being held accountable to both unreasonable and unfair standards. There is nothing wrong with holding those in power accountable for their actions. There is something wrong with not affording them the same rights we are sworn to protect. I get really sick of the media saying the criminal “allegedly” did something, yet the officer killed the criminal. Accountability should not stem from hatred; it should come from evidence and facts. No judgment should be made until those are gathered and gone over. (#41)

Other officers believed the media to be biased in their reporting, especially when it comes to the police, and to be complicit in creating the problems in our society. An officer from a small municipal agency with seven years of experience suggested,

Cops Talk About Depolicing II: Who’s to Blame?


We face a very critical moment with law enforcement that will shape history. There could be a further divide between society and the police which could lead to depolicing. The simple result would be an increase in crime and a destabilization in multiple cities around the country. Most of the blame for this destabilization that is already occurring is squarely caused by the biased media who has financial motivations when stoking the fire on this issue. Too many uneducated folks need to come to the realization that opinions need to be formed through factual information, not one-sided and biased news reports. The fact is police and community relations are very strong around the country except in a few areas. (#43)

While many of the interviewees also stated that the media are biased (n = 16), a number also agreed with this officer’s last statement that in most of the country police-community relations are strong, despite what the media say. An officer with a large municipal agency who has 30 years of police experience described how he feels the media have riled up his community:

Yeah, depolicing is real, but it ain’t what you see in the news. At least not in our community. We had a conflict between the poorer, black neighborhood in town, and they started protesting against the police. Then every time there was some event in that neighborhood, the media was there reporting on it, claiming racial profiling. At lot of officers were gettin’ angry, not with the citizens but with the media. Then the lawsuit came. A number of officers got sued because the media riled up the agitators and they found a victim. The lawsuit itself came to nothing, and there was an internal investigation; it—they—found nothing. They even called in some outsiders to check us. And of course the media painted all of this as if we were at fault. (#53)

The officer then told an interesting story about what happened to police-community relations in the wake of officers’ depolicing: So, a lot of the guys I know said, “Fuck it, I’m done.” They started to depolice. Mostly they just stayed out of the black community and only took calls when necessary. The way the beats are organized, you can stay out of that neighborhood, but still be in your beat, so no one could say anything. And you know what happened? It was the damnedest thing. The neighborhood started


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

to love us. We left them alone and only came, basically, when called. And they loved us. They had those citizen survey things, and they came back about, I don’t know . . . six months, a year later . . . that the satisfaction with the police went up. We heard that and laughed. We improved our image by staying out of the poor folks’ neighborhood. That doesn’t mean they like us or anything. I guess they just like us leavin’ them alone. So that is my experience with depolicing. I don’t know, maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe if they do that in Ferguson and Baltimore and wherever else, maybe the people will like the police. Their communities may all go to hell, but they’ll like us. (#53)

This reaction possibly reflected the community’s belief that the police were no longer harassing them, or it could demonstrate support for the original intent of officer’s depolicing as described by Black and Baumgartner (1987) in that it led to self-help. There is not enough evidence to support either assertion, but the officer’s story of the outcome was unique, while his contention that the media created problems was not. Nearly all the discussion by officers about the media referred to the news media. Only one officer, who worked for a county agency and had 18 years of experience, brought up another type of media: social media. He explained, by way of a story, how social media ultimately led officers in his department to depolice.

It has a lot to do with their exposure to the media and how they play out these issues. Facebook is the absolute devil. Social media and its effect on law enforcement has had a huge impact. These things absolutely contribute to depolicing. One of our SROs [senior ranking officers] let the [high school] seniors into the school for a senior prank, and it went awry. The officers allowing the students in has been going on for 20 years. The principal knew about it, and it was preplanned. However, after the initial students went in and the officer left, another group of students came in and caused the destruction. This year, because of Facebook and social media, it went viral. Then the media picked up on it. The officer discovered it was his fault that 100 students came in—committed the vandalism after the officer left. These officers were then disciplined, and the officer was terminated. But it was because [of] social media and the media exposure that the agency was forced to make its decision. Morale dropped in the department. (#37)

Cops Talk About Depolicing II: Who’s to Blame?


In this case, although the original issue derived from social media, the news media exacerbated it, which ultimately contributed to officers disengaging. The media as a contributing factor in depolicing was a strong common theme among the officers interviewed in this study.


When the officers in this study were asked about the causes of depolicing, their answers were many and varied. They attributed police disengagement to no one factor. Many interviewees believed that it stemmed from misunderstandings with the community about what the police do, citizen complaints, community backlashes, and a general anticop sentiment. Others tied it to the individual, believing it a matter of personal accountability and ethics, motivation levels, and/or age. Still more cited aspects of the agency itself as causes, including supervisors, unfair discipline, Internal Affairs investigations, and the implementation of new policies or changes to old ones, especially use-of-force policies. Others linked it to major threats to officers’ careers, such as critical incidents, civil suits, and allegations of racism and racial profiling. And still others listed technology, the media, and changes in the laws. Most of the officers cited at least three of these factors, if not more, in no particular order. Some factors mentioned, such as civil suits, were seen as much more causative than the scant literature on depolicing suggests. The officers cited other possible causes, such as allegations of racism and racial profiling, less than did the literature. Some officer concerns, such as changes in the laws, altered use-of-force policies, and the age of officers, were absent from the literature. Thus, it would appear that the causative factors of depolicing are more widely varied than the literature would indicate. Yet some causes do seem to trigger depolicing more than others. The most common thread throughout all the officers’ interviews was fear. If not using the word itself, they used others that clearly described it. Some examples: • “On the other, it can cause depolicing, indecision, and fear to take action” (#01). • “I am sure that we have all depoliced to some extent or another, either out of protest or fear. . . . If an officer is corrected for a


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

poor decision or bad behavior, many of their peers feel intimidated by the process and fear similar reprisals” (#11). • “I think depolicing is most prevalent when someone has had a bad experience and they shy away from doing that action gain because they fear that action may cause the same negative result” (#17). • “Depolicing is more of your own fear of repercussions, real or not, because of certain demographics. . . . So, yes, officers will choose to police less aggressively for fear of some type of repercussion, like a lawsuit” (#22). • “I have often heard of officers second-guessing themselves in situations where they know they are being watched in fear of making a mistake. The fear isn’t of doing something necessarily wrong; it is of being persecuted for a decision not understood by the many who could possibly watch a few seconds of a video captured by a passerby” (#35). • “I think some other reasons for depolicing is the fear of discipline from the department, the fear of a community outcry, and the other biggest thing I see is morale and maybe various facets that go with that, like the loss of pay increases, county not funding things, you know, loss of benefits” (#37). • “What recourse does an officer have? They do not have a leg to stand on, so for fear of saying or doing something just the slightest bit wrong and having a citizen blow it completely out of proportion, they just slow down” (#49).

Note that the fear described above is not fear of doing the job. It is not fear of responding to an armed robbery in progress. It is not fear of facing a suspect resisting arrest. Nor is it fear of confronting an active shooter. Police officers are well equipped to handle these situations. They want to engage in those situations because that is their job. The fear described above is the fear of losing their jobs or being punished for doing their jobs. It is the fear that someone will take what they say, what they do, and how they do it out of context and file a complaint or a civil suit against them. Then they fear that when their back is up against the wall, the agency, the department, their supervisors, and their fellow officers will not be there to support them. Assuming that the system will treat them unfairly, they give in to their fears and cease to care. When people look out for only themselves, they cease to care for others. When police officers look out for themselves first, they cease to care for the communities they police. Fear, it would seem, is the primary cause of depolicing.

6 Cops Talk About Depolicing III: Solutions

The police officers in this study were quick to acknowledge the existence of depolicing in their own agencies and others. They were quick to acknowledge the causes of depolicing, often providing lists of factors that lead officers to depolice, then going into depth about many of them. When the conversation turned to the solutions to combat depolicing, the answers were slower in coming and more hesitant. It was as if most of the officers, while aware of depolicing and its causes, had not thought through how to remedy it. Overwhelmingly, however, of those police officers who did respond (n = 52), most spoke of supervisors. Some believed that the supervisors were part of the problem when it came to depolicing (n = 16). Others named them as the solution to the problem (n = 27). Still others felt they were both a problem and the solution (n = 9). These officers believed that supervisors should learn to recognize depolicing, monitor their officers for signs of the phenomenon, and work to improve morale and motivate those depolicing to return to practicing good policing. This is in keeping with the findings of much of the research on employee workplace disengagement. One study by Gallup (2013) concluded that “managers are primarily responsible for their employees’ engagement levels” (11). Gallup has even formed an initiative around this problem by making recommendations for how to turn employees around and get them more engaged in their work and by 129


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

offering assistance to employers based on the use of Gallup’s metrics. In addition, the Dale Carnegie Training Institute (2012a, 2012b) also found that not only were immediate supervisors important to employee engagement, but so too was senior leadership. Good-quality managers with whom employees were very satisfied or somewhat satisfied had higher rates of workplace engagement than those whose employees were dissatisfied with them. While many of the officers (n = 9) in this study agreed that senior leadership played a role in the solution to depolicing, others (n = 7) went even further and mentioned leaders in both city governance and the community. Most notably, however, the primary solution to depolicing offered by participants in this study was in keeping with the recommendations of some larger national studies on the same topic: resolving workplace disengagement. In addition to discussing supervisors, many of the police officers (n = 26) also spoke of good leadership as a solution. This was either always mentioned separately from supervisors or occasionally in tandem, but always making it clear that good supervision and good leadership were not necessarily synonymous. Many others discussed ethics in policing (n = 19), though several (n = 9) were also quick to explain that they were not referring to ethics training, which they felt was not something that would be productive. Several other possible solutions were mentioned by individual officers. Although they were only mentioned once, they are worth including.

“The Biggest Problem Is the Supervisors” (#59)

Many of the officers (n = 16), when asked about the solution to depolicing, spoke of supervisors in a very critical manner. One male officer with 12 years of experience in a large metropolitan police force argued, “I think the majority of the blame for this falls on supervisors. Supervisors should not shun their people after a negative experience, whether the officer is at fault or not, but try to help them improve from it” (#12). Another officer, echoing this same sentiment, explained how supervisors contribute to depolicing: The biggest problem is the supervisors. The soups [officer slang for supervisors] get in the officer’s shit and don’t support ’em, you know? Then cops depolice. If the soups ignore them when

Cops Talk About Depolicing III: Solutions


the suits or the complaints come in, then cops gonna depolice. The funny thing is, it’s the soups that are the ones that can stop it, you know? If they show them they gots the officer’s back, there wouldn’t be no depolicing, you know? If they kick ’em in the ass and tell ’em to go back to doin’ their job, then they wouldn’t be able to depolice. You see what I mean? They don’t do that, policeman’s gonna depolice. (#59)

According to this officer, when police officers face a situation that is highly visible, at least inside the department, a supervisor who ignores the officer or tries to avoid him or her is more likely to encourage depolicing behaviors. If supervisors did not avoid these officers but monitored them and encouraged them to do their job, this interviewee believed, depolicing would decrease. Many officers focus on police officer morale when discussing depolicing. When some event occurs that brings attention to an officer, he or she faces a morale issue. If supervisors avoid the officer, dismiss the event’s importance, or concern themselves only with events that might threaten the reputation of the agency, morale drops in a way that encourages depolicing. One officer in his fifties, with over 30 years of police experience, explained,

The morale issues suffered by officers as the result of pending, or successful, civil litigation is frequently ignored by police administrators who pass it off as something that will “pass with time.” However, the reality is that a significant amount of frequently irreparable damage occurs when administrators choose to take this tact and ignore the consequences of their failure to address this issue. (#08)

Another officer, this one from a small agency, while talking of depolicing and its impact on officers, then mentioned lower morale, also suggesting that it may cause depolicing: I never thought of depolicing being introduced through the destruction of morale, but if it got bad enough I guess it could. There are quite a few agencies and officers I have been around that do not understand how morale is an important characteristic of agency productivity. Many times the only comments or times you hear from a chief or upper management is related to


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

negative events that have occurred—not positive ones. An agency like this would be hard-pressed to have a bolstered morale within their department. (#15)

Low morale in a police department can reduce police officer productivity, and reduced productivity—especially avoidance of engaging in any proactive policing—defines depolicing. Much of the cause for low morale, however, was associated with police officers being disciplined by their supervisors. While most police officers are quick to recognize the need for disciplinary procedures, they are concerned about how supervisors apply them. An officer from a small municipal agency with 28 years of experience explained how the issues of depolicing and discipline may be related: “I have seen employees be disciplined and then go into a period of depolicing and then get disciplined again for depolicing. I think a great deal of influence is injected by the organizational culture as well as by immediate supervisors. Staying involved and knowing what is going on [on] a daily basis is imperative for proper oversight of these issues” (#26). Another officer from a county agency with 18 years of experience also tied discipline to morale: When officers are disciplined or terminated, everyone tiptoes on eggshells, so officers do nothing that will bring attention to them. Unless they are on calls, they are hiding, doing nothing proactive so as not to be recognized. We have tried to rely on officer statistics to determine if officers are actually working. We see how many arrests, how many tickets they write, but the problem is these are not a great indicator of how officers work. Some of the managers in the past said we have to look at numbers. That drives morale down, and when officers know they are being followed for their numbers, they do just enough to get by. Then when crime goes up, they are told to work harder, but that is akin to mandating a quota. So officers stop working in defiance of being given a quota. (#37)

As this officer explained, sometimes the management techniques used to track officers to ensure they are not engaging in behaviors such as depolicing can backfire and actually lead officers to disengage or disengage further. If supervisors fail to manage their officers properly, depolicing can result. Or, as the only national-level officer

Cops Talk About Depolicing III: Solutions


in the study stated, “This natural avoidance can also be exacerbated by police management if the administration fails to manage the perceptions of mistreatment of officers, whether real or imagined” (#51). In other words, supervisors have to manage not only reality but perception. Officers’ perceptions, right or wrong, can still lead them to depolice. One officer, a female from a large metropolitan agency with 19 years of experience, believed that many of the problems came from higher up the chain of command: For the most part, the internal ethical and moral compasses of officers won’t let them look the other way. They are driven to do something about inequity and criminal activity. I see the depolicing more in events that are directed from upper-level commanders. When projects are assigned that the officers don’t agree with or by individuals they don’t respect, they “slow roll” their activity. But I don’t think that’s any different than it was 20 years ago. If they have buy-in to the project or appreciate the supervisor assigning it, they’ll hard-charge the event. (#40)

Another officer from a large metropolitan agency with seven years of experience highlighted hiring as one problem with departmental supervision. Change in this area requires that other things—often beyond the supervisor’s control—also be changed. As he explained, The primary way to tackle this problem is to recruit better candidates. Instead of saying we need this many blacks, this many whites, this many Asians, and this many Hispanics, how about just picking the best recruit for the job? In addition, as far as my department goes, I know for a fact that we can attract better candidates if we had a better package to offer them as opposed to other cities (i.e., salary, benefits, retirement). Recruiting is one of the most important positions in the department since you are deciding what the future will look like, but sometimes it’s just a numbers game from the upper brass. (#42)

Diversity policies in hiring, as well as salaries and benefits, often lie outside the supervisor’s sphere of influence or even that of the “upper brass” (#42). That does not change the perception of some police officers that such hiring practices are “just a numbers game” (#42).


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

“Supervisors and Managers [Are] Even More Important” (#51)

Although many of the officers interviewed blamed supervisors for causing or further exacerbating the problem of depolicing, many of these same officers saw them as depolicing’s solution. In light of national events taking place during the period in which the interviews were conducted, police supervisors were seen as critical for guiding police officers through this adversity. As the police officer who worked for a national law enforcement agency articulated, “This type of role for supervisors and managers is even more important since the phenomenon of depolicing is perhaps becoming more widespread in the post-Ferguson-riots era. The frustration of law enforcement is felt daily with what is often perceived as strongly negative views of the public toward the police in media reports” (#51). These officers describe very broadly how exactly supervisors should play a critical role in dealing with depolicing. Many themes began to emerge, but first and foremost was trust. As the same officer explained, “It is also important for supervisors to retain trust and influence to focus their subordinates in the right direction” (#51). He believed, “Police supervisors have the important role of keeping the ‘troops’ on the right side of the laws and procedures, but there is another important function. The police supervisor must build the strong-enough influential relationships during the day-to-day activities with his subordinates, peers, and managers. Such efforts will pay off when departmental trust comes into question” (#51). Other officers spoke of this trust using different words. One county sheriff’s deputy noted that police supervisors needed to back their officers: “I think it is important to back your people, particularly if you believe that they did the right thing. If the officers know that their superiors have their back, then this would minimize depolicing. The superior may not agree with your decision, but this could be handled behind closed doors if this is the case” (#03). Another officer from a large metropolitan agency with 19 years of experience spoke about support: “It’s important to let officers know that you will support them as much as possible but there [are] some events that are even out of the supervisor’s/administration’s control. It’s essential to communicate to officers that there are limits whenever possible” (#01). He offered an example. A deputy sheriff from the Santa Rose County, Florida, sheriff’s office shot and killed a 13-year-old boy

Cops Talk About Depolicing III: Solutions


carrying what looked to be an AK-47 rifle and a pistol, which turned out to be realistic replicas.

Obviously I don’t know the situation, but I like the way the department in California is handling the officer who shot and killed that 13-year-old with the fake AK-47. Despite the great public backlash, the chief went on camera and supported the officer but also supported the independent investigations that had to occur. He didn’t throw the officer under the bus, and that builds a lot of credibility with the rest of the department. At the same time, the chief recognized that the situation was out of his department’s hands because of the public furor, and it was important to quickly bring in an independent review. When the police administration does a good job balancing public concerns with those of the department and their officers, that goes a long way towards building trust and reducing the chances officers are going to start depolicing. (#01)

Interviewees showed overwhelming support for the notion of building and maintaining trust between police officers and their agencies. How specifically to achieve this was an additional theme regarding supervisors as part of the solution to depolicing. One officer explained first what supervisors should not do and then what they should do: Eventually every officer is going to experience some type of depolicing in some shape or form and at some level. The answer is not for a supervisor to come in and tell me how it is—it’s just not a good idea. It would be more effective if the supervisor leads the way and shows me how policing is done. I think this is how you deal with depolicing. But in reality, I don’t see how we can be proactive in preventing depolicing when there are so many avenues of attack. (#57)

This officer believed that supervisors should show officers how good policing is done but did not explain how exactly to accomplish that. Another officer from a large metropolitan police agency took a big-picture approach before working toward his explanation of how a quality interaction between police officers and their supervisors would properly manifest: I believe that depolicing is a sign of immaturity of an organization. If someone goes through a negative experience that causes


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

them to go through the phenomenon of depolicing, I believe it is up to that person’s peers and supervisors to not allow that. When I say peers, I am referring to other working officers. When those situations occur—false complaint, lawsuit, poor supervisors complaining about you putting people in jail instead of running calls—it should be a learning experience. We should learn how to avoid those situations in the future by making ourselves better officers and growing from it. The supervisors should use it as a teaching moment, and the officers should take it as a learning moment and improve. (#12)

This officer believed that if an officer receives a complaint, the supervisor should use it as an opportunity to instruct the officer. Even though a complaint itself may be a negative experience, the supervisor, in this officer’s view, could turn it into a positive one. Another officer believed that the learning moment can even be extended to all the officers rather than just one:

One thing I strongly believe is highly valuable is the sharing of details of what common types of troubling incidents officers are getting themselves into and the consequences of their actions. In no way is this intended to bring embarrassment to the subject officer whose identity is not even necessary at all to understand what they went through. The objective is to publicize internally among commanders, supervisors, and officers those real-life actions that we should all be wanting to avoid and learn from. I like the phrase, “To be smart is to learn from one’s own mistakes, to be intelligent is to learn from others.’” (#13)

Each of these perspectives entails supervisors speaking with their officers. As one officer from a small municipal agency with 25 years of experience put it, “I am not sure what the answer is. Management really needs to address the problem. But it is one of those things we mention, but no one really talks about it. Maybe we should talk about it. Maybe even the chief needs to talk about it” (#52). Many of the officers discussing communication with their supervisors explicitly included the highest levels of the police department leadership as part of the solution to depolicing. A female county deputy sheriff stated, “I believe one solution to this problem would be the reassurance and support of command staff and agency admin-

Cops Talk About Depolicing III: Solutions


istrators. Also encouraging the officer to continue with interactions as they did prior to the triggering event may allow the officer to see that each situation is not going to result in some form of litigation” (#27). Another deputy sheriff explained, On a hopefully smaller scale, if depolicing was occurring the leader of the department is going to have to engage his or her officers to continually focus on their mission and keep this alignment intact. As the leader motivates and encourages the department, he or she will have to give reminders that alienating themselves from the community may bring some distance between those who do not support the police. However, it will also sever ties with members that do support the department, and that is not something that you want to do. Basically, the leader will have to be someone to pick up officers and dust them off and inspire them to continue to fight the good fight. (#29)

Whether it was the command staff, agency administrators, or the leader of the agency, these officers felt that not only were immediate supervisors important, but so too were the highest levels of command. They too play a role in helping officers keep a healthy perspective, motivating them, and reminding them of their purpose. Many officers drew upon this last point in various ways. They often spoke about staying focused either on their mission, like officer #29 did, or, as this officer did, on the goals of the agency: An understanding of goals and requirements of the organization and officers needs to be clear and documented for accountability. Officers need to understand what is expected of them, and agencies need to inform officers if this mission changes. Police agencies are held to a higher standard simply because we represent the essence of what is right and control over what is bad. If an officer is found doing something wrong, it becomes a community issue very quickly and usually has to be resolved publicly to gain community trust again. However, the public often forgets that police are human beings and are prone to the same deficiencies of human nature. (#31)

These officers believed that the mission of the agency is important. When police officers get sidetracked and distracted from their mission, they depolice. The supervisor needs to keep them focused.


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

Interviewees did not talk much about opening up communication between officers and supervisors or using the situations that lead to depolicing as a teaching/learning moment. Some thought of the phenomenon of depolicing as officers simply not doing their job and needing to be dealt with immediately and punished. For instance, one deputy sheriff argued, “The front-line supervisors and even officers are the key to ensure depolicing isn’t created within an organization, and if it is created, it is dealt with immediately” (#31). A municipal officer described how he had seen depolicing handled: “Most depolicing that I have seen is usually from one or two guys for a few days until they get hammered again by supervisors” (#26). Another deputy sheriff explained, Upper-level management needs to provide middle- and lowlevel managers in the agency with the opportunity and resources to establish discipline and reward. Further, the enforcement action needs to be backed by the administration and policy. If we can police ourselves in-house and the practice becomes accepted again, then legal remedies and negative media attention should decrease, thus providing reasons of trust and legitimacy for the agency. (#31)

These officers argued that supervisors need to identify depolicing, then deal with it swiftly by punishing the behavior. They still believed that the solution to depolicing lay with supervisors; they just thought differently about how those supervisors should set about resolving depolicing behaviors.

“Good Supervisors Who Pay Attention to What Is Going On Do a Better Job” (#40)

When it came to discussing what it is police supervisors should be doing in order to be effective when dealing with depolicing, overwhelmingly these officers (n = 58) argued that management needs to be aware of the depolicing phenomenon and to monitor officers for those behaviors. There was a near consensus (n = 57) that police supervisors should intervene when those behaviors manifest in an officer; how was far less clear. A female municipal officer with 19 years of experience spoke of officers who are depolicing as those not doing the right thing. She

Cops Talk About Depolicing III: Solutions


believed that the hiring process should weed out most who would participate in depolicing behaviors. As she explained,

The selection process works in most cases, but having worked in background investigations, I can tell you that every now and then sharks swim with the dolphins without us being aware. We still perform polygraphs. If you are good at lying, that test isn’t going to catch you. If something you did wrong in the past still causes you feelings of guilt, the test might catch those anxious feelings and indicate deception. The multilevel process works to keep good guys in and bad guys out, but it isn’t foolproof. (#40)

However, when individuals do not perform to standards, she believed, it then falls to police supervisors to deal with the problem: “Good supervisors who pay attention to what is going on do a better job, I think, of identifying bad apples than standardized tests and interviews do” (#40). Not all officers saw depolicing so negatively as to link it with terms generally associated with police corruption (e.g., “bad apple”). Rather, many interviewees (n = 27) saw it as a motivation problem or as an alternate reaction to negative stimuli. One officer, who had 19 years of police experience and worked for a large metropolitan police agency, believed, “Police leaders need to recognize those officers who are chronically behaving in this manner and find ways to motivate them towards re-engaging in more proactive activities” (#01). Others believed supervisors should not only recognize depolicing but discover its causes. A school police officer with 19 years of experience said, “Depolicing is a very dangerous attitude if allowed to continue, and it requires a good administrative staff to detect the behavior and proactively address the root issues behind it” (#16). A female county deputy with 20 years of experience believed that police supervisors need to tailor their response based on the individual officer and what he or she is dealing with on patrol: “Police managers have to be able to identify with the street reality of officers and the different level of skills officers have in order to find solutions to the dilemma” (#46). Just like all the other officers, this last officer believed that police supervisors should be able to identify depolicing behaviors and needed to monitor their officers for them. The officers’ opinions began to diverge with regard to how police supervisors should respond to depolicing when it is present. This officer believed that


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

each officer is different and that police supervisors must understand not only officers’ situations but their needs in order to figure out a means of responding to their depolicing. A police officer from a small municipality with 18 years of experience explained, “Management must not only be made more aware of the concept of depolicing but of the need to develop intervention strategies. These would involve counseling, a refocus on goals and objectives, a better recognition of political and public concerns, and a better-trained and -emulated management corps. The ‘elephant in the room’ needs to be addressed, but in a positive way” (#07). Other officers, however, emphasized that depolicing is problematic and “dangerous.” Many felt the response needed to be immediate, swift, and punitive. A university police officer with 14 years of policing experience stated, “As far as the depolicing concept, I firmly believe that it can exist in a department if management does not do their best to identify when it is occurring and address it immediately” (#25). Some officers (n = 18) believed that a response is needed before the depolicing behaviors ever set; that is, supervisors must intervene when events that may trigger depolicing occur. As one officer from a large city police department with six years of experience said, Lawsuits can cause a great deal of stress on the officers and their family. I do believe that depolicing is a result of this. Even if it is not a lawsuit and just a complaint against the officer, it can still be very stressful for the officer. Some officers may feel “Why should I help when they are just going to complain.” The police should be accountable for their actions through legal remedies, but I also believe that if a supervisor observes such actions it should be dealt with before a complaint is generated by the public. As an officer, it is just part of the job, and we need to learn to deal with it. (#06)

A small city police officer with five years of experience believed that depolicing is police misconduct: “In monitoring behavior of officers there has to be stiff and swift punishment for any misconduct to prevent it from continuing and occurring again. There also has to be not only policy but legal repercussions available to the department, and the officers need to be aware of these consequences” (#15). All the interviewees could see the inherent danger of depolicing, not only for the disengaged officer but for other officers working the same shift, as well as the public. They all believed that police man-

Cops Talk About Depolicing III: Solutions


agement needs to be aware that depolicing is a reality and should recognize its signs and symptoms so as to know what to look for. They believed it to be the supervisor’s job to monitor officers and take action when depolicing occurs. How they believed police supervisors should respond appeared to relate to how they saw depolicing. For some, it was an understandable human reaction to an event that should be addressed through intervention strategies to turn the officer around, to remotivate him or her to do the job. However, those who saw depolicing as improper police behavior or misconduct believed the officer needed to be swiftly punished. They thought punishment should suffice to get depolicing officers back on the street and doing their jobs. Opinions about how to respond to depolicing behaviors appeared to be closely tied to the danger individual officers believed that depolicing creates.

“I’m Supposed to Motivate Them. I’m Just Not Sure How” (#60)

Of the 60 police officers interviewed for this study, 11 were—at the time—in a supervisory role, with one being a police chief. When these officers were interviewed, they were not specifically told to put on their supervisor’s hat when responding to these questions. Many talked about their time on the street or spoke of the officers they supervised. When talking about how to deal with police officers depolicing, however, all of them clearly switched into their supervisory role. Most of them indicated frustration. The following words, spoken by a female officer from a large municipal department with 10 years of experience, were largely repeated by five other police supervisors: I’m not sure what the solution is. How do you get officers out of this funk? I think if they felt like the people supported them and the supervisors supported them, that might help. I guess someone should talk about it, but what do you say? Even though everyone hates you, go out and be officer friendly? Even when you hear of cops doing something nice, and even if the media reports on it, no one pays much attention. It’s kind of like the one cop was the exception, and all the rest of the cops are corrupt. Which is the total reverse of everything. The world sure is turned upside down these days, what with the election and all. Things have changed.


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

I’m just not sure for the better. I don’t want to sound like I have lost hope, but I am not really sure I see a way out. At least, I can’t blame any officer for not wanting to be proactive. Which of course is kind of funny since I’m a supervisor now. I’m supposed to motivate them. I’m just not sure how. (#60)

Another supervisory officer, also clearly frustrated, spoke of various management methods tried in the past to no great effect:

When officers are disciplined or terminated, everyone tiptoes on eggshells, so officers do nothing that will bring attention to them. Unless they are on calls, they are hiding, doing nothing proactive so as not to be recognized. We have tried to rely on officer statistics, to determine if officers are actually working. We see how many arrests, how many tickets they write, but the problem is these are not a great indicator of how officers work. Some of the managers in the past said we have to look at numbers. That drives morale down, and when officers know they are being followed for the numbers, they do just enough to get by. Then when crime goes up, they are told to work harder, but that is akin to mandating a quota. So officers stop working in defiance of being given a quota. I honestly don’t know what to do. Departmental mandates try to put them back on task. You will do this much work, you will write this many tickets, etc. This doesn’t help. You force the officers to put themselves in more situations where things can go wrong. Then, with agency and prosecutorial mandates for action, it can lead to more possibilities of being sued. So it ends up being the fear of potential litigation or disciplinary measures. (#37)

Another supervisor worked for a medium-sized county sheriff’s office and had 18 years of police experience. As he finished, he paused before adding some additional information regarding a difference between his generation and the current generation of deputies: “For the current generation it is not like it was for us, where we ate, slept, and breathed this job. For this generation, they punch the clock. They work their hours and do nothing more beyond the time on the job. They do nothing to bring attention. It is almost as if they are embarrassed to be a cop” (#37). This statement recalls the discussion of the causes of depolicing in Chapter 5, when the officers discussed depolicing among young and old officers.

Cops Talk About Depolicing III: Solutions


One supervisor addressed the issue of motivation, explaining the limitations imposed by the department and how he tried to handle the situation:

Police managers have to depend on the internal reward systems of officers to motivate them to work. As such, it’s difficult to eliminate intentional or unintentional slowdowns. As a supervisor, if I recognize officers are intent on depolicing, my goal is to assign them to projects that don’t involve 110 percent commitment . . . stationary posts, for example, or making runs to other police facilities—errands. They may not be answering calls or arresting suspects, but their presence still performs a function. (#40)

When this supervisor identified depolicing behaviors among her officers, she tried to give them assignments that, in a sense, authorized them to depolice. They would not have to interact with the public as much or respond to calls, but they would still be working. If depolicing is generally a short-lived phenomenon, this solution may actually have some merit. However, this will only work if depolicing is mostly an individual phenomenon; there are only so many nocitizen-contact assignments available on any given shift. One supervisor in the study, from a large metropolitan police agency with 25 years of police experience, addressed a subject raised in the previous chapter—specifically, that depolicing reflects either protest or fear. He explained why it matters which of these two is predominant in a given case:

As an administrator, we should be careful to discern whether the depolicing is a protest, which raises ethical implications, or based in a well-grounded fear of losing their livelihood. If it’s the latter, the department needs to do a better job of showing line officers that “We have your back.” Today, far too many officers wrongfully believe they can easily be sued into homelessness, and it’s really not true unless they act in very bad faith. (#09)

This may also explain why the officers interviewed did not agree on the best intervention to combat depolicing. There seemed to be two camps: those advocating counseling and motivating and those advocating punishment. Perhaps officers who saw fear as the primary reason for depolicing thought the officers in question needed counseling and motivation to return to proactive policing. Perhaps officers who


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

saw depolicing as a form of protest believed those who were disengaging should be punished. In the case of fear, officers can sympathize with the officer’s plight; in the case of protest, they see it as malicious.

“The General Public Has a Very Skewed View of What Policing Actually Is in Today’s Society” (#41)

Many officers (n = 27) complained about the general lack of knowledge on the part of the public (n = 24), media (n = 17), government leaders (n = 9), and community activists (n = 4), contending they do not understand the role of the police officer in their communities. Most simply stated the problem, while others elaborated. One female officer with eight years of experience in a large municipal agency expounded upon this issue the most:

Recently the grand jury declined to indict a _________ police officer. The media reported that more often than not, the officers are not indicted when going before the grand jury. Of course many were outraged and took to the streets. I have to say, and some may not like this, but some people are ignorant (not stupid, just lacking knowledge) and make rash judgments before knowing all the details. They live off of what the media feeds them. The media doesn’t have all the facts, and if they did, it would have a spin on it for rating purposes. The general public doesn’t know what went on behind closed doors; nor do they have any idea what took place during the event in question. You may have seen how Missouri City PD and just recently Houston PD put city leaders and activists through a shoot/don’t shoot exercise. All of them commented how fast they had to react, and if taking too much time, you’re dead. I think it’s been an eye opener for some, but I don’t think the media is hyping it up like they do when an officer is involved in a shooting. (#34)

A male officer from the same agency with five years of experience put it this way: “The general public needs to understand this better; though will they be willing or intelligent enough to listen? There is a much bigger problem at play right now than policing tactics. The general public has a very skewed view of what policing actually is in today’s society” (#41).

Cops Talk About Depolicing III: Solutions


The officers lamented the seeming disconnect between the public and the police, especially in the wake of the highly reported police encounter in Ferguson, Missouri. Several mentioned the police shoot/don’t shoot trainings, while a few others mentioned police citizen academies, but most offered no methods to bridge the policecitizen gap, seemingly resigned to leaving that to others to figure out.

“It Really Is Up to the Leadership to Do Their Job” (#56)

Although many of the officers believed that good supervision was what was needed to deal with the depolicing phenomenon, they also almost unanimously (n = 48) cited the need for leadership. These officers were noting the difference between supervision and leadership. Supervision entails overseeing police officers on the street, but it is not necessarily the task of the people who lead the police department. Members of the leadership tend to be at the senior levels, precinct and shift commanders, as well as the police chief and his or her assistants. The supervisors deal with the police officers on the street, while the leadership focuses on police policies and departmental direction. So, when one officer stated succinctly, “I think it all stems from the leadership” (#56), he was referring to the highest levels of command within the police agency. Nearly all the officers cited leadership as key, differing only in how they said it. For instance, one municipal officer with 19 years of experience explained, “I think regardless if you are talking about ethics or depolicing, strong leadership is the key in dealing with both issues, and it takes strong leadership and staying engaged to ensure that neither one gets out of hand” (#17). Another municipal officer with 11 years of experience held, “In my view, the issue of depolicing comes down to a leadership issue. If there is ever a time that a leader must be a leader it is in these difficult times” (#18). The officer was reflecting on the post-Ferguson climate and believed that only good leadership could lead police departments through the perceived public backlash. Many of the officers (n = 19) expounded upon why they believed good leadership was the key to dealing with officers who have disengaged. A deputy sheriff from a small county agency with 15 years of experience believed that “the right leader is key to helping the situation” and explained,


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

An encouraging and motivating dynamic leader that will promote an environment of high standards and success will be able to work on diminishing depolicing that may be occurring for whatever reason. Building the rapport and community relations is vital to this plan as well because it will prevent that isolation and line in the sand that depolicing can create. This leader will need to “walk the walk” and set an example for officers to overcome even the most difficult situations. (#29)

After talking about Ferguson as an example of these difficult situations, he added,

This is where a strong leader is going to have to pick up the pieces of his or her department and get officers back to doing their job successfully and without working with complete fear of every move meaning a possible lawsuit or bad media coverage. Unfortunately, when the officers feel the tendency to pull away from the public, it makes things even worse by making an even bigger divide and causing those in the community that actually support the police to waiver. I just see the need for a strong, supportive leader that will encourage officers after events like this take place, remind them of their purpose, and continue to motivate them to be successful. (#29)

This officer clearly saw depolicing as a byproduct of fear. Even many officers (n = 9) who suggested depolicing is a form of protest believed that the proper answer includes good leadership. As an officer with 19 years of experience in a large metropolitan police department explained, There is also a lot of behavior that might be considered unethical that is not covered in any law or any rule book. This is where police leaders in all ranks need to engage in ethical training and implement/reinforce practices which reflect shared and organizational values. The statement that not all managers are leaders but all leaders are managers is true. Police managers must learn the principles of leadership and practice those principles every day to establish their own credibility, get the best performance from subordinates, and reduce unethical and corrupt behavior. (#01)

This officer believed that depolicing was done out of protest and was therefore an unethical behavior. While he, like the others,

Cops Talk About Depolicing III: Solutions


believed that good leadership was the answer to depolicing, a more punitive approach to leadership undergirded his perspective rather than a counseling approach. He believed that officers depolicing out of protest should be punished. One supervisor added his perspective on good leadership by explaining how he handled problems similar to depolicing among his officers:

Leadership has a lot to do with it. It really is up to the leadership to do their job. When I see someone is having a problem, I sit down and ask them what is causing this. Sometimes you find out it is something at the house, or how they reacted to something. Then I try to do what I can for them, but we are a small agency, so I can watch over all of my officers and see when a problem comes up. (#56)

While this supervisor did come from an agency of only 10 officers, even in large metropolitan police departments policing is broken down into smaller units of usually no more than 10 officers; the concepts would still apply. Rather than the police chief, a field supervisor might engage the officer seen to be depolicing. One other supervisor in the study, an officer from a mediumsized agency with 22 years of experience, also believed that what matters most is good leadership, even in the face of severely strained police-community relations: Having spent more than 20 years policing a community with a large African American majority, I have seen depolicing repeatedly. I would say it comes far more often from the internal political environment than a critical incident. I have seen protesters picketing in front of our facilities, dealt with shootings and incustody deaths where the victim was a racial minority, and seen outside investigations by the Justice Department and others. When we had the right leadership—department and city—these types of incidents seemed more to galvanize the officers rather than bring them down. (#30)

Again, the interviewees gave a near unanimous call for good leadership as the most effective tool for dealing with depolicing behaviors. In conjunction with police managers and, as the last officer mentioned, good leadership in the city, police departments may


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

already have the best solution to depolicing: internal leadership rather than external interventions.

“I Think the Key . . . Is Creating and Enforcing an Ethical Culture. . . . [T]his Should Help Avoid Depolicing Situations” (#43)

While good leadership and good supervisors were generally seen as a solution to dealing with officers exhibiting depolicing behaviors, ethics also often came up (n = 19). In this regard, however, the officers interviewed seemed to take a more nuanced perspective. While all obviously believe in good ethics, many (n = 7) did not believe a department could teach ethics. Either officers had developed good ethics in their formative years, or they had not. Turning first to the interviewees who voiced a belief that good ethics can be inculcated through training and by enforcing ethical standards, one officer saw “reaffirming police ethics as a manner to keep everyone on the right track” (#51). That reaffirmation of police ethics was also articulated by another officer, who believed “the key to police accountability is creating and enforcing an ethical culture and lifestyle in the agency. The public also needs to be educated on factual information and seek to strengthen relationships with law enforcement and not weaken them. This should help avoid depolicing situations” (#43). He believed that achieving this ethical standard came not only from within the police department but from the community as well. Indeed, many of the officers believed that the adherence to good ethics by the department was multifaceted and a continuous process. As one officer from a large metropolitan agency with 26 years of experience explained, This issue of ethically based behavior must be addressed continuously on multiple fronts as it is a never-ending challenge due to the constant hiring of new vetted officers over time, the widely varying personal experiences officers go through on and off the job, and the fluctuating norms of our society and resultantly our departments. To be truly effective in maximizing ethical behavior throughout a department, executive leadership must first exemplify what behavior is expected from others via their own visible behavior (walk the talk so as to not foster cynicism). All supervi-

Cops Talk About Depolicing III: Solutions


sors need to also exhibit ethical behavior in their actions and decisions with subordinates, superiors, and the public to again demonstrate the expectations. They must develop solid relationships with their subordinates, mentor them, and be aware of changes early on that indicate problems are developing. Rules, regulations, and procedures need to be clear, and discipline should be consistently or fairly applied based on individual circumstances encountered. (#13)

Once again, even the discussion of applying good police ethics falls back on the need for good leaders and managers within the agency who demonstrate their own good ethical behaviors on a daily basis and are always seen as treating their officers fairly. These themes were raised again and again by the officers who desired good, ethical agencies. Officers who saw depolicing as a form of protest and thereby as misconduct also saw the need for good ethics and good leadership. The only difference was the call for punitive measures when necessary, but even then, they still believed these needed to be meted out justly and fairly. As one female officer from a large metropolitan agency with 19 years of experience described it,

Officers’ accountability requires the use of ethical boundary setting as well as legal remedy. Most officers have moral and ethical beliefs that force them to work within law, policy, and procedure. Disenchantment and burnout may cause their internal compasses to sway, but reminding them of law, policy, and procedure and modeling that behavior for them helps to instill the importance of these things to their credibility, legitimacy, and authority. If officers cannot abide [by] the law, legal remedies must be used to reinforce the importance and seriousness of their actions. Officers are required to enforce law but have the ability to violate that law (relative to individual freedoms) in the course of their duties. Maintaining control of their behavior—by reinforcing their personal ethical and moral codes or by attaching legal ramifications for noncompliance—is essential to ongoing success of the agency and respectability of the police profession. (#40)

Getting officers to see depolicing behavior as unethical and getting them to change their behaviors on their own or with the encouragement of good leadership appeared to be a first step. Should that


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

fail, punishing them for the behavior was this officer’s follow-on recommendation. Insightfully, in her conclusion for why this needs to be done, she mentioned not the individual depolicing or his or her immediate peers but the entire agency, the police profession. She fully believed that was at stake when it came to depolicing. Although the belief in good police ethics was a common theme throughout the interviews, more controversial was how to impart good ethics. Officers mentioned the police academy as the core foundation for ethics training and in-service training as a means of continuing that education. A male officer with seven years of experience in a large metropolitan police agency, elucidated, “Although recruiting is a major way to select individuals with the right ethics, some seem to always slip through the cracks. Because of this, training and in-service classes which teach ethics need to be taught and talked about every year” (#42). He also added a short anecdote in which he talked about the impact one of these classes had on him: “My department held one of these classes and began to show the faces of all the officers who were fired for the poor choices they made while in uniform. This really hit home because if you knew one of them, you were thinking that it could have easily been you on the slide show” (#42). However, while many suggested ethics classes were needed during in-service training, not all the officers believed this was a proper method for teaching ethics.

“Officers Can Take Classes in Ethics, but Honestly I Don’t Believe This Is Something That Can Be Taught” (#49)

Some of the officers interviewed (n = 9) believed that ethics in policing were important in helping stave off depolicing behaviors, but they did not believe that ethics could be taught, like police policies and procedures. A female municipal officer explained why: I don’t think the department can instill ethics into an officer per se because by the time you’re an adult, you pretty much have a mind-set that’s not going to change. This is why most departments go through rigorous tests and background checks to see just what kind of person you are. I think the policies that are put into place by a department is what keeps most officers in line, along with their own morals and values. (#34)

Cops Talk About Depolicing III: Solutions


As she mentioned, a police department’s policies and procedures are put into place to control behavior, and while they reflect the department’s ethics, they are also something that can be more tangibly taught. A male municipal officer echoed officer #34’s sentiment, then elaborated further:

It is nearly impossible to instill ethics in someone. Now, you can see what type of ethics they possess by speaking with them. I believe your ethics evolve throughout your life growing up and how you are raised. That said, yes, we can tell an officer what is right and what is wrong, but officers already know what is right and what is wrong and that we are required to have higher ethics than the general public. Ethics play a big part in an officer’s daily life. We are put in situations that a normal human being may never have to encounter, and that is why we have checks and balances within the police department. Every department has an Internal Affairs division who will investigate an individual who is not doing the right thing. If they are found to not have been doing the right thing, they will be prosecuted and charged for the crime they committed. (#44)

This group also believed the same holds when officers begin to depolice. They believed that no amount of training can prevent an officer from engaging in depolicing if their ethical system, their morals, fail them. They can only be held accountable for their behaviors if they violate police policies or the law. As one female deputy sheriff with 15 years of experience elaborated, This takes us to accountability, ethics, and legal issues. Yes, officers need to be held accountable if they are wrong, just like the rioters and criminals. Officers are not above the law, and they must pay their dues like the rest of the population. Officers can take classes in ethics, but honestly I don’t believe this is something that can be taught once they are adults going for a police job; this is something they should have been taught growing up. Either you have it, or you don’t. Again, as I say it all the time, there are corrupt officers, and each department tries their best to weed these out through polygraph tests, psych evaluations, and background checks, but unfortunately this does not catch all of them. In time though, everyone gets caught; no one can hide their true personality forever. This being said, there are way


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

more officers who are not corrupt, who have excellent ethics and personalities, but unfortunately due to a few officers and the media refusing to show what the good officers may do, every officer is portrayed as a racist, bigot, corrupt, etc. (#49)

Here she added an aside that visibly saddened her: “I saw on Facebook a picture of a white officer dancing with several small black children and all the comments say are things like ‘Nice try, Cracker,’ ‘Way to try and prove to everyone you’re not racist,’ etc. These statements alone should speak volumes” (#49). Perhaps the most succinct of the officers was a school resource officer with six years of experience, who tied depolicing, ethics, and the training of ethics together:

Officers should be held liable for their actions. Just like citizens, officers should follow the law; just because a person is an officer who enforce[s] the law does not mean they can do what they wish. Synonyms for ethics are morals, values, virtues, and principles. These are not things that can be taught; these are things that are instilled in us as we grow up and not learned when we are adults. I believe departments can only train on policy and procedures but cannot instill ethics. (#50)

So the officers were split as to whether or not ethics can be taught. Some, like officer #50, believed that only the policies and procedures can be taught, informing officers about acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. But I would argue that both police ethics and the associated policies and procedures related to depolicing should be taught and reinforced by police management on a routine basis—at the academy, during in-service training, at roll call, and by way of the departmental policy manual. A multifaceted problem sometimes requires a multifaceted response.

“I Believe . . . ” (#31)

As in the discussion of the causes of depolicing (see Chapter 5), when it came to solutions, there was a general consensus that good leadership, good police managers, and an adherence to ethical standards were what was needed to keep officers from depolicing. Still, a number of officers, when asked about the solutions to depolicing,

Cops Talk About Depolicing III: Solutions


brought up some unique insights or solutions to depolicing. Although these insights were individualistic, they show merit and should still be given some consideration. A deputy sheriff from a small county agency with four years of experience suggested giving officers a voice in the disciplinary process: “I believe officers should have a legitimate and strong voice in disciplinary action of other officers and a manner of expressing their discontent with the process or outcome. However, I know we fight to portray professionalism in this career field and the concept of depolicing negatively affects this portrayal” (#31). Allowing officers to have a say in the disciplining of a depolicing officer may help reveal whether they believe he or she is doing so out of fear or protest, enabling those acting out of fear to receive help. A female deputy sheriff from a large county agency with 20 years of experience had a very different perspective on depolicing:

Due to the recent news events seen by everyone, agencies realize that this could easily be one of their own deputies making the same mistakes or bad judgment calls as those officers on the news. Depolicing can be seen as a form to buy time so police management can evaluate what was done wrong, what can be learned from those other officers’ experiences, and to come up with a plan. (#46)

In other words, she saw officers pulling back as a means of giving the department a temporary reprieve from some police-citizen encounters that generate conflict. This reprieve allows supervisors to assess the policies and procedures of the agency and to make any necessary changes. In some ways, she argued that depolicing can be helpful to the police if used to assess departmental policies and procedures. This comports well with the statement of another female officer, this one from a small municipal agency with two years of experience, who explained that she believed police policies were a solution to depolicing: “A way that this can be prevented is by keeping the officers up to date on their policies for their agencies. Of course, every situation is going to be different; therefore, if there is a new policy that is going to be made, make sure that it is generalized, yet clear as to what the officer is to do in such a situation” (#45). Although she was the only interviewee to cite police policies as a possible solution to depolicing, she is advocating that police policies can help establish proper police procedures to safeguard police officers from many of the causes of depolicing.


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

A police manager offered the solution of sending police officers to police leadership classes. As an officer from a small municipal agency with 25 years of experience, he explained, “Another thing I do is I have a couple of officers in a leadership class, and it has motivated them. They now see what the department should be doing, and it helps them understand the way I see things” (#56). The concept is to have the officers see their behaviors through the eyes of those who run the department, sometimes gaining a perspective that can help with certain behaviors. Understanding how depolicing is seen not only by administrators but by members of the community, family, and friends may help even the most recalcitrant officer change his or her attitude. Finally, a deputy sheriff from a large county agency who had eight years of experience suggested that debriefings might help stave off the problem of depolicing: “I am unsure of what could be done to prevent this from occurring except for maybe having a division to assist officers with debriefing from traumatic events” (#33). His idea has merit, as this sort of debriefing is often conducted as a means of dealing with high-stress encounters. It is not too far of a reach, then, to suggest that these debriefings may also help officers discuss with other officers their personal reactions to these incidents, helping them to avoid the onset of depolicing.


Although officers’ answers to the question pertaining to the solution for depolicing behavior were not as readily delivered, in the end there was a general consensus among them. They agreed that the solution to depolicing was for good police supervisors to be active, constantly monitoring their officers for such behavior and intervening when necessary. They also generally agreed that police managers were responsible for building morale, developing trust, providing an example of good policing, using behaviors such as depolicing as learning opportunities, keeping officers focused on their mission and their goals, and serving as a focal point for communications within the agency. Even those officers who saw police supervisors as part of the problem frequently still believed good police management was the solution. How police management should respond, however, appeared to differ based on how officers perceived depolicing behaviors. For those who believed depolicing stemmed from fear, such as fear of

Cops Talk About Depolicing III: Solutions


being sued or having allegations of racial profiling laid upon them, the solution was counseling that could motivate the officer to return to proactive policing. Those officers who believed depolicing was done out of protest over changes in policy or because of a community backlash believed the proper intervention was punishment. They saw depolicing as a form of police misconduct. Again, regardless of which viewpoint the officers held, all recommended good police supervision as part of the solution. The officers also spoke of good police leadership, which they did not describe as synonymous with police supervision. They believed that, especially in the post-Ferguson climate, good leadership was needed to lead an agency through the troubling times and to ensure police officers did not resort to engaging in depolicing behaviors. Good leadership was believed to be a critical component of good policing and a means of avoiding the depolicing phenomenon. Finally, there was near-universal agreement among the officers that good police ethics could also prevent depolicing. But although there was strong agreement that ethics matter greatly, there was some disagreement about how best to ensure good police ethics. Some believed that you either had them or you did not, that individuals’ ethics derive from their formative years and the people who influenced them. They cited the hiring process as critical to maintaining high ethical standards. Others believed that ethics could still be taught, even to those who do not necessarily have a strong ethical foundation.

7 Coming to Grips with Depolicing

Although 2015 was dubbed “The Year of Depolicing,” the phenomenon’s continued presence in the news suggests that it continues. While reports of depolicing have come from jurisdictions all across the country, explaining what it is or even agreeing on the term itself has remained somewhat perplexing. Some have referred to it as tactical disengagement, selective disengagement, or retreat. Others have associated it with the Ferguson effect. Despite all the confusion over the proper term or proper definition, the depolicing phenomenon has come to be associated with officers disengaging, mostly from proactive police activities. This study has attempted to understand the lived experience of police officers in the United States as relates to the behaviors associated with depolicing. Broadly speaking, it has asked whether police officers believe the phenomenon is real, what causes it, and what, if any, might be the solutions to these behaviors. It did so through a convenience sample using in-depth interviews of 60 police officers from across a broad range of policing demographics representative of the policing population in America. The interviews were conducted from the summer of 2014 to the summer of 2016, with the majority occurring in the post-Ferguson period. The interviews lasted from 15 to 90 minutes and were conducted in the manner most comfortable to the officers interviewed.



Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

We have seen that the term depolicing originated with Donald Black and M. P. Baumgartner (1980, 1987), who argued that depolicing would have the positive effect of causing citizens to take a more active role in their personal safety and security and that of their neighborhoods. They saw depolicing as a stimulus for community self-help. Despite some occasional attempts to see positives, by and large the literature came to see depolicing as a negative behavior. A number of theories offer possible explanations for the depolicing phenomenon. As we have seen, the first addresses the issue of workplace disengagement, which is generally described as stemming from real or perceived unfairness in the workplace, causing individuals to withdraw. The interviews in this study support the idea and cause of workplace disengagement. Both the literature and the interviews in this book suggest that the solution to withdrawal lies with supervisors. Another psychological theory is burnout, suggesting people can only endure so much stress and that over time they burn out on the job. Burnout then leads to withdrawal behaviors, a symptom of which is workplace disengagement. The interviews show limited support for burnout as leading to depolicing, primarily in the discussion of age as a cause of the phenomenon. The second set of theories involves the legal application of symbiosis and critical cultural theory. The former states beliefs held by people often come into conflict, while critical cultural theory states that the presence of these conflicts may be defined by the culture in which they take place. These two theories largely associate depolicing solely with the issue of racial profiling. This study finds, however, that racial profiling is only one of many causes of depolicing. Aspects of the police-community relationship, combined with the effect of the media, offer a larger perspective for explaining depolicing in its fullest context. Finally, we saw that a third set of theories, found in the policing literature itself, offers potential explanations for depolicing. The first is the phenomenon of the blue flu, a term used in the past for a de facto police strike, generally employed as a means of protest. The second is the theory of workers, shirkers, and saboteurs. Shirkers disengage out of either laziness (leisure) or protest (dissent). This body of literature once again suggests that good supervisors are the solution to this problem. Third, this literature suggests that a style of policing, at the individual level, may suggest that these types of officers are workplace avoiders motivated by laziness or dissent.

Coming to Grips with Depolicing


The police officers in this study suggest that the depolicing phenomenon is real and not an artificial construct created by political pundits or news reporters. Nearly all the officers acknowledged depolicing’s existence, and 65 percent reported either knowing someone who had engaged in it or admitted to depolicing themselves. While a few suggested support for Black and Baumgartner’s (1987) hypothesis of self-help, the majority perceived depolicing as having a negative impact on the officers, police department, and community. Depolicing was seen as largely an individual phenomenon that had the potential to influence other officers, creating a contagion effect that transforms depolicing into a group phenomenon. When discussing the scope of depolicing, officers were divided in the language they used to describe those who depolice. While the behavior itself was almost unanimously seen as a negative, a majority of the officers sympathized with and voiced an understanding of those who depolice. A minority of the officers, however, condemned these officers for their behaviors. The officers also split when asked about the causes of depolicing. While the literature spoke often of riots, consent decrees, and racial profiling, none of these stood out as major causes of depolicing in the interviews. None of the officers in this study had experienced a full-scale riot or been part of a department operating under a consent decree. And they largely saw racial profiling as just one reason for depolicing rather than as a primary cause. The causes of depolicing listed by the officers fell into four categories: the community, the individual, the agency, and external factors. When it came to the community, officers discussed the antipolice sentiment in society, citizen complaints, and community backlashes as factors leading to depolicing. With regard to the individual, they spoke of personal accountability and ethics, motivation, and age as factors. When it came to the agency, the officers listed supervisors, unfair discipline, Internal Affairs investigations, and new or changed policies as causes. And when it came to external factors, officers listed civil suits, racial allegations, the media, changes in the law, and technology as potentially contributing to depolicing. Contrary to Frank Rudy Cooper’s (2003, 2006, 2009) thesis, no one type of action causes officers to depolice, according to those interviewed. The majority of officers, however, cited fear as the motivating factor for depolicing that underlies all these potential contributing factors. When police officers saw citizens file complaints against them, when they experienced allegations of racial profiling, or when


Depolicing: When Police Officers Disengage

they were sued, they feared for their livelihoods and their ability to take care of their families. Fear motivated most of these officers to depolice. This is why many—but not all—of the police officers both condemned depolicing and understood why it occurs. Many of the officers in the study saw police supervisors as contributing to the problems of depolicing, but there was also a general consensus that supervisors could be a primary solution to the problem. This is in keeping with studies by Gallup (2013) and the Dale Carnegie Training Institute (2012c), which have found that a significant problem with American workers is workplace disengagement and that the solution to such behaviors is quality supervision. In discussing how supervisors should react to depolicing behaviors by their officers, the majority/minority divide among the interviewees became clearest. The majority of officers believed that supervisors should monitor officers for depolicing behaviors and, when they are present, talk to the officers, informally counsel them, and work toward motivating them to return to good policing behaviors. However, a minority of officers thought that officers who depolice should simply be punished. These officers felt that depolicing should not be tolerated. These officers believed that those who depolice do so out of protest. Unlike the officers who attributed depolicing to fear, these officers believed depolicing was a protest against the department or community for a real or perceived wrong. Depolicing out of protest was heavily frowned upon and considered unethical and an example of poor policing. Hence, these officers advocated punishment. The findings of this study are of course limited to the 60 officers interviewed and cannot be generalized to the larger population of all police officers and all sheriff’s deputies. However, the study does at least suggest the possibility that depolicing is widespread in American policing, possibly more so than most know or are willing to admit. Future research, especially randomized surveys of police officers, will help verify or modify the many findings about depolicing this study has produced. As someone once said, the first step in addressing a problem is knowing it exists. It is my hope that this study has at least accomplished that first step.

Appendix 1: Methodology

Investigating this new phenomenon in policing required a methodology that would complement the focus of the study, the purpose of which was to determine the nature and scope of the depolicing phenomenon. As there were no known secondary datasets that could tap into the latent variables associated with depolicing, a quantitative study was deemed prohibitive at the time of the study. A qualitative approach to the phenomenon was considered most complementary. There are many methodologies available in qualitative research, including focus group interviews, participant observation, or case studies, but none of these could satisfactorily present the data needed to better understand the depolicing phenomenon. This is due in part to the fact that, as there have been no studies of depolicing to date, the researcher would be limited in knowing what specific behaviors to look for or which specific questions to ask. It was determined that in order to conduct this phenomenological study, the proper method would be to interview individual police officers to determine if, in their lived experience of policing, they were familiar with depolicing, a phenomenon that has been described in a variety of disparate sources (see Chapter 2). Phenomenology, as a means of research, is generally associated with the early work of German philosophers Edmund Husserl (1913/ 1963) and Martin Heidegger (1975/1982), as well as French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1945/1996). It was, however, the 161


Appendix 1: Methodology

work of Alfred Schutz (1967), a friend and colleague of Husserl’s, that brought phenomenology as a methodological approach into sociology and thus the social sciences. The use of this method has also, more recently, been applied to the fields of criminal justice and criminology (cf. Boeri, Gibson, and Boshears 2014) and, more importantly for the purposes of this study, policing (cf. Birzer 2008; Karlsson and Christianson 2003; Reynolds and Hicks 2015). The phenomenological method is used to understand the lived experience of the people who are familiar with a particular phenomenon (Larkin, Watts, and Clifton 2006; Lopez and Willis 2004; Moustakas 1994; Reynolds and Hicks 2015). In this case, it is a method used to understand how police officers themselves understand the realities of depolicing. According to Moustakas (1994), the primary purpose of this type of research is “to determine what an experience means for the persons who have had the experience and are able to provide a comprehensive description of it. From the individual descriptions, general or universal meanings are derived, in other words the essences of structures of the experience” (13). Thus the primary goal of this research is to determine what depolicing means for the police officers—the only people who can experience this phenomenon directly—so as to provide a better understanding of the nature of this phenomenon. Phenomenological methods are divided into two separate approaches: descriptive and interpretive (Maxwell 2013). The former is focused on providing a deep description of the phenomenon itself in order to describe “what actually happened in terms of observable . . . behavior or events” (59). The latter, in addition to behaviors and events, also focuses on meanings, which include the cognition, affects, and intentions of the people being studied (Maxwell 2013). Because both descriptive and interpretive are closely related, for the purposes of this study, both perspectives are used: descriptive to know how police officers understand the concept of depolicing and interpretive to understand the why—the reason police officers give for depolicing. Phenomenological studies gather the necessary data for conducting both descriptive and interpretive approaches through personal, indepth interviews (Maxwell 2013; Moustakas 1994). As the nature of depolicing is largely unknown, it was determined, for the purposes of this study, that a criterion sample of police officers was the most suitable of the nonrandom sampling methods for understanding depolicing (Hesse-Biber and Leavy 2011; Patton 2002). The method would allow for interviews of a wide array of police officers across such

Appendix 1: Methodology


criteria as type of agency (municipal, county, state), size of agency (metropolitan, small-town, rural), gender, race, ethnicity, location (South, West, Midwest, and Northeast), years of experience, and rank (police officer, field supervisor, command staff). While criterion sampling is a form of purposive convenience sampling, it does not diminish the lived experience of these officers when it comes to depolicing in any manner. Rather, it should strengthen the data by ensuring that officers with knowledge of this phenomenon are drawn from across multiple segments of the police population and are not limited to just certain types (e.g., southern white male police officers from metropolitan locations). Conducting interviews with a population such as police officers raises the issue of access (Hesse-Biber and Leavy 2011; Maxwell 2013; Patton 2002). Police officers are often cautious and suspicious of outsiders; in many ways this is a survival mechanism that stems from the nature of their occupation. Gaining the trust of police insiders as an outsider can be difficult. As I am a former police officer and a retired military police officer in the US Army, my past experience allows me to bridge that divide. As a professor of policing at my current institution, I also have access to many police officers from across the United States. This combination helped to overcome the difficulties that most researchers have in gaining access to the police population. The fact that I have past police experience, however, is a doubleedged sword. On the one hand, it allows me access to study participants who do not see me as a threat and are willing to be interviewed. On the other hand, it means that I come into the study with certain biases and predilections. So, while my experience enables me to understand and relate to the police officers and to know what type of questions to ask and how to ask them in the language of the police culture (Conroy 2003; Groenewald 2004; Lopez and Willis 2004), it does present a constant risk of researcher bias in my interpretation of the interviews (Creswell 1998; Moustakas 1994). This remained a consideration during both the interviews and the interpretation of the data so as to minimize all threats to the validity of the study. The need for confidentiality can inhibit police officers from discussing topics with an outsider. Police officers are constantly assessing threat levels, and this is no less the case when they are giving an interview to an outsider (cf. J. Hunt 2010). They consider how their actions or words will come back on them and filter what they say based on any harm it may cause them. Therefore, when one is interviewing police


Appendix 1: Methodology

officers, an assurance of confidentiality must be given and their privacy protected; otherwise, there would be no interviews. In order to guarantee confidentiality, after an interview was transcribed and descriptive information was recorded, each officer was assigned a double-digit number, and all identifiers of the individual were then removed, including any statements in the interview that might connect the police officer to his or her respective agency. This assured that, especially over time, not even I knew which number belonged to which officer interviewed. This did, however, create some limitations with the study. When police officers were assigned an interviewee number, only some of their demographic information was retained: their sex, the decade of their age, their years of law enforcement experience, the type of agency they worked for (municipal, county, state, school, university, railroad, constable, and national), and the size of their agency rounded to the nearest ten (see Appendix 2). These demographic characteristics are vague enough that no one, even in policing, can identify an individual officer within a particular agency. Left out of these demographic characteristics were race and the state and region the officers were from. These characteristics were removed because once a state was defined, the other characteristics might allow an individual to identify the agency an officer was from. Furthermore, if the officer was the only black female in a small agency, the specific officer could potentially be identified. There were more instances of a particular police officer being the only officer of color in an agency than the only female officer, so race was removed from the identifiers. Once state was removed, the ability to identify the US region in which a specific officer was located was also removed. These data, however, were kept separately for demographic purposes of the sample, but without identifying the specific officers. It should also be noted here that neither sex nor race should have any impact on police officers’ perceptions. Past research into police officers’ differences in attitudes and behavior based on sex and race have found little to no difference between officers (cf. Brooks 1989; Dejong 2004; Paoline and Terrill 2004; Sun and Payne 2004; Worden 1989). In a sense, police officers do not think black and white or male and female; rather, all think along the lines of being a police officer. Nevertheless, characteristics will be reviewed overall, but only the sex of individual officers will be identified. The total number of police officers interviewed was 60 (n = 60). Out of the 60 officers, 12, or 20 percent, were female. As the Bureau

Appendix 1: Methodology


of Justice Statistics places the percentage of female officers in local police departments in the United States at 12.6 percent and in sheriff’s departments at 14 percent, the number of females in this study is somewhat overrepresentative of the nation’s law enforcement agencies (Burch 2016; Reaves 2015). However, many of the larger agencies, from which many of the officers interviewed came, have upward of 20 percent females among their sworn officers, so the percentage is deemed acceptable and representative. Of the individuals interviewed, 24 percent were minority police officers. The majority of these were black police officers, who made up 12 percent of the total, while 10 percent were Hispanic. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 27 percent of local police officers in the nation are minorities, with 12.2 percent being black and 11.6 percent being Hispanic (Reaves 2015). Among sheriff’s offices, the percentage is 9.2 percent black and 10.7 percent Hispanic (Burch 2016). In sum, the study appears generally representative of minority police officers in the United States. The average age among the police officers in the sample was 40 years. As the average age of US police officers is reported as being 39.3, the sample was deemed representative of police officers in the United States by age (Data USA 2017). As shown in Appendix 2, 30 percent of the officers were in their twenties, 25 percent were in their thirties, and 31.6 percent were in their forties (with most being in the lower forties). Additionally, 13.3 percent of the sample were in their fifties, and none were over the age of fifty-nine. It should also be noted that most of the police officers in their fifties held higher rank (lieutenant or captain) or were police chiefs. Further, 16 percent of the sample were in upper management, while the rest were either line officers or mid-level managers who were assigned to patrol and still working the streets. The years of law enforcement experience among the police officers interviewed ranged from 2 to 33 years, with the average being 14.2 years. The majority of these officers came from municipal or local police departments (63 percent). According to national statistics, approximately 66 percent of all agencies are local, so this is deemed representative of the larger population. Nine of the officers were from county sheriff’s offices, meaning that sheriff’s deputies made up 15 percent of the total sample. As 16 percent of all law enforcement agencies in the nation are sheriff’s offices, the sample is deemed representative. The rest of the sample included state (3 percent), university (6 percent), school (6 percent), railroad (1 percent),


Appendix 1: Methodology

constable (1 percent), and national (1 percent) police officers. The last agency cannot be identified as doing so could expose the officer; however, it was a small agency that looked and acted like a local police department despite its being under the control of the federal government. It was not one of the larger federal agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Drug Enforcement Administration. The agencies from which the majority of the interviewees were drawn tended to be small, with under 500 police officers (63 percent). Nearly half the departments fell under 100 police officers (46.6 percent). This is in line with most police departments in the nation, as they tend to have less than 100 sworn police officers. Of the police officers interviewed, 21 (35 percent) came from larger metropolitan police departments with over 1,000 officers; 9 of these officers (15 percent) came from the same agency. In addition, the officers in the study came from many states, ranging from Washington and California to Virginia and Florida, with the heaviest concentration being in Texas (22 percent) due to my having greater access to them as I was located in that state. As a result, the police officers in this study were mostly from the South (48 percent), then the West (20 percent), followed by the Midwest (18 percent) and the Northeast (14 percent). While the presence of officers from the South and particularly the state of Texas is high in this study, nothing suggests any particular bias or inclination toward depolicing in these locations. This should be noted, however, as a possible limitation with regard to the findings’ representativeness of all police officers. The data collection began in the summer of 2014 and continued through the summer of 2016. As I came into contact with police officers from across the country, I asked if they would be willing to sit for an interview. The interviews lasted from 15 to 90 minutes. The majority of the semistructured interviews were conducted in person (68 percent), while the rest were conducted by phone at the request of the officer. All in-person interviews were conducted in locations where the officers felt most comfortable, ranging from my office to restaurants (over lunch) and bars (over drinks). In all cases, it was decided that due to the sensitivities of those in law enforcement, none of the interviews would be recorded, and I would only take notes. In most cases, I did this as the interview was conducted (94 percent); however, in four instances the interviewees showed signs of distress when I took notes, so in those cases note taking during the interview ceased and I recorded my recollections immediately following the interview. In all cases, the notes, following an

Appendix 1: Methodology


interview, were expanded into full transcripts of what the officers said during the interviews. Once each interview was transcribed, a double-digit number was assigned to the officer, and his or her characteristics were placed either in a table if they were to be associated with the officer (see Appendix 2) or in a separate document where they could not trigger identification. Once the officer was assigned a sequential number, all other identifiers were deleted. In addition, a final review of the interview itself was conducted to ensure no statements could be tied back to a particular agency or officer. If that was even a remote possibility, the statements in question were deleted. The remaining portions of the interview then became the data for this study. Once the interviews were complete, the data was then tagged using a number of methods. In this process, researchers are essentially deciding “what to tell and how to tell it” (Van Maanen 2011, 25), so this stage was critical for both accuracy and to ensure the reliability and validity of the data. I opted to use a traditional method of analyzing the data in order to become closely familiar with the words of the officers, rather than using the more modern method of employing qualitative research method software, which can often base interpretation on only common usage of words and phrases. The first method for organizing the transcribed interviews was based on the structured part of the interviews, which included questions on the presence and scope of depolicing, the causes of depolicing, and the solutions to depolicing. These were general, overarching questions, but as categories they allowed for the proper determination for planning the data into three separate categories. The second method was to then focus on each of these three categories separately, reading them for common usage of words and phrases. Once these were identified, the entire database was then searched to look for these commonalities in order to link them together. The third method for organization was by exception. Rather than focusing on commonalities among the data, I tagged all the words and phrases that were unique or provided a different perspective. Once identified, all these exceptions were reviewed to ensure that they were in fact unique and did not reveal another commonality among the data. The last step in tagging was to review the data for the presence of each of the theories related to depolicing to see if there was any support for such things as workplace disengagement, burnout, and so forth (see Chapter 3). A few additional caveats should be mentioned regarding the study. As there were over 300 pages of transcribed data and 60 police


Appendix 1: Methodology

officers interviewed, it is not possible to include every word said. The problem of selectivity is thus an unavoidable issue with regard to the manner in which the findings of this study are conveyed. All care was given to ensure all the officers were given a voice, but sometimes providing that opportunity to every police officer who voiced the same belief was not possible. Finally, it is necessary to note that the quotes used from the interviews are true to the manner in which the police officers spoke, including issues with grammar and use of both the police jargon and their own individual vernaculars. I attempted to preserve this aspect of the interviews and not to change what was said or how, but it should be recognized that this was also filtered through my own perspective and may not fully reflect what was intended by the interviewees.

Appendix 2: Interviewee Demographics

Appendix 2: Interviewee Demographics Interviewee

#01 #02 #03 #04 #05 #06 #07 #08 #09 #10 #11 #12 #13 #14 #15 #16 #17 #18 #19 #20 #21 #22

Sex M M M M M M M M M F F M M M M M M M F M M M

Age 40s 30s 20s 40s 40s 30s 40s 50s 40s 20s 40s 30s 50s 20s 20s 40s 40s 30s 20s 40s 20s 40s

Years of Experience 19 12 6 18 16 6 18 33 25 6 22 12 26 5 5 19 19 11 3 28 6 21


Agency Type

Municipal Municipal County County University Municipal Municipal Municipal Municipal State Municipal Municipal Municipal Municipal Municipal School Municipal Municipal Municipal School Municipal Municipal

Agency Sizea 3,000 20 20 30 20 5,400 30 160 3,640 530 50 5,400 3,000 30 30 20 3,640 170 5,400 60 130 5,400


170 Appendix 2: Continued Interviewee

#23 #24 #25 #26 #27 #28 #29 #30 #31 #32 #33 #34 #35 #36 #37 #38 #39 #40 #41 #42 #43 #44 #45 #46 #47 #48 #49 #50 #51 #52 #53 #54 #55 #56 #57 #58 #59 #60

Sex M M M M F M M M M M M F M M M F M F M M M M F F F M F M M M M M M M M M M F

Age 20s 50s 40s 50s 30s 30s 30s 40s 20s 30s 30s 40s 20s 30s 40s 30s 20s 40s 20s 20s 20s 30s 20s 40s 30s 40s 30s 20s 50s 40s 50s 50s 50s 40s 20s 20s 20s 30s

Years of Experience 3 32 14 28 6 5 15 22 4 9 8 8 2 10 18 10 3 19 5 7 7 14 2 20 12 20 15 6 30 25 30 32 28 25 7 2 8 10

Agency Type

State School University Municipal County Railroad County Municipal County University County Municipal Municipal Municipal County Constable Municipal Municipal Municipal Municipal Municipal Municipal Municipal County University Municipal County School National Municipal Municipal Municipal Municipal Municipal Municipal Municipal Municipal Municipal

Agency Sizea 2,120 10 20 40 50 220 10 70 30 20 180 5,400 260 190 50 40 5,400 3,650 5,400 5,400 30 5,400 50 3,500 30 350 65 20 3,200 50 1,150 2,150 750 10 1,450 355 6,100 420

Note: a. The agency size is rounded to the nearest number divisible by ten so as to further protect interviewees’ identities.


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American Federation of Labor, 44

Baltimore Police Department (MD), 2, 16, 20–21, 25–26, 58–59, 79, 93, 126 Barker, Joan C. 23, 29, 37 Baumgartner, M. P., 10–13, 31, 78, 126, 158–159 Black, Donald, 10–13, 31, 78, 126, 158–159 Blue flu, 33, 43–46, 54, 56, 61, 72, 75, 158 Body cameras, 54, 74, 80, 119–122 Boston Police Strike, 44 Bratton, William, 3, 9, 12–13 Brown, Michael, 42, 58–59, 66 Burnout, 27, 30–33, 37–39, 51–52, 149, 158, 167

Chicago Police Department (IL), 2–4, 6, 26–28, 48, 51 Cincinnati Police Department (OH), 14, 16, 19, 40, 109 Civil suits, 7, 9, 23–24, 47, 79–80, 109, 111–112, 114, 127, 159 Comey, James, 3–4 Consent decrees, 7, 9, 16–17, 21, 24, 32, 79, 159 Cooper, Frank Rudy, 6, 33, 39–42, 47, 84, 117, 159


Critical cultural theory, 33, 40–42, 158

Dale Carnegie Training Institute, 34, 130, 160 Dashboard cameras, 80, 119–120 De Blasio, Bill, 3, 90 Deadly force, 30, 94, 106 Depolicing: blue flu, 33, 43–46, 54, 56, 61, 72, 75, 158; burnout, 27, 30–33, 37–39, 51–52, 149, 158, 167; definition, 5–7, 15, 31, 40, 43, 157; depression, 7; despair, 5, 7; disengagement, 5–7, 9, 15, 18, 25, 31–39, 46–47, 83, 87, 109, 118, 127, 129–130, 157–158, 160, 167; motivation, 30, 32, 35–36, 45, 47, 79, 91–92, 125, 127, 139, 143, 159; stress, 27, 35–37, 39, 52, 65, 71, 76, 85, 89, 107, 140, 154, 158, 166; withdrawal, 7, 11, 16, 27–28, 31, 33–35, 38–39, 43, 45–48, 52, 54, 82, 85, 93, 106, 158; year of depolicing, 1, 3–4, 157 Downs, Anthony, 50–51, 95

FBI. See Federal Bureau of Investigation Federal Bureau of Investigation, 3, 5, 14, 26, 95, 166



Federal consent decrees, 7, 9, 16–17, 21, 24, 32, 79, 159 Ferguson, MO, 20, 25, 30, 58, 60, 66– 68, 79, 81, 84, 87, 90, 93, 123, 126, 135, 145–146, 155, 157 Ferguson effect, 8–9, 15–16, 24–26, 67, 87, 157 Flaherty, Colin, 3, 6

Gacina v. State (2010), 22 Gallo, Gina, 26–28, 48, 51 Gallup Poll Organization, 34, 129–130, 160 Garner, Eric, 58, 90, 92 Garnett, Nicole Stelle, 12 Gray, Freddie Carlos, Jr., 2, 20, 58 Guliani, Rudy, 3

Harvard Kennedy School of Government, 13, 16

Interviewee demographics, 54, 169–170 Interviewees: Officer #01, 80, 91–92, 108, 127, 134–135, 139, 146; Officer #02, 98; Officer #03, 134; Officer #04, 109; Officer #05, 61–62, 64, 66; Officer #06, 140; Officer #07, 96–97, 115, 140; Officer #08, 66, 70, 72–73, 131; Officer #09, 69, 72, 99, 143; Officer #10, 85, 114; Officer #11, 100–102, 128; Officer #12, 56, 130, 136; Officer #13, 136, 149; Officer #14, 55, 68–69, 108; Officer #15, 63–65, 132, 140; Officer #16, 55, 99–100, 139; Officer #17, 55, 128, 145; Officer #18, 73–74, 76, 78, 145; Officer #19, 111, 115; Officer #20, 118; Officer #21, 73–74, 122; Officer #22, 86, 97, 102–103, 115–117, 119, 121, 128; Officer #23, 95–96; Officer #24, 110; Officer #25, 112, 140; Officer #26, 71, 89, 122, 132, 138; Officer #27, 65–66, 71, 92, 137; Officer #28, 64–66, 107; Officer #29, 68, 89, 91, 114, 123, 137, 146; Officer #30, 62, 64, 147; Officer #31, 75, 81, 83, 137–138, 152–153; Officer #32, 72, 84, 112; Officer #33, 69–71, 91, 154; Officer #34, 63, 104–105, 144, 150–151; Officer #35, 119–120, 124, 128; Officer #36, 101,

104, 109–110; Officer #37, 56, 94– 95, 99–100, 105–106, 111, 119, 126, 128, 132, 142; Officer #38, 82; Officer #39, 66–67, 69; Officer #40, 85, 96, 105, 123, 133, 138–139, 143, 149; Officer #41, 93, 114, 124, 144; Officer #42, 68–69, 84, 121, 133, 150; Officer #43, 125, 148; Officer #44, 83, 85, 93, 119, 151; Officer #45, 118, 153; Officer #46, 69, 84, 123, 139, 153; Officer #47, 65–66; Officer #48, 58–60; Officer #49, 55, 89, 128, 150, 152; Officer #50, 55, 106–107, 152; Officer #51, 80, 98, 133–134, 148; Officer #52, 57, 87, 136; Officer #53, 123, 125–126; Officer #54, 57, 112–113; Officer #55, 56; Officer #56, 75, 102–103, 106, 145, 147, 154; Officer #57, 55, 80, 82, 86, 117–118, 122, 135; Officer #58, 73–74, 123; Officer #59, 56, 81, 97–98, 130–131; Officer #60, 56, 71, 81, 106, 123, 141–142

Kelling, George L., 9, 12–13 King, Rodney, 6, 16–17, 28–29, 48, 116–117 Klinger, David, 106, 108

Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (NV), 6 Los Angeles Police Department (CA), 4, 6, 15–17, 19, 23, 28–29, 37, 40, 48, 116

Mac Donald, Heather, 5, 15–16, 19 Majumdar, Archita Datta, 1, 3 McKinney Police Department (TX), 58, 93 Media, 1–2, 4, 13, 17–19, 26, 29–32, 40, 42, 48, 53, 60, 65, 67, 80–82, 84, 90, 92–94, 97, 106–107, 113, 115, 123–127, 134, 138, 141, 144, 146, 152, 158–159 Methodology, 8, 161–168 Mosby, Marilyn, 2

New York City Police Department (NY), 2, 59, 79, 90–91, 116 NYPD. See New York City Police Department (NY)

Index Pew Research Center, 4–5 Policing; accountability, 46, 79, 91–92, 102, 124, 127, 137, 148–149, 151, 159; blue flu, 33, 43–46, 54, 56, 61, 72, 75, 158; body cameras, 54, 74, 80, 119–122; dashboard cameras, 80, 119–120; deadly force, 30, 94, 106; ethics, 46, 79, 81, 91–92, 110, 127, 130, 145, 148–152, 155, 159; leadership, 26, 30, 36, 130, 136, 145–149, 152, 154–155; managers, 45, 56, 100, 129–130, 132, 134, 138, 142–143, 146–147, 149, 152, 154; motivation, 30, 32, 35–36, 45, 47, 79, 91–92, 125, 127, 139, 143, 159; stress, 27, 35–37, 39, 52, 65, 71, 76, 85, 89, 107, 140, 154, 158, 166; supervisors, 25, 36, 46–48, 52, 65, 68, 71, 74, 80–82, 97–101, 110, 123, 127, 128–141, 153–154, 158– 160; use of force, 63, 66, 70–71, 104–106, 111–112, 127

Racial profiling, 7, 9, 21–23, 32–33, 36, 40–42, 52, 62, 79, 80, 115–117, 125, 127, 155, 158–159 Ramos, Rafael, 1, 90 Riots, 7, 9, 14, 16–21, 24, 29, 32, 39, 58, 77, 79, 81, 88, 106–107, 123, 134, 159 Scott, Walter, 42, 88


Seattle Police Department (WA), 5–6, 14–16, 18–19, 40, 43 Self-efficacy theory, 35–36, 38, 51 Self-help, 10–13, 31, 76, 126, 158–159 September 11, 2001, 27, 116 Shirking, 33, 46–48, 52 Slowdowns, 45, 56, 143 Stress, 27, 35–37, 39, 52, 65, 71, 76, 85, 89, 107, 140, 154, 158, 166 Social media, 1, 26, 107, 126–127 Sutton, Randy, 2, 6, 30 Symbiosis theory, 33, 39–41, 47, 158

Taser, 93,–95, 104, 111–112 Terry v. Ohio (1968), 22, 40, 42 Terry stops, 22, 40–41, 57

United States v. Hare (2004), 23 U.S. Department of Justice, 16–18 Use of Force, 63, 66, 70–71, 104–106, 111–112, 127

Wenjian, Liu, 1, 90 Williams, Walter, 14 Wilson, James Q., 33, 43, 48 Workplace withdrawal, 33–35, 38, 45– 47, 52, 54, 82, 85, 93, 106 World War I, 44 Wylie, Doug, 3

Zero-tolerance policing, 57, 86

About the Book

Depolicing—the withdrawal from proactive law enforcement by officers on the line—has become an increasing concern within both police departments and the communities that they serve. Willard Oliver, a former policeman himself, draws on extensive interviews with officers in a variety of jurisdictions to explore how prevalent depolicing has become, why officers engage in it, and what can be done to minimize it. With officer behavior under more and more intense scrutiny, Depolicing is a uniquely important contribution to ongoing debates.

Willard M. Oliver is professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University.