My Column in USA Today

After Chicago’s Homicide Spike, Review Police Problems

“Tomorrow’s cops must be college-educated and community-oriented. And we must be ready to work with them.”

I was at the meeting of police chiefs last year when FBI Director James Comey stated that a “Ferguson effect” was curbing cop behavior. Based on conversations with a few, he thought police officers were becoming more reluctant to enforce the law.

Comey — who has the largest repository of police data in the world — admitted he had no hard evidence to support what he said. The statement was certainly a misstep from our FBI director who should have had more than anecdotal evidence before making such a comment to the nation’s police leaders.

Now, after the release of homicide numbers from Chicago following an especially gruesome Labor Day weekend, the notion of a Ferguson effect has cropped up again. The city has reached 500 homicides for the year — a spike that puts it “on track to reach a murder rate it hasn’t seen since the drug wars of the1990s,” according to a USA TODAY report.

Since Comey’s statement, the idea of a Ferguson effect has been debunked. And despite emotional arguments about crime, personal safety and police actions, the murder rate in many of our cities is still a fraction of what it was in the 1990s.

I am hesitant to accept the idea that good cops are not doing their jobs. I will, however, accept that some bad cops, post-Ferguson, are not acting quite so bad since citizens now have the ability to capture these bad actors on video. If that is the case, then I’d say that any Ferguson effect (if we’re to say one exists at all) has been of great benefit to both police and citizens.

So what’s going on in Chicago and some larger urban areas that have experienced homicide spikes?

Our continued urban disaster has confronted and confounded our nation for far too many years, going back to the Kerner Commission Report of 1968. It studied city strife and concluded that the country was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” We, as a nation, must address social problems such as joblessness, the lack of good jobs, poor schools, and failing health and social services.

But I am not letting my former colleagues off the hook: Law enforcement can and should do important things that make a difference. Good policing changes quality of life. And it can make a tremendous difference in the lives of the poor.

By good policing, I mean the practice of respect, fairness, enforcement and restraint. Officers must make fair and equitable decisions; refrain from using physical arrest in response to petty offenses such as jaywalking and possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use; and exercise extreme care and restraint if and when physical force is needed.

When I look at Chicago and its history of racial conflict, I am not surprised that the police are ineffective when it comes to stopping violence. Most of the residents in these crime-ridden neighborhoods are against the very violence that is plaguing their communities. But there have been far too many negative, hurtful encounters between law enforcement and citizens of color for the good members of these neighborhoods to trust and support the officers who are supposed to protect them.

Bad social behaviors cannot be overcome in such conditions. While most cities in America, including Chicago, talk about community policing, few police are able to understand or practice it.

True community policing (or as I prefer “neighborhood-oriented policing”) is just that: people-oriented; eye ball to eye ball.

Law enforcement must also develop deep and generous listening skills, enlist the active help of community leaders and work with them while staying the course — a course that must be calculated in years, not weeks.

When police are respected and trusted and work hands-on with community members, they will be in the position to take the next necessary step — acting as a community organizer. Law enforcement can be a liaison between those they serve and the various units of government that are failing inner city residents. In such a role, I’d expect police to advocate for better schools, trash collection, social services and job opportunities.

Police must discard the militarized role they have willingly assumed in the failed war on drugs. That role has done more to erode citizen trust and foster anger in our neglected inner city neighborhoods than just about any other police action.

Instead, law enforcement must help transfer our nation’s war on drugs from jails and prisons to the medical establishment. They must begin to see drug addiction as a health problem.

We did that with another strong drug: tobacco. We engaged in a national program aimed at children and eventually adults, and it worked in reducing the use of tobacco and billions of dollars in future medical costs.

What I am suggesting is a major reform in who police are and what they do. We have tried using fear and incarceration as ways to control crime and disorder in cities. It hasn’t worked. Now, I propose another approach — an approach that focuses on police as a first step in the reform of our criminal justice system.

It is an approach that will demand that tomorrow’s police be college-educated, highly trained, controlled in their use of force, respectful, honest and excited about working closely with those in our nation who have been marginalized and, in some ways, forgotten. It will require police chiefs to be open, accountable, creative and extraordinary leaders.

In order for this to work, society must do its part.

We’ve got to do something to control the guns in our society. As a former police chief, I have seen too many deaths, too many innocent people killed by errant bullets, and far too many terrorist-style attacks in our schools and public places. The open-carry movement is a foolish response to crime problems. The only way we are going to prevent these unnecessary deaths is by strongly limiting, if not preventing, the possession of handguns and assault rifles.

If we are serious about reducing violence in our cities, and reducing police use of deadly force, we must also change our criminal justice, educational, health, economic and political systems. We can do this if we commit to working together.


  1. The evidence is leaning toward support of the “Ferguson” effect. Actually what we are seeing is well explained by what we know about human motivation. One of the factor that affect motivation is an assessment of reward/outcome of a behavior. We weigh both the positive and negative outcomes. There has been good research that showed that the negative aspects of DUI enforcement (work nights go to court in the day, additional paperwork, working with drunks, etc…) reduces motivation to enforce DUI laws. We should expect current conditions to affect human behavior in similar ways.


    1. Speaking anecdotally, when Dr King was assassinated, and our city started burning, it had a visible effect. When my colleagues wanted to shake down blacks in the district, I didn’t. I clearly remember that I was not going to participate in these kind of behaviors unless we had a clear and present public safety consideration. I was not going to get into a beef over expired license tags.


  2. Mr. Couper, your thoughts echo mine in many respects. The one exception I can think of is the emphasis on community policing. I agree with this idea in theory, but the poorest parts of any city are also the most transitory. How do you anchor a self-policing system in an area where the population is so unstable?

    The problem as I see it, esp. w/respect to Chicago’s problems right now, is that that gun lobby’s persistence is paying off — for the profiteers, but at the expense of society. The cat is out of the bag. I think that much we can agree on.

    Changing the gun laws will help, but that will take generations, if it ever gets started at all. I believe access to weapons and ammunition, esp. online, is at the heart of the problem. If Chicago gangs are getting weapons from a state (Indiana) where gun control is more lax, shouldn’t someone step up and tell Congress that the uniformity of gun laws is paramount to increasing the safety of society? And wouldn’t that be up to the police unions?

    But ultimately, societal conditions breed the kind of violence we are seeing in Chicago. Eight years of pushing this country further to the right under Bush/Cheney created this level of despair among the poorest of Americans.

    The middle class is still reeling from the policies of Bush/Cheney. Society is just now beginning to rebound, but what you see in Chicago is a direct result of the massive transfer of public wealth into private hands which took place during the worst eight years of (not in) American history, the years from 2001 to 2009. We can expect more of the kind of thing we’re seeing in Chicago because society has been damaged, perhaps beyond repair, primarily because of the recklessness of Bush/Cheney.


  3. I have to push back here David. The Ferguson effect, defined as the police no longer engaging in proactive policing as they once did, has not been debunked. To this point I would offer the opinion of Professor Richard Rosenfield, University of Missouri, who was initially a Ferguson effect denier, he has now changed his mind. “Cops are de-policing our largest cities.” They no longer roam the streets seeking out criminals and creating a visible deterrence that prevents victimization, rather, they are merely responding to calls for service, responding to violent crime after someone has been victimized. Now you and I can certainly agree that pro-active policing strategies such as stop, question and frisk, has a disparate impact on poor people of color but I would draw a distinction here. Those who advocate that such practices should end are speaking to a “social Justice” perspective. The police, however, are NOT in the social justice business, they are in the “Criminal Justice” business.

    I would advocate that cops should be sensitive to social justice issues, this is part of our mission here at UW-P but the mission of the police is to enforce the law and maintain order. The Ferguson effect shows us how confusion on the part of our police, unjustly holding them accountable for “social Justice” outcomes, can impact those who most need their services.


    1. Always welcome some push-back! My point is this: if the Ferguson Effect means bad cops are a little less likely to Abuse their authority, then that’s good. I don’t think we know one way or another. Would Ferguson have affected your or my behavior on the sweet? Possibly. I might be more cautious and careful about how I approached young black men (and I did) but it certainly did not affect the safety of the district in which I patrolled.


  4. “The police, however, are NOT in the social justice business, they are in the “Criminal Justice” business.”

    Well, the police along with the district attorneys have funked when it comes to the Criminal Justice business. Cops play a large part in the social justice business whether they like to admit it or not.

    Problem with Illinois, is that even though Chicago has strict guns laws, the areas outside Chicago have weak or no gun laws which is one reason why Chicago has a high murder rate since many people in Chicago and outside Chicago purchase guns in the outlying areas and then bring them into the city. The only way Chicago could reduce gun violence is if they build a wall around the entire city and have checkpoints at the entry points to search any and all vehicles for weapons.


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