The Threat of Social Conditioned Hesitative Police Behavior

August 9, 2014, a date that in the proverbial words of Franklin Roosevelt, “will live in infamy,” remain infamously among the annals of police history.

On that date, Michael Brown, a young black man was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a Caucasian Ferguson police officer during a physical struggle that resulted in the use of deadly force.

From that date moment on, relations between the black community and the police breached defense readiness condition (DEFCON) from DEFCON 5 (least severe) to DEFCON 1 (the most severe).

However, what ensued moving forward was a maelstrom of nationwide anger and frustration, coupled with relentless media coverage between mainstream and social news outlets against law enforcement.

As a result, a wave of misinformation, assumptions, speculation, protests, as well as riots throughout many cities in the United States unfolded. Days turned into weeks and then into months, as countless negative news reports of police brutality stories and or allegations being hurled by social activists, special agenda movements, as well as politicians, bombarded every news network and forum on a 24/7 basis. More than that the widespread dissemination of the all too familiar Ferguson narrative, “hands up, don’t shoot,” spread like wildfire.

This narrative mind you was proven to be false by a Grand Jury that nevertheless was continuously re-cycled by the media.

What Prompted This Study, the Phenomena, and Research Purpose

The phenomena of de-policing (also known as the Ferguson Effect) and hesitative use of police force, coupled with the barrage of negative media portrayals of law enforcement post Ferguson, created the perfect storm which prompted this following study.

The specific purpose of the research was to examine how police officers perceive media portrayals of police related actions, and how officers view such representations as influencing hesitation in their use of force and or in de-policing activities.

This study also adds contextual value to a 2017 Pew Research study of almost 8,000 nationwide officers concerning how they view their own jobs, amid nationwide protests and calls for reform. Nonetheless, when combining the aforementioned sub-component phenomena with the participating officers’ perceptions of negative media police portrayals, a central overarching phenomenon was then identified as Social Conditioned Hesitative Police Behaviors (SCHBP; figure 1).

Hesitative Police Behavior

Figure 1

In depth interviews were conducted of 17 active duty police officers in the state of Georgia. The participating police departments and their respective officers who agreed to be interviewed remained anonymous. The demographics of the officer participants were broken down as follows:

Hesitative Police Behavior

Figure 2

Study Findings Relative to Research Questions

As to the overarching question of this study which asked, How do police officers perceive media representations of law enforcement actions, and how do officers view such representations as playing a role in their decision to use force and or de-policing activities, the research revealed the following:

  • 10 (59%) of 17 officers confirmed that their level of job effectiveness has been impacted (i.e. level of productivity and decision making with use of force)
  • Increased levels of anxiety on job were communicated
  • Work attitudes were described as being impacted (i.e. attitudes and relationships with the public and lack of desire to engage in proactive policing)

As to the first research question, which solely asked, How do police officers perceive media portrayals of law enforcement actions, the results revealed:

  • Officers expressing that unfair and inaccurate portrayals are made of them by the media
  • Officers expressing that the media has their own agenda of misinformation in selling fabricated stories
  • Officers expressing that the media creates a negative image of police to the public

Additionally, fourteen (82%) officers conveyed how negative media depictions of police have created divisiveness between the police and society. Seven (41%) officers communicated that police have been hastily judged by the media. Seven (41%) officers also explained that one of the purposes behind negative media reporting is to instigate the public, particularly when it comes to racial tensions. In as far as officers’ opinions concerning objective news reporting of the news, all 17 officers (100%) unanimously felt that journalists engage in misinformation, versus reporting the truth to society.

In regards to the second research question which specifically asked, How do police perceptions of media portrayals influence their hesitation in using force, the findings showed:    

  • Hesitative use of force does exist as indicated by eleven (67%) officers
  • Officers communicated concerns of how they would act in a use of force situation
  • A small percentage of officers (2; 12%) described hesitative use of force situations they were involved in

As to anxiety of potentially using force, nine (53%) officers expressed that they either have such anxiety and or work with others who have such same anxieties. One officer for example stated how they prefer to engage in the least invasive use of force whenever they can. However, only two (12%) of the officers admitted that they personally experienced situations where they hesitated using appropriate force.

Finally, with respect to research question three which asked, How do police perceptions of media portrayals influence their decisions to engage in de-policing activities, the results revealed the following:

  • Nine (53%) officers acknowledged engaging in de-policing
  • Officers expressed how negative police media portrayals serve as the motivating force behind de-policing
  • Officers also articulated desires of leaving the job and expressed that a police career is not worth it anymore

Of the nine officers who admitted engaging in de-policing, they also said they know of other colleagues who are less proactive as they are and for the same reasons (i.e. negative media portrayals of police post Ferguson). One officer explained that in as much as they are required to respond to calls, they don’t have to actively seek out a wanted fugitive, search for drugs, and or engage in investigating suspicious people. Another finding related to de-policing was that nine officers (53%) indicated that negative media police coverage post Ferguson has caused them to think about leaving the job. Seven (41%) officers even expressed that continuing with their law enforcement careers was no longer a worthy objective.

In the next article, we will examine the significance of SCHBP to you in your role as today’s street cop. The one thing you must understand for now is you are not alone. More than that, the next article will feature advice and tips of what you can do moving forward in combating SCHBP.


Bruno Pavlicek retired from law enforcement after 10 years of service between the Millburn Police Department and Morris County Prosecutor’s office in New Jersey. He began his career as a uniformed police officer and then joined the prosecutor’s office as a detective where he served in the Grand Jury Unit, Financial Crimes Unit, and Special Victims Unit, as well as the DEA Narcotics Task Force and also as a firearms instructor. Bruno holds a doctoral degree in psychology and currently serves in the private sector as a senior corporate security investigator.