Cops' deadly hesitation and the danger of the 'cascade effect'

Give the word "Birmingham" lasting meaning, and don't let the practice of proactive police work die


In the year since Ferguson, we’ve witnessed a dangerous and troubling trend in law enforcement — officers hesitating to act when action is required, as occurred last week in Birmingham. This goes beyond individual officers’ failure to use justifiable force for fear of being branded a racist or a fascist — in some cities, the practice of proactive policing is in danger of becoming lost to history. 

If taking the initiative to put criminals behinds bars puts an officer at risk of landing in court, in jail, or in the grave, the obvious outcome is that cops may just choose to do the minimum. If this disturbing development continues unabated, we may be looking at a grim future in which cops will answer radio calls, show up to the scene (long after the bad guy has left), take a report, file said report, and figuratively — and perhaps literally — hide someplace quiet until the next radio call. They will become so demotivated that they’ll be hesitant to conduct any self-initiated crime fighting whatsoever. 

In cities populated by emboldened criminals and demotivated cops, the innocents will be the ones who suffer. They will live in a world less safe and less pleasant. They will be victimized. According to data gathered and published recently by Heather Mac Donald at the National Review Online, “in 35 big U.S. cities, homicides are up 19 percent this year on average, according to a survey done by the Major City Chiefs Association.” 

That report stated also that Milwaukee has seen a 118 percent rise in homicides and in Cincinnati shootings have reached a ten-year-high. 

“The overwhelming majority of shooting and homicide victims have been black, as are their assailants. It turns out that when the police back off, it is residents of poor inner-city neighborhoods who pay, too often with their lives,” Mac Donald wrote. 

In science, this is called ‘the cascade effect’ — a sequence of events in which each produces the circumstances necessary for the initiation of the next.

We must not allow systemic hesitation on the part of our officers be the final result of the false narrative of “hands up don’t shoot.” We must retake the authoring of our history. We must remind the public that a society that makes war with its police must learn to make peace with its criminals. We must not allow the broken windows — harbingers of serious criminal activity — to return to our cities. 

Law enforcement officers, trainers, leaders, and civilian supporters must give the word “Birmingham” lasting meaning. Keep your heads up and keep them on a swivel, because you may be attacked at any moment. Stay positive despite adversity. Remember that good people exist, and they love, admire, and respect you. You do this job for them. Don’t lose sight of that fact and please, above all, don’t let the practice of proactive policing die.

About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor at Large for PoliceOne, providing police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column, and has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips. Doug hosts the PoliceOne Podcast, Policing Matters, and is the host for PoliceOne Video interviews. Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

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