Now Would Be a Good Time to Discuss the Ferguson Effect

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

From Chicago the news, once again, is ugly:

Amid a growing crisis over the Chicago Police Department’s use of force, the city late Monday released a video that shows officers in a Far South Side police lockup repeatedly using a Taser on a University of Chicago graduate and dragging him out of his cell in handcuffs.

The release of the video was accompanied by a prepared statement from embattled Mayor Rahm Emanuel saying that the treatment of Philip Coleman while he was in custody in December 2012 was unacceptable. Coleman died following a reaction to an antipsychotic drug, but an autopsy showed that Coleman had experienced severe trauma, including more than 50 bruises and scrapes on his body from the top of his head to his lower legs.

Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel went on to say that he could “not see how the manner in which Mr. Coleman was physically treated could possibly be acceptable.”

This is good. But it’s also worth recalling that less than two months ago, Emanuel was casting those who sought to expose this sort of brutality as part of the problem:

We have allowed our Police Department to get fetal, and it is having a direct consequence. They have pulled back from the ability to interdict … they don't want to be a news story themselves, they don't want their career ended early, and it's having an impact….

Emanuel went on to say that what “happened post-Baltimore, what happened post-Ferguson is having an impact.” He stressed that he was speaking for the “good officers” in the Chicago police department—officers presumably more appalled by evidence of brutality than by brutality itself. That was always the point of the “Ferguson Effect”—it was the video, the public objection, the protesting, and not the actual brutality, which threatened the legitimacy of law enforcement.

If the past week has been good for anything, it has given us a clear picture of the kind of policing, and the kind of America, that proponents of the “Ferguson Effect” would endorse.