FOX40 Special Report: The Ferguson Effect

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Nearly three years ago in Ferguson, Missouri, Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. Brown's death at the hands of a police officer sparked violent protests across the country. Officer Wilson was exonerated of any wrongdoing after a grand jury found evidence that Brown had attacked Wilson.

"You have a series of shootings, and then lies attached to it. Misinformation, like what we saw in Ferguson," said retired Police Chief Richard Word. "They paint this picture of a racist police officer. They've demonized this bogeyman."

Word worked for the Oakland Police Department for 20 years. He served as top cop in a city of 400,000 where racial strife was prevalent. He also served as police chief in Vacaville before retiring. He now teaches a peace officers training course in Sacramento. He says public perception of law enforcement is changing. With it, some police officers are changing, too.

It's the so-called "Ferguson Effect." The term has been used before, though most experts didn't think it existed. But a Pew Research Center survey of 7,917 police officers nationwide shows it may be a reality.

The survey released last month focused on how police view their jobs and how deadly encounters have impacted the way they perform their duties. Eighty-six percent of the officers surveyed believe fatal encounters between cops and blacks have made their jobs harder. It's a concern that Word said he's hearing from his colleagues.

"No contact, no complaint," Word told FOX40. "Meaning, I'm not gonna get out of my car and contact people because I don't want a complaint."

The survey also found that 75 percent of cops say their fellow officers are more reluctant to use force when necessary and are hesitant to stop and question people who look suspicious.

"They may be prosecuted for something they believe is right and within policy, and they may be thrown under the bus by their administration," explained Word. "They fear these things."

"As proactive policing goes by the wayside, you can anticipate that fatal traffic collisions will go up, that violent crime will go up," said retired Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness.

McGinness and Word agree that public perception of alleged police wrongdoing is often spawned by surveillance or cell phone video that hits social media and goes viral within minutes. But this video may only show part of a police interaction.

"Things can be spread, the word can be spread more often now, and it doesn't have to be factual," retired Stockton Police Detective Mark McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin served 20 years as a "use of force instructor." He says there are three types of force: intentional, unintentional, and the most controversial, perceived excessive force. He says perceived excessive force often shows the officer struggling with another person. If that struggle is shared on social media, officers can be seen as crossing the line.

"We just need to teach people what's going on and educate them on perceived excessive force," McLaughlin said.

After Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, a national organization working to fight anti-black racism and violence, including officer-involved shootings, gained momentum. The officers who spoke with FOX40 say the issue goes beyond law enforcement.

"To the casual observer, it would not be unreasonable to believe at this point that the greatest threat to the life of a young black man would be a white police officer. When in reality, the vast majority of young black men who are killed violently, who suffer a violent death, are killed by other black men" McGinness said.

"What burns me about Black Lives Matter -- they won't even discuss black on black murders," Word, who is black, told FOX40. "That just burns me. How can you say black lives matter if, in fact, they only matter when police take a black life?"

The survey also found more than 90 percent of officers say their colleagues are more worried about their personal safety. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 135 officers were killed in the line of duty last year. That's the highest number in five years.

What's certain is there are no easy solutions. But Word and McGinness agree that recent laws that allow early releases and reduce some felonies to misdemeanors are contributing to the concerns. They hope local, state and federal lawmakers get the message.

McGinness told FOX40, "Until and unless there's a level of support on the part of the political leadership in the state of California and beyond, I don't see hope for significant improvement."

For more information on the Pew Research Center survey, click here.