The evidence is now clear: the much-debated “Ferguson Effect”—in which heated protests lead to hesitant cops and higher crime—is real. In cities such as Baltimore and Chicago these three phenomena emerged at the exact same time. Nationwide, many urban areas, especially those with large black populations, saw substantial increases in homicide between 2014 and 2015. And new data collected from big-city police departments indicate that the problem may be ongoing, with a 9 percent rise in homicide between the first quarter of 2015 and the same period this year.
It hasn’t happened in everywhere, it hasn’t affected every type of crime, and we don’t fully understand every aspect of it. We definitely don’t know what to do about it. But the increase in violence is real, and even early critics of the “Ferguson Effect” are beginning to acknowledge it.
The criminologist Richard Rosenfeld, for example, was once quick to point out that the Ferguson Effect was hard to detect in the St. Louis area itself (which saw protests and riots after the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown and a grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer involved). But in July, the Department of Justice will be releasing a nationwide analysis from Rosenfeld that reaches a different conclusion. “The only explanation that gets the timing [of cities’ homicide spikes] right is a version of the Ferguson Effect,” Rosenfeld told the Guardian. The solution to fraying relationships between police and those they protect, he says, is a focus on community policing and a more effective response to serious crimes.
More on the Ferguson Effect’s implications in a bit. But first, it’s worth looking back at the effort to deny its existence, a fascinating case study of how researchers and the media weave a narrative out of the available data. Bizarrely, new information confirming the theory and fleshing out its key nuances was typically presented as evidence against it. To wit:
• Last year, both the website FiveThirtyEight and the liberal Brennan Center collected numbers from major police departments and found a substantial increase in homicide since the year before: roughly 15 percent. For context, even as the national murder rate doubled between the early 1960s and the early 1980s—a historic explosion of crime we are still struggling to understand—murders never grew by 15 percent in a single year. Yet these findings were treated as inconsistent with the Ferguson Effect. The Brennan Center pointed out that crime in other categories had fallen and that homicide rates were still low by recent historical standards. (After two decades of falling crime, they are finally back to where they were in the early 1960s.) FiveThirtyEight titled its article “Scare Headlines Exaggerated The U.S. Crime Wave.”
• “Study: There Has Been No ‘Ferguson Effect’ in Baltimore,” one CityLab post was headlined in March of this year. The study actually showed that (A) arrests declined in Baltimore following the events of Ferguson and (B) arrests declined further, and crime exploded, when Baltimore suffered its own policing incident, the death of Freddie Gray. The study’s authors claimed it was unclear whether this could be called a Ferguson Effect, but conceded: “One reasonable interpretation is that the crime spike is a Ferguson effect that might have remained dormant had it not been ignited by a localized Gray effect.”
• Another recent study looked at crime trends in 81 cities a year before and after Ferguson. Downplaying their own findings, the authors reported that “Overall, any Ferguson Effect is constrained largely to cities with historically high levels of violence, a large composition of black residents, and socioeconomic disadvantages.” Given that police-misconduct protests are heavily focused on race, a concentrated effect in cities with high black populations is exactly what one would expect—as I myself had noted months earlier, tentatively identifying this pattern in the FiveThirtyEight data.
That’s enough beating up on the media and academia, though. Much more important is to ask what we can do about our rising homicide rates.
For many on the right, it’s tempting to see this as a straightforward indictment of the Black Lives Matter movement. BLM certainly could do a better job of picking its battles: many of the protests began before the facts of the underlying incidents had come to light, and the Ferguson protests in particular were built upon an utterly false tale. The broader narrative that racist cops are gunning down nonviolent blacks on a mass scale is dubious as well—blacks are overrepresented among those killed by police, but they are even more overrepresented among murderers and cop killers.
Look what all this has gotten us: more black lives lost. The government cannot and should not do anything to stop peaceful protesters. But the rest of us can point out that their message is at times incorrect and dangerous.
That’s part of the story. We find another part in Chicago.
After a police officer killed Laquan McDonald—who was holding a knife and had PCP in his system but was not attacking or even moving toward any of the police on the scene—officers gave false accounts of what had happened, and the police department refused to release video of the incident for more than a year (at which point the officer was charged with first-degree murder). The incident also brought to light the fact that Chicago police routinely sabotage their dashboard cameras so they don’t record sound. Whether out of fear, petulance, or even laziness, police backed off routine street stops after the ensuing protests, and crime rose.
Angry protests of the McDonald shooting cannot be dismissed as ill-informed, and the need for deep reforms in the Chicago Police Department cannot be denied. In fact, well-functioning police departments may be key to addressing the Ferguson Effect. One Chicago officer told the Guardian that police aren’t worried about being filmed; what they’re worried about is being thrown to the wolves by their superiors if they wind up in the spotlight. A study of deputies at one agency last year supported this idea: “officers who have confidence in their authority or perceive their agency as fair are more willing to partner with the community to solve problems, regardless of the effects of negative publicity,” it found.
That there are some positive effects of the protest movement in general is undeniable. More departments are using body cameras, which can exonerate as well as prove guilty officers accused of misconduct. Both journalism outfits and the federal government are making a better effort to collect data on police killings—shockingly, preexisting efforts apparently missed half or more of such incidents. Protests have also spurred the creation of civilian review boards in some cities.
Just as the Ferguson Effect varies across cities, so must efforts to address it. Rising homicide makes clear the stakes of delegitimizing the forces of law and order. But sometimes those forces have legitimacy problems of their own making. As we learn more about where and why crime is rising, our accumulating knowledge has to be viewed from both of these angles.
Robert VerBruggen is managing editor of The American Conservative. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen