The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
My advocacy of what I have called the "Ferguson Effect" has proved to be the most controversial and contested aspect of my new book, "The War on Cops." When I first proposed the theory in a May 2015 Wall Street Journal op-ed, the policy arm of the American Society of Criminology immediately sent out an alert seeking rebuttals to my hypothesis. The opposition has hardly abated since then.
Yet virtually every police officer working in an urban area in the post-Ferguson era tells the same tale: He or she is backing off of discretionary, proactive policing. Officers operate today under the presumption that they are racist, even homicidal; their stop and arrest activity is measured against population benchmarks, rather than crime benchmarks, and thus deemed racially biased; they worry that any use of force against a black civilian, no matter how justified, could be interpreted as a race-based assault and could put their career at risk.
Finally, they encounter virulent hostility and resistance to their lawful authority on a regular basis when they get out of their squad cars to make a stop or arrest. As a result, officers are reluctant to engage in the type of policing that contributed so significantly to the nation's two-decades-long crime decline. In consequence, criminals have become emboldened. Officers report more guns on the street; people who were borderline before and not carrying are now packing heat, officers say, because their chances of getting stopped have fallen. Officers are not intervening in the low-level criminal activity and public order offenses that can quickly ripen into more serious felonies.
Bottom line: Crime in cities with large black populations rose at alarming rates last year. Nashville had an 83 percent increase in homicides; Milwaukee was up 72 percent; and Cleveland, over 90 percent. Baltimore had its highest per capita homicide rate in its history. Overall, in the 56 largest cities, homicides were up 17 percent, a nearly unprecedented one-year increase.
Last year's crime increase is continuing this year, with Chicago being perhaps the prime example of the Ferguson Effect: a 90 percent drop in pedestrian stops, and people being shot on a daily basis—more than 2,200 so far this year, nearly all black and nearly all shot by other blacks, not by police officers, who have committed 0.5 percent of all shootings.
Here are the main arguments that have been directed against the Ferguson Effect and why I think they are wrong.
• "Crime levels are still far lower than they were in the 1990s, so there is nothing to worry about."
The first part of this statement is true; the second is not. Crime nationally dropped 50 percent from 1994 through the first half of 2014, thanks to the CompStat policing revolution that began in the New York Police Department and that spread nationally. The likelihood that a crime decline that took 20 years to accomplish will be reversed in one or two years is remote. But if 17 percent annual increases in homicide continue, it will not take very long to return to the high-crime era of the early 1990s.
• "Crime has not risen in every city, so the Ferguson Effect does not exist."
The first part of this statement is also true; the second, not. Some cities have, in fact, seen stable or even declining crime rates since the rise of the Michael Brown "hands-up-don't shoot" hoax and the Black Lives Matter movement. Cities with already low crime rates and low minority populations are not going to be affected by a politically and racially driven de-policing phenomenon. The Ferguson Effect would predict that it is going to be in high-crime, high-minority areas where officers are most hesitant about engaging, and where a drop-off in proactive policing will have its more dire consequences. And that is exactly what the data shows. A complex regression analysis of crime rate changes in the 12 months after the Michael Brown shooting found that homicides rose most in high-crime, high-black population cities.
• "The crime increase is trivial."
The Brennan Center and the data site FiveThirtyEight have taken that position. It shows a lack of awareness of how significant a one-year homicide increase of 17 percent is. Had homicides gone down 17 percent in one year, police chiefs and mayors across the country would be popping champagne corks.
• "Crime was bound to go up anyway; it could not have stayed down as low as it was indefinitely." Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox is a prime advocate of this position, which represents a classic instance of what the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan called "defining deviance down." The idea that the crime levels in Baltimore or Philadelphia, say, were already unrealistically "low" in the pre-Ferguson era and thus were bound to spike accepts as normal a level of violence that is unheard of in other Western democracies. Tokyo's annual homicides barely register on any American crime measure.
Moreover, there are many American cities with crime levels far below those of the cities hit by the Ferguson Effect that did not have a crime increase since Ferguson. If Baltimore's crime rate, say, was already so low that it had nowhere to go but up, Fox and other proponents of the "reversion to the mean" theory need to explain how other cities could ever have had crime rates in the first place that are a fraction of America's high-crime cities.
• "Any crime increases that have occurred are due to the 'root causes' of crime, not to depolicing."
The Brennan Center argues that lower incomes, higher poverty rates, falling populations and high unemployment are driving the rising murder rates in Baltimore, Detroit, Milwaukee, New Orleans and St. Louis. But those aspects of urban life haven't dramatically worsened over the past year and a half. What has changed is the climate for law enforcement.
• "The Ferguson Effect exists, but it is not about de-policing, but rather the loss of police legitimacy." Richard Rosenfeld now accepts that the post-Ferguson crime increase is real and significant, and that only what he calls "some version" of the Ferguson Effect fits the timing of that increase.
But he is loath to ascribe the increase to a change in police activity. Instead, he argues that law enforcement has lost legitimacy in the post-Ferguson era, and thus that people are more likely to engage in violence and less likely to cooperate with the police in solving crimes.
But the no-snitching ethic was in full force long before Ferguson. For the past two decades, any inner-city detective would have told you that he could solve every shooting and every homicide if he could only secure cooperating witnesses and victims.
Rosenfeld proposes that the "ultimate cause of violence in [black] communities is lack of confidence in the police." He argues that "when people believe the procedures of formal social control are unjust, they are less likely to obey the law." It is hard to connect that theory to the mindless retaliatory gang shootings over disrespect and turf that are now tearing apart Chicago's West and South Sides. It is not clear how a lack of confidence in the police makes a 17-year-old boy spray bullets into a house or car. None of the gangbangers who now feel that they can operate with impunity were seeking to settle their disputes through "formal social control" before Ferguson. Now they are simply upping their previous levels of violence because officers are intervening so much less in the gangs hanging out on corners.
• "To acknowledge the Ferguson Effect is to discredit the Black Lives Matter movement; therefore the Ferguson Effect cannot exist."
It is a question of fact whether officers are de-policing and whether that de-policing is leading to rising crime. Any political or normative conclusions one might draw about the Black Lives Matter movement from its influence on police behavior are unrelated to whether that influence exists.
The outrage among Black Lives Matter allies at the mere suggestion that the police may be backing off of proactive enforcement is the strangest aspect of this whole episode. A decline in pedestrian stops and "broken windows" policing is exactly what the activists have been demanding. Now they're getting it. Isn't that how political pressure is supposed to work?
[Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal.]