Maybe Donald Trump Is the Real Ferguson Effect

The FBI releases 2015's crime statistics on the day of the first Trump/Clinton debate.


Murder Incorporated

Today the FBI released its report on crime rates in 2015. While property crime continued to decline, violent crime went up 3.1 percent since the previous year, and the most serious violent crime—murder—jumped 10.8 percent.

Some of you are probably scratching your head and saying, "Hold on. We've been hearing about a murder spike in 2015 for ages now. Last week we were already talking about preliminary numbers for 2016. We're only getting the 2015 figures now?" Yes, we are. The wheels of justice, or at least of justice-related statistics, turn slowly. The numbers took so long to drip out, in fact, that there is now a well-established formula for writers who want to reassure readers that they shouldn't panic about crime:

Point out that a lot of the increase is coming from a small group of cities. Much of the country actually saw their homicide numbers go down last year, but certain cities—Baltimore and Chicago, most notoriously—saw big leaps. So while the national numbers are climbing, that doesn't mean they represent a nationwide surge.

Note that crime is close to an all-time low. The U.S. has seen a very long decline in both violent and property crime; in 2014, we enjoyed the lowest homicide rate since 1963. Even after that 10.8 percent jump, last year had the sixth lowest homicide rate of the last half-century. A decade ago, 2015's numbers would have seemed shockingly low.

Remind everyone that we don't know whether this is a blip or a new trend. We've seen brief bumps upward in that long decline before; we've seen them spark fears of a new crime wave too. But year-to-year fluctuations are inevitable. It's too early to assume the long decline is over.

All three of these arguments are accurate. I've made all three at various moments myself. Given how sensationalized crime coverage can be, it's vital to keep them in mind.

But at the risk of reducing the reassurance, I have to point out a little switch you may have missed a third of the way through that list. Point #1 qualifies those rising numbers by noting that the problem is largely a product of a few unlucky cities. Points #2 and 3 then return to talking about the national numbers, local conditions forgotten. If you live in Baltimore, you live in a city where crime is nowhere near an all-time low—indeed, 2015 was the worst year on record for Baltimore homicides. That number has come back down a bit in 2016. (The city's homicide rate has dropped 7 percent compared to this time last year.) But it still has a long way to fall.

There's a big debate about whether these stats reflect a "Ferguson effect." The term alludes to the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the intense conflicts that then followed: protests, riots, a heavily militarized police crackdown. Beyond that, what exactly the phrase means is up to the speaker. For the conservative commentator Heather Mac Donald, who popularized the term, the idea is that "the intense agitation against American police departments" produced a "nationwide crime wave." A more moderate version of the concept holds that, even if nothing national is happening, a fear of criticism led many officers to pull back from policing. Either way, the usual aim is to blame the movement against police abuses for the increases in crime.

But those aren't the only ways the term is used. A few months ago, the criminologist Richard Rosenfeld, a prominent critic of Mac Donald's position, released a report suggesting that some of the crime increases might be traced to Ferguson after all. This prompted headlines like The Guardian's "Is the 'Ferguson effect' real? Researcher has second thoughts." But once you read past the headlines to the actual articles, it became clear that Rosenfeld was offering a very different theory than Mac Donald's. The "ultimate cause of violence in these communities," his paper proposed, "is lack of confidence in the police":


When the police are called to respond to a crime, they arrive at the scene late or not at all. They do not follow up with vigorous and thorough investigation, even of the most serious crimes. They harass innocent youth. And, too often, they use force unnecessarily and indiscriminately. What matters is not the factual accuracy of these beliefs in every instance; what matters is that they can metastasize into a pronounced "legal cynicism," especially in disadvantaged African-American communities. When people believe the procedures of formal social control are unjust, they are less likely to obey the law.

If this complex of "feelings and beliefs," in [Randolph] Roth's terms, is the ultimate cause of escalations in homicide, the more proximate cause could be widely publicized incidents of police use of force that seem to confirm the validity of the underlying belief system. Lack of confidence in the police among African-Americans predates the recent police killings in Ferguson, Cleveland, New York and elsewhere. But it is likely to be activated by such incidents, transforming longstanding latent grievances into an acute legitimacy crisis.

Rosenfeld did not think this explained all of the increase in homicides, and he acknowledged that a lot of relevant data were not yet available. But he felt there was a reasonable chance that it helped explain both the spikes in murders and the places where many of those spikes occurred.

It isn't an implausible idea—it's certainly more plausible than Mac Donald's—but it's kind of confusing to refer to it as a "Ferguson effect," since that term was already taken. But let's roll with it: If an effect is related to Ferguson, I guess we can call it a Ferguson effect. And since the first Trump/Clinton debate is scheduled for tonight, let's consider the effect Ferguson had on the American right. Conservatives hit a fork in Ferguson in August 2014, and they took a path that led straight to Donald Trump.

This may be hard to remember two years later, but the right's thinking on policing and incarceration was in flux before Ferguson erupted. Republicans were spearheading state-level criminal justice reforms. Right-wing pundits were protesting police militarization. Rand Paul kept citing Michelle Alexander, the woman who wrote that "mass incarceration is, metaphorically, the New Jim Crow." And that was where the momentum was. Ferguson marked the return of the law-and-order cause.

It's not hard to see why that happened. It's not exactly unprecedented for a riot to spark a backlash. But at the time, that didn't feel like a guaranteed outcome. In mid-2014 the militarized response to the protests was unleashing a backlash too, and some of the voices raised against it were indisputably conservative. (Read Mark Steyn's columns from that period—he was clearly no fan of either Michael Brown or the rioters, but he was also upset to see cops behaving like "an occupying army faced with a rabble of revolting natives.") The populist right was torn; you could see the early stirrings of Trumpism, but there were still currents of Paulism too.

We all know which side came out ahead. Republican criminal-justice reform isn't dead on the state level—not everywhere, anyway. But on a federal level, this is steadily less likely to be seen as a transpartisan issue. The GOP's presidential nominee sounds downright apocalyptic when he talks about crime. Between today's new FBI numbers and last week's riot in Charlotte, chances are high that he'll have a lot to say about the subject tonight. And that, in itself, is a Ferguson effect. A big chunk of Trump's base is deeply concerned about law and order, and he has made it one of his core issues, fearmongering heavily along the way.

Funny thing about that. Like I said above, much of 2015's increase in murders came from a handful of cities, the biggies being Baltimore, Chicago, Houston, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Washington. How many of those do you think Trump will carry in November?