4 reasons to doubt the ‘Ferguson effect’ and claims of a national crime wave

Michael Rocque, Bates College; Chad Posick, Georgia Southern University; and Steven E. Barkan, University of Maine

Originally published in the Bangor Daily News on June 10, 2015.

In the late 1960s through the 1980s, political conservatives used terms like “law and order,” “silent majority,” and “states’ rights” as code words for racial control. The civil rights movement had disrupted life, thrown the balance of racial power in flux and made some folks unhappy. The protests led by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were blamed for increases in crime and unrest through the 1960s and 70s.

Fast forward to 2014, when during the summer and into this year, a rash of police shootings of unarmed black men led to, understandably, unrest in largely black cities. And now, preliminary data in some cities show an increase in deadly violence as compared (importantly) to last year at this time.

In the wake of the protests across the nation, there are reports that the police in some cities have become less proactive in stopping, frisking, and arresting people. Some are arguing this change in policing accounts for the rise of urban violence — the so-called “ Ferguson effect,” as labeled by the conservative commentator, Heather MacDonald. In short, her thesis is that “[t]he most plausible explanation of the current surge in lawlessness is the intense agitation against American police departments over the past nine months.” Conservative media outlets have jumped on board.

As criminologists, we take issue with this conclusion for several reasons.

First, crime rates fluctuate. It is simply too early to know whether there is any long-term violent crime trend at work. As our colleague James Alan Fox has pointed out in USA Today, prior to the increase in violence in Baltimore in May, the city was trending pretty much the same as last year. In New York, too, there is fear of an increase in crime. What MacDonald fails to mention though, is “that this year’s surge in killings is actually 32 percent lower than just five years ago,” according to Fox.

Second, many factors account for why crime rates go up or go down. Even if violent crime rates are going up in some cities, the reasons for this rise are simply unknown at this time. If distrust in the police or police disinterest has caused this much of a “dramatic” change in crime, MacDonald should be awarded some sort of prize for finally locating the panacea that criminologists have yearned for in terms of what causes fluctuations in crime. Indeed, we still puzzle over the “ great crime drop” that has graced the nation for the last two decades, with no one theory clearly winning out.

Third, although violence has apparently risen in some cities so far this year, it has fallen in others such as Toledo and New Orleans. Have all the cities where violence has risen reduced the level of their policing, and have all the cities where violence has fallen not changed the level of their policing? Without basic information such as this, the so-called Ferguson effect can simply not be assessed.

Fourth, although proactive policing is often credited for the drop in the crime rate since the early 1990s, it is not at all clear that this credit is deserved. If proactive policing did not lower the crime rate, it is illogical to claim that any recent decrease in proactive policing is raising the crime rate. One of the fears in New York was that the so-called “broken windows” theory policing — in which police respond to very minor transgressions in order to stop larger ones — would diminish and this would cause an increase in crime. Again, criminology is pretty clear on this score: broken windows policing has, at most, “ modest” effects on crime. It is equally plausible that these communities are experiencing more violence due to a more widespread perception of being discriminated against by people of color. This does have empirical support from diverse sets of studies on the effects of discrimination and lack of legitimacy toward police.

The recent accounts of a “Ferguson effect” are not based on scientific evidence but on nothing more than lazy — at best, nefarious at worst — journalism. They smack of the old tools used to disguise racially charged arguments. In the future, such staunch claims must be backed by science, if they should be made at all.

Michael Rocque is an assistant professor of Sociology at Bates College. Chad Posick is an assistant professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Georgia Southern University. Steven E. Barkan is a professor of Sociology at the University of Maine. They are members of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications.

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