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Busting the Myth of 'The Ferguson Effect'

Pundits are fanning fears of new “crime waves” across cities. Criminologists aren’t buying it.

REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

On May 29, Heather Mac Donald, the author of Are Cops Racist? wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “The New Nationwide Crime Wave,” announcing that “The nation’s two-decades-long crime decline may be over.” She blamed protests against police violence in Ferguson and Baltimore for crime rises in those and other cities in recent months. A bunch of crime reporters and criminologists balked at her argument, as detailed thoroughly by That led to Mac Donald penning a follow-up WSJ op-ed on Sunday stating that those people just don’t get it because, Hello, crime is waving.   

“The past nine months have seen unprecedented antipolice agitation dedicated to the proposition that bias infects policing in predominantly black communities,” wrote Mac Donald.   

Anyone aware of the 2009 murder of Oscar Grant by Oakland transit police (made into the 2013 film Fruitvale Station) or April Martin’s 2014 documentary Cincinnati Goddamn (about the 2001 riots after two African Americans were killed by city police) knows that agitation in black communities has been simmering for way longer than nine months.  

Still, Mac Donald has been trying to make the term “The Ferguson effect” happen, by arguing, as she did in May, that an “incessant drumbeat against the police” has resulted in increased crime throughout St. Louis county.

A new report from The Sentencing Project points to major problems with Mac Donald’s analysis, chief among them that no “new crime wave” exists—or that, at least, it’s too early to tell. Crime has risen in recent months, but there’s inadequate evidence that this is related to the recent rallies and riots in Ferguson.

The below charts from the report show that homicides and violent crime had already been on the uptick before unarmed teen Michael Brown was killed by Ferguson police in August 2014:

                                                                                             (The Sentencing Project)
                                                                                            (The Sentencing Project)

These charts show the ratio of monthly crime rates in 2014, the year of the Ferguson protests, with monthly crime rates from the year prior. The Sentencing Project shows that homicide rates began climbing in June, while those for violent crimes began escalating in May. The fact that murders began soaring before Brown’s death was mentioned by University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist Rick Rosenfeld in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article last November. In that article, Rosenfeld attributed rising crime to “an unrelated explosion in drug markets,” not the Ferguson protests.

No matter the cause, researchers at The Sentencing Project say that a few months of elevated crime activity is simply not enough to declare a “crime wave”; if anything, it’s just a crime ripple. “In the absence of credible and comprehensive evidence sounding alarm bells over a ‘Ferguson effect’ or any other putative cause will not help,” the authors conclude in the report.

Mac Donald may also have lifted the term “Ferguson effect” out of its original context. When using it in her op-ed, she was quoting Sam Dotson, Chief of Police of the Metropolitan Police Department, City of St. Louis. She wrote that Dotson attributed the effect to anti-police fervor among black communities.

But in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch article where Dotson first used the term, he was referring to police officers getting “pulled away for specialized instruction” in protest-crowd control—some 5,000 hours of training for the force, said Dotson. Rosenfeld said in that article that arrests had declined, but that it wasn’t ”necessarily that individual officers are giving up, it’s because normal officers are being taken off their normal beat activities for training and protest events, so arrests go down.”

St. Louis County Police Association’s president Gabe Crocker said in the article that police officers were “tired, worn-out, and stressed,” but that he didn’t feel that public safety was in grave danger because of it. This is a significant difference from saying that police are dropping their guards as a retort to black community agitation, as Mac Donald put it.

There have also been fewer arrests because police have been abandoning tactics like “stop-and-frisk,” which in past few years have netted volumes of arrests—mainly of people of color—but to little real effect. Mac Donald laments this, writing in her June 14 WSJ op-ed that police are “refraining from precisely the kind of policing that many in the media, along with legions of activists, have denounced over the past year: pedestrian stops and enforcement of low-level, quality-of-life laws.”

Given that police have reversed course on “stop-and-frisk” tactics, “It is no surprise that shootings are up in the city,” wrote Mac Donald on May 29.

New York City Police Chief Bill Bratton himself dismissed this idea during a recent press conference, saying unequivocally: "[Stop-and-frisk] is not a significant factor in the crime rate in the city.”

Bratton pointed to 2011 figures to back this up, noting that while a record-high 685,000 stop-and-frisks were made, the number of rapes, robberies, assaults, and burglaries had also gone up that year. Compare that with last year, when only 48,000 stops were made and numbers for all of these crimes had dropped.

“Last year, when we had the lowest number of stop-question-and-frisks, we had much less crime,” said Bratton. Pointing out that the vast majority of crime is committed in specific locations, by very small populations, Bratton said his new police strategy this summer was to have cops monitor those specific hot spots and focus on higher-level crime perpetrators. The chief of the Metropolitan Police in Washington, D.C., recently announced that her force would be doing the same.

“It is certainly appropriate for the police to focus their attention on these people and places, and they do,” wrote Cornell University law professor Joseph Margulies in a post Monday on the legal analysis website Justia, “but it is irresponsible lunacy to suggest, as MacDonald does, a ‘crime wave’ based on this highly concentrated violence.”

Mac Donald claims in her op-eds that communities actually want more aggressive policing. When the Police Executive Research Forum surveyed communities around St. Louis County last year, they found that:

Even though residents consistently say they want their police departments to engage in more community-oriented policing, this approach is de-emphasized or non-existent in many jurisdictions, especially in communities with high levels of crime and deep distrust between residents and police.

Communities desiring better relationships with police is not the same as asking for more stop-and-frisk. Still, not to be undone, Mac Donald has even attempted invoking the old tired and misunderstood “black-on-black crime” canard. Wrote Mac Donald:

If these decriminalization and deincarceration policies backfire, the people most harmed will be their supposed beneficiaries: blacks, since they are disproportionately victimized by crime. The black death-by-homicide rate is six times higher than that of whites and Hispanics combined. The killers of those black homicide victims are overwhelmingly other black civilians, not the police.

Not one black person from these communities is quoted or cited in Mac Donald’s columns—though she does claim that a nameless “elderly woman” “exclaimed” that the police are her friends at a June 4 South Bronx police community meeting. More frequently, Mac Donald quotes a bunch of police union representatives, again, some unnamed. And therein lies a major problem with her analysis, writes Margulies:

This is precisely how criminal justice policy took shape over the past five decades. Those least affected by crime, who were most apt to experience it only remotely and symbolically, imposed rules that governed the lives of those affected most directly and who experienced it as part of their daily lives. This colonial approach to criminal justice is exactly what reformers are trying to fix.

A community must be allowed to think and speak for itself, and if you deprive it of that opportunity, the skill will either never take hold or will wither from disuse.

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