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Milwaukee Police Reject the 'Ferguson Effect' Myth, But Point to Other Causes of Crime

City Police Chief Ed Flynn says cuts to mental health services and an expanded concealed-carry law are leading to higher crime.

REUTERS/Allen Frederickson

FBI Chief James Comey and others have blamed crime spikes in certain areas on dimming police activity, supposedly in response to the “Ferguson effect.” Milwaukee police aren’t buying it. In an interview with The Washington Post reporter Darryl Fears, the city’s police chief, Edward Flynn, said the real reasons for rising crime in Milwaukee are cuts to funding for health services and a new law that allows people to legally carry concealed weapons, both championed by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

“The ingredients of violence are here for so many reasons,” Flynn told Fears. “But the tools have been put into the hands of criminals by a foolish and ideological gun law.”

In a metro that’s already really difficult to live in if you’re an African American, making it harder to get mental health care but easier to get a gun probably has not boosted Milwaukee’s quality of life much. Milwaukee is one of the few cities where homicide rates have actually risen since last year. Its police force, nearly 2,000-strong for a city of just over 600,000, gives the city 32.4 police officers for every 10,000 residents, according to Governing. That’s fewer than the number of cops available in St. Louis (38.4 per 10,000) and Baltimore (46.3), two other cities with significant murder-rate increases this year. (Baltimore has a population size comparable to Milwaukee’s, while St. Louis has closer to half these populations.)

(Brennan Center for Justice, “Crime in 2015: A Preliminary Analysis”)

So perhaps there just aren’t enough cops on the beat in Milwaukee. Measuring police staffing adequacy based off the number of cops per population size is an imprecise science, however. It could be that, in Milwaukee, police are already too occupied with other obligations that probably shouldn’t be in their bailiwick to begin with.

That’s what Milwaukee police officers Omarlo Phillips and Kayeng Kue suggested to Fears when he interviewed them. Fears describes how the two officers spent “nearly a third” of their shift one day doing paperwork for an incident they responded to that would have perhaps been “better suited for social workers.” As Kue told Fears: “Honestly, I think this is what’s deterring us from going out and deterring violent crime.”  

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, law professor behind the #SayHerName campaign to address police violence against women, made a similar point when CityLab interviewed her recently:

The police should not be first responders to a whole range of social crises that we have. And the reason that they are is the police are basically the only institution where resources are readily made available, particularly when they’re cut from other institutions. So, as the social safety net shreds and more people are surviving without the mental health support they need, without the housing support they need, without employment, the police then fall into manage these situations. When police are involved then social problems become law enforcement problems, and when they become law enforcement problems people's lives are put at risk.

Indeed, part of what makes Milwaukee so unlivable for many African Americans is the high level of poverty and unemployment there. The city’s poverty rate clocked in at 29 percent in 2013, roughly twice the national rate of 15.5 percent for that year.

(Brennan Center for Justice, “Crime in 2015: A Preliminary Analysis”)

Looking at the total context, as these Milwaukee police officers are, it becomes apparent that people might be pushing the “Ferguson effect” meme as a diversion away from more deep-rooted issues around lack of resources and poor health care. Wisconsin remains one of 17 states that refuses to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

It’s also important to remember that the term “Ferguson effect” has been bastardized, in some ways, to serve the agendas of those co-opting it. Fears points out that one of the original mentions of the term came from Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell, who referenced it in a column dated September 18, 2014. At that time, the context wasn’t about a supposed rise in crime following Ferguson but about people becoming more diligent about reporting police abuse since the Ferguson protests happened.

As CityLab reported, another early use of the “Ferguson effect” term came from St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson in a November 15, 2014, story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, when he used it in reference to police being pulled off the streets for specialized trainings on crowd control, and also not having enough police resources. St. Louis County Chief Jon Belmar told the Post-Dispatch: “I don’t feel like criminals are feeling emboldened. I do feel like our police are doing a good job out there, and I’m confident that they’re going to continue to do those jobs.”

Again, that’s a lot different from the way the term has been chopped and screwed by people like FBI Chief Comey, who claims the “Ferguson effect” is a chilling effect imposed on police spooked by YouTube videos of police behavior and heightened scrutiny on police in general. But it’s quite a convenient dodge for those who don’t want to face the consequences of cutting social services and would rather allow people to carry guns in the streets more easily.

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