Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Many factors played a part in the city’s homicide spike—but not the one most often cited.
The 2014 killing of Michael Brown by police turned the word “Ferguson,” the name of Brown’s Missouri hometown, into a call for action against police violence. Proponents of aggressive policing styles, however, have managed to appropriate the term to fit an opposing agenda. While the Ferguson cause has been about exposing the devastating consequences of the over-policing of black neighborhoods, the “Ferguson Effect” is a campaign about over-hyped, alleged crime waves overtaking urban landscapes.
The “Ferguson Effect” campaign has been determined by criminologists across the board to be at best a premature rendering of a small timeline of rising crime in a few cities, and at worst an overblown statistical fluke. The Brennan Center for Justice and The Sentencing Project have both provided data indicating that there are only a handful of cities that experienced a rise in violent crime over the past two years. Baltimore is one of those cities. Given that 2015 was a record-setting year for homicides there, the city can’t be overlooked in debates over whether violence is escalating. But can Baltimore’s homicides be attributed to the so-called “Ferguson Effect”?
The evidence for that kind of attribution is “very weak,” according to a study released Tuesday by the Johns Hopkins University sociologists Stephen L. Morgan and Joel A. Pally. Between August 2014 (when Brown was killed and the Ferguson riots erupted) and April 2015 (when Freddie Gray died in Baltimore while in police custody), most violent crime in Baltimore actually decreased, the researchers found.
What also dropped were arrests: Baltimore police made 19 percent fewer arrests during that time period than they did in the same period the prior year. This was mostly true for minor crimes like disorderly conduct and prostitution, where police can use discretion on whether to make arrests. Arrests for more serious crimes like homicide, however, barely changed during this time period, according to Morgan’s and Pally’s research
“People looking for a Ferguson effect tend to look in the wrong place,” said Morgan in a press statement for the study. “They look at crime rates, but if there is a Ferguson effect, it should be observed in the behavior of the police. People should have been looking at arrests all along.”
That’s definitely not been true of Heather Mac Donald, author of the book Are Cops Racist? and perhaps the loudest drum major for the “Ferguson Effect.” In a Wall St. Journal op-ed last May, Mac Donald wrote that, “The most plausible explanation of the current surge in lawlessness is the intense agitation against American police departments,” after the Ferguson protests. On January 13, Mac Donald wrote in an L.A. Times op-ed that, “The likeliest reason for the crime surge is what I and others call the Ferguson effect: Officers are backing off proactive policing, and criminals are emboldened.”
Looking at Baltimore, Morgan and Pally stitched together their own working definition of “Ferguson Effect,” which they based their research on:
A Ferguson effect on crime in Baltimore would exist, by our reasoning, if the number of crime incidents recorded after the beginning of the Ferguson period differs from the number that would have been recorded if the events in Ferguson had not set off a shift in the national dialogue on policing.
Morgan and Pally found no such thing. They did find that:
Demarcating the post-Ferguson, pre-Gray period as the interval from August 11, 2014, through April 19, 2015, many categories of crime decreased slightly relative to the expected seasonal trend, such as homicide (down 3%), automobile theft (down 7%), common assault (down 13%), and larceny (down 12%). Other categories of crime were unchanged, such as street robbery and burglary.
Overall, it is unlikely that the full profile of change in recorded crime in this period reflects any substantial response to protest events in Ferguson, or a reaction to any other police conduct that received national press coverage before the arrest of Freddie Gray.”
That violent crime escalated after Gray’s arrest, death, and the subsequent riots is irrefutable, and Morgan and Pally explain that a “Gray Effect” may have overcome Baltimore. Crime did not drop in the months after the April 2015 Baltimore Uprising until a new acting police commissioner, Kevin Davis, was installed in August of that year, at which point Baltimore police began making arrests again. Still, the sociologists say that the dropoff in arrests in Baltimore after Gray’s death could have been caused by other things, such as police taking time off after working overtime during the uprising.
The Ferguson protests and the Baltimore uprising are important bookend events in Mac Donald’s worldview, as well. She sees them as the births of a movement that only has its heart set on ending police lives. As she wrote in her Wall St. Journal op-ed last May:
A handful of highly publicized deaths of unarmed black men, often following a resisted arrest—including Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., in July 2014, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014 and Freddie Gray in Baltimore last month—have led to riots, violent protests and attacks on the police. Murders of officers jumped 89% in 2014, to 51 from 27.
The U.S. Department of Justice urges caution about conducting this kind of criminal epidemiology in a report released just this week. Reads the Justice Department report, “Understanding Firearms Assaults against
Law Enforcement Officers in the United States”:
To the extent that officers are already working in high crime areas, proactively focusing on highly prolific and violent offenders, and minimally engaging communities that are already distrustful, it follows that officers will be at increased risk of citizen-initiated violence against them. However, our study controlled for these factors and matched high- and low-risk agencies on population and homicide data over five years. We still find that firearms assaults [against police officers] are substantially higher in some cities, regardless of these contextual factors.
Still, the term “Ferguson Effect” has become a sort of Keyser Söze of criminology—a spook story that law-and-order authoritarians tell the white, working-class, downtrodden: Let these Black Lives Matter kids run amok, and the Ferguson Effect will take over your city. Pundits like Mac Donald want people to fear the “Ferguson Effect” whether it can be proven through facts or not.
And the facts are bountiful, even beyond Baltimore. Last month, in the Journal of Criminal Justice, another group of sociologists published results from their probe of 81 U.S. cities in search of the fabled “Ferguson Effect.” Looking at the time period since Brown’s killing in Ferguson, the only increase in serious crime they found was in robberies—a monthly increase of 0.12 robberies per capita. These aren’t crime waves. These are tiny, sporadic ripples.
"The finding that crime rates are essentially unchanged means that a 'Ferguson effect' cannot be be singled out as the driving factor of any increase in crime,“ said the study’s lead author David Pyrooz of the University of Colorado-Boulder.
Barry Latzer, an emeritus professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY and author of The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America (perhaps the most comprehensive book on the topic), addressed this last month on The Diane Rehm Show. Latzer is by no means a pure, left-leaning liberal. Yet, when he was asked about the “Ferguson Effect” on the show he said, “I’ve seen no evidence of this at all.”
I looked at violent crime in the 10 biggest cities in the United States, homicide in particular, from 2010 to 2015, and I looked at all the data for 2015. The FBI only has the first half of the year. I did not find any increase. The total homicides for the top 10 cities were about 2,229 in 2010, and in 2015, they were 1,878. So there's no trend upward in violent crime. However, in some cities, obviously there is an uptick, and those cities could be a harbinger and may not be. We don't have enough data for a trend yet.
… There was a study that just showed that crime rose —was low before the Ferguson incident and then rose afterwards. That's not sufficient to prove that there's a Ferguson effect.
If the word “Ferguson” was permanently and exclusively attached back to its original meaning, we might find evidence of an “effect” when it comes to a number of recent, inspiring events: the bringing down of Confederate monuments, the ousting of Chicago’s police chief, or the recent Chicago protests that forced Donald Trump to cancel a rally. Such events are more fitting of the “Ferguson Effect” tag, and they’re things that Black Lives Matter activists actually had a hand in. Anyone who tries to steal “Ferguson” to tie its meaning to rising crime is simply trying to distract people from the real, progressive effect that organizing since Ferguson has had on society.