REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

A new report from the National Institute of Justice explores why homicides rose so sharply in 2015 across 56 U.S. cities.

When law enforcement leaders convened one October day, it was to draw attention to the alarming rise in violent crime in cities across the U.S. They announced a new report, “A Gathering Storm,” which warned that FBI crime stats had “confirmed our concerns and those of police chiefs that violent crime had dramatically risen,” and “that this trend was ... expanding into other parts of the country.”

However, this uptick in crime happened within only one year, which does not a trend make. The report notes this in its foreword:

There are some in both academia and government who believe these increases in violent crime may represent just a blip and that overall crime is still relatively low. They argue that before we make rash conclusions we should wait and see if the violent crime rate continues to increase over time. This thinking is faulty. It would be like having a pandemic flu outbreak in a number of cities, but waiting to see if it spreads to other cites before acting. Importantly, for many police chiefs, mayors and others living in dangerous communities, they do not have the luxury to “see what happens.” The time to act is now.

You might be thinking that this meeting was the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference held last October, where FBI Director James Comey implied that rising crime was the result of a “Ferguson effect.” It wasn’t. The “Gathering Storm” convening happened 10 years ago, when police chiefs were sounding the same tocsins about new crime waves overtaking U.S. cities that are often heard today.

What happened after that uptick in homicides between 2005 and 2006? It dropped down considerably in the years after, plateauing until about 2012 when there was another small rise, only to drop again. It then again began rising over the 2013-2015 period that’s been unaffectionately, and somewhat erroneously, dubbed the “Ferguson effect” era. Given that crime was in more often in decline in the years over that 10-year period, those 2006 alarms seem premature now.

That’s not to say that the temporary hike in homicides a decade ago should have been ignored. Nor should examination of the current rise in homicides be cast aside. But the problem then, and the problem now, is that the voices guiding these narratives around crime were operating with incomplete data. The information that was used to confirm police chiefs’ concerns in the 2006 “Gathering Storm” report came mostly from preliminary figures from the 2005 FBI Uniform Crime Report (UCR).  

The FBI won’t release 2015’s final crime figures until October of this year, so conjecture around “Ferguson effects” causing the current rise in violent crime is also premature. So says the University of Missouri researcher Richard Rosenfeld in a new report released for the National Institute of Justice.

“What has become known as the ‘Ferguson effect’ on the homicide increase,” writes Rosenfeld, “is subject to considerable controversy and evidence-free rhetoric.”

His NIJ report seeks to provide some direction on how to look at the 2015 rise in homicides in cities across the U.S. with the limited data available. First, it should be noted that the rise in homicides since 2014 is a real thing. In Rosenfeld’s own research, he looked at homicide rates from 56 major cities (populations over 250,000) and found that the 2014-2015 homicide escalation is “nearly unprecedented.”

Many cities’ homicide numbers grew by more than 25 percent in that timeframe; 12 cities had homicide rates that increased by more than 50 percent. But looking at the total one-year rise in crime across all of those cities—16.8 percent—the bulk of that increase happened in just 10 cities.

(Richard Rosenfeld, National Institute of Justice)

These top 10 cities all had larger percentages of African Americans and people living in poverty than the other 46 cities. These 10 also account for two-thirds of the total rise in homicides from 2014-2015, so any talk about a new wave of violent crime should probably be applied specifically to just this subset of cities. Final numbers collected and crunched by the FBI later this year will give a more complete picture of the nature and distribution of homicides, as well as whether similar rises were found in smaller cities.

So, the rise in killings is indisputable at this point, even if they occurred in just a few cities. However, [t]he question now is whether an increase of that magnitude merits the attention it has received from pundits, advocates, and federal officials,” writes Rosenfeld.

His report delves into three theories about the rise in crime, one being the “Ferguson effect” theory. This theory is uniquely tough to evaluate empirically because there’s still no clear definition of it, writes Rosenfeld. Many have taken it to mean that police have relaxed their engagement with the public, making fewer arrests, out of fear of being captured on camera phone, or because of backlash from activists. But, as Rosenfeld points out, this isn’t exactly what the originator of the phrase meant:  

The dominant de-policing interpretation is that highly publicized incidents of police use of deadly force against minority citizens, including but not limited to the Ferguson incident, caused police officers to disengage from their duties, particularly proactive tactics that prevent crime. Interestingly, however, that is not the interpretation of the individual who evidently coined the term. Sam Dotson, Chief of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, used the term in an interview with a reporter in November of 2014, three months after Michael Brown was killed. ...

He stated that the police in St. Louis were redeployed from their normal and more proactive responsibilities to address protest activities and civil disorder in Ferguson and elsewhere in the St. Louis area during the months immediately following Brown’s death. As conditions returned to normal, so did police activity. For example, arrest rates returned to pre-Ferguson levels after decreasing during the late summer and fall of 2014.

Dotson also said in his “Ferguson effect” reference that some people may feel more “empowered” to break laws in the post-Michael Brown environment. Rosenfeld writes that could be the case—if people in certain cities no longer feel they can trust the police in resolving matters, especially given how police handled the situations involving Brown and Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Writes Rosenfeld:

Intentionally or not, the St. Louis police chief invoked an important strain of sociological and criminological thinking in his explanation of the Ferguson effect: the idea that violence escalates when individuals and communities are alienated from the legitimate means of social control. When persons do not trust the police to act on their behalf and to treat them fairly and with respect, they lose confidence in the formal apparatus of social control and become more likely to take matters into their own hands. Interpersonal disputes are settled informally and often violently. Honor codes develop that encourage people to respond with violence to threats and disrespect. Predatory violence increases because offenders believe victims and witnesses will not contact the police. Individuals engage in “self-help” and entire communities become “stateless” social locations.

If that’s the case, any effects on crime can’t be solely pegged on Ferguson—it could just as easily be called the “Watts effect.” More ethnography-focused research is needed, writes Rosenfeld, to tie escalating homicides to black people’s attitudes toward police.

Meanwhile, Rosenfeld explores two other plausible explanations of why homicides rose sharply between 2014 and 2015: an expansion of urban drug markets and a drop in incarceration rates. Looking at the drug angle, Rosenfeld notes the explosion in heroin-death rates, which doubled between 1999 and 2014.

This could help explain Baltimore, which had the steepest homicide rise of the top 10 cities, but which also is now considered the heroin capital of the U.S. As noted by Rehab International:

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, Baltimore is home to the highest number of heroin addicts and heroin-related incidents of crime in the country. In 2013, there were more than 300 deaths related to heroin overdoses in Baltimore. Both The Fix and ABC News call the city “the heroin capital” of the United States. One in 10 of Baltimore’s residents (60,000 people out of a population of 645,000) is addicted to heroin, a hot commodity in a region plagued with crime, systematic disgruntlement, and drug smugglers who use Baltimore’s key placement in the middle of the East Coast as a stopping point as they ship heroin up and down the coast. Baltimore dealers and users get first call on the unadulterated heroin, getting a purer (and therefore deadlier) form of the drug compared to the finished product that is eventually distributed throughout the United States.

However, the heroin effect might not explain the rise in killings in other cities that don’t have as strong of a drug problem. There are other problems with the drug theory for Rosenfeld, like the fact that heroin deaths have been steadily rising for the past 15 years, but the homicide rate has not climbed steadily with it.

Similar problems exist for the incarceration theory. Yes, more people have been returning home from jail in recent years. But the data is either unavailable or unclear about whether 2015’s homicides were committed by those recently released from prison. The constant throughout Rosenfeld’s report is that all of these questions could be answered more effectively, and more quickly, if the FBI released its crime stats more frequently. Writes Rosenfeld:

Researchers would have been in a better position to begin addressing the 2015 homicide rise, with evidence rather than speculation, if timely crime data had been available as the increase was occurring. We would have known whether the homicide rise was confined to large cities, whether other crimes were also increasing, and whether arrest rates were falling. The debate over the homicide increase would have been better informed. Technical impediments to the monthly release of crime data no longer exist. A large and worrisome increase in homicide should be the catalyst to finally bring the nation’s crime monitoring system into the 21st century.

The moral here is that it is reckless to put theories out about why crime is happening or escalating without having all of the information in place. Policies get created based on poorly developed theories, as seen with “broken windows” and “zero tolerance.” The consequences are people’s lives: Entire black communities were destroyed due to the exploitation and manipulation of crime stats that fueled mass incarceration in the 20th century. While slogans like “the Ferguson effect” may help sell books, they don’t help achieve justice.  

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