Demonstrators wearing the insignia of the New Black Panther Party protest the shooting death of Alton Sterling near the headquarters of the Baton Rouge Police Department. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

The phrases carry charged meanings in these racially volatile times. A criminology expert shares thoughts on their social impact.

In discussing the current wave of public demonstrations against police violence overtaking city downtowns and highways, some law-and-order absolutists have attempted to derail productive conversation in a number of ways.
One person who’s been trying to keep the conversation on track is the University of Missouri-St. Louis criminology professor Richard Rosenfeld, who is considered an expert on matters of urban violence. Rosenfeld has written dozens of books and studies on this topic, dating back to his seminal 1975 article “On the Social Mechanisms of White Supremacy” for the academic journal The Pacific Sociological Review.

When the term “Ferguson Effect” first made its way into the national vocabulary last summer Rosenfeld penned a study that debunked its central premise: That crime began rising after the outcry in Ferguson over the police-involved killing of Michael Brown. More recently, he produced a report for the U.S. Department of Justice in June that dug a little deeper into the so-called “Ferguson Effect” while examining more concrete explanations for rising homicide rates.

Following the killings this month of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police, and the Dallas shootings that left five officers dead, this term—and the tortured phrase “black-on-black crime”—have returned to the national dialogue. Here’s what Rosenfeld had to say about how these terms play into that conversation:  

Rudy Giuliani’s recent comments on “Face the Nation” suggested that citizen violence in black communities should be a bigger concern than police violence. Does the weight of evidence support this perspective?

Certainly not the way Giuliani put the issue. Not at all. I do think there is a thoughtful conversation to be had about how alienation from the police, on the part of some segments of African-American communities, has fed a set of conditions that leads to elevated levels of violent crime. People who don’t believe that the police are there to effectively protect them from crime or to fairly police their communities are more likely to take matters into their own hands. They’re more likely to settle disputes with violence, more likely to carry firearms, more likely to engage in retaliatory shootings, and they’re more likely to engage in preemptory shootings.

Now, that’s a much different way than this knee-jerk Giuliani response in attempting to think through just how the long-term, historical relationship between African Americans and the police—and the current manifestations of that historical abuse—might be related to violent crime in African-American communities. All Giuliani is doing is peddling that old agenda. His contribution to the discussion is worthless. It’s worse than worthless because it only makes matters worse.

What do you think of the term “black-on-black crime” on its face?

I’m not a big fan of it. I don’t use it in my own work, certainly. One hardly ever hears about “white-on-white crime.” When whites are killed, they are more likely to be killed by other whites, and so forth. And when blacks are killed, they’re more likely to be killed by other blacks. Knowing that doesn’t tell us a whole lot about anything of any significance. So I don’t use the term.

For one thing, it somehow conveys this image that the black community itself is engaged in crime. No: Criminals are engaged in crime. In some communities, the level of crime is so high that it has all kinds of absolutely horrible consequences for other people in the community. But “black-on-black crime” is code for, Well, it’s the culture that’s producing crime. And no, I don’t buy into any of that.  

A term you do use in your work is the “Ferguson Effect,” though you acknowledge there’s no disciplined definition of it to begin with.

There’s certainly a dominant interpretation of it, pushed by, more than any other individual, Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute, but also echoed by FBI Director James Comey. The dominant interpretation is that, in the face of criticism or perceived heightened legal liability, the police have withdrawn from full engagement and law-enforcement activities, and that’s produced a crime rise.

But that’s not the only interpretation—nor is it the original one that Chief Sam Dotson of the St. Louis Police Department gave. He was the one who introduced the term first. And police withdrawal, or so called “de-policing,” wasn’t his interpretation. His ran more along the lines of what he called “empowered” or “emboldened” offenders. I happen to know him, and in conversations with him, it seems to me that what he was getting at is there are long-standing grievances in many communities with the police, and those grievances get activated under certain conditions, such as those we’ve been experiencing now over the past 10 years. When they are activated, that legitimacy crisis becomes very acute, and offenders in some communities may believe that they can commit some crimes with impunity because people won’t turn them in. Or, they’re not going to cooperate with the police investigations, or they may not report crimes to the police.

I would add more broadly to these police conditions: Some community members are more likely to arm themselves, especially when they’re outdoors, and perhaps are more likely to settle disputes with violence. From that, one would get an uptick in retaliatory shootings and preemptory shootings. I think that’s at least as likely on its face as de-policing. But we don’t have much evidence for this de-policing. Lots of anecdotes. But we don’t have a lot of evidence for the other interpretation of the “Ferguson Effect,” either.  

Since there’s no evidence or steady definition of the “Ferguson Effect,” then why should researchers and journalists—indicting myself here—indulge it to begin with?

That’s a fair question, and I tried to establish conditions for a plausible explanation for what has been happening in large American cities. What we saw in 2015 was a very abrupt reversal in trend in most of those cities. So you had declining homicide rates in most of them over many years, and then a very abrupt turnaround and sizable increase in 2015.

But why the “Ferguson Effect”? Well, at least one or the other version does get the timing of the [violent crime] increase right. We’ve been in the midst of a heroin epidemic for a number of years now, and the same is true with declining imprisonment rates and more returning from prisons. So it’s not obvious to me why those forces would only register increased homicide rates in 2015 and not before then.

So, the timing of one or the other version of the “Ferguson Effect” seems to be more on target. Now, that doesn’t validate those arguments. [But] let me say one more thing on why bringing in the “Ferguson Effect” may be useful: It’s out there anyway, and it doesn’t seem to me that it would be useful to ignore it.

I didn’t have data that would enable me to reject it, and I wanted to join issues with that very prevalent discussion that continues to be out there. I thought it was important to add some nuance and suggest there are other ways in which the recent police use-of-force incidents might be related to elevated crime rates. It’s not simply that the police have withdrawn, but that communities with long-standing grievances against the police become inflamed in periods like what we’re in right now.

If it’s about long-standing grievances with police, that’s something that very much predates Ferguson. And as you note in your Sentencing Project report, crime was going up in some of these cities before the Ferguson outcry. So why still use it as a flashpoint, if only semantically?  

Yes, in the Sentencing Project report, I found that homicide rates in St. Louis were already going up over the previous year, prior to Michael Brown’s killing in August, 2014. So I couldn’t attribute the elevated homicide rates simply to a “Ferguson Effect,” so that’s a fair point.  

And you’re right to point out that there have been other heavily publicized incidents of police use-of-force after which crime rates did not immediately rise. I think back to the Rodney King incident in 1991, which produced a great deal of disorder and unrest in Los Angeles, but crime rates did not go up in L.A. afterward. So, you’re right to call attention to the limitations of this argument.

I think it is fair to point out that the timing of the recent homicide increases really does square with something in response to not just a few, but a large number of heavily publicized, highly controversial police use-of-force incidents.

What about the effects of cameras and social media? If these are also major common denominators when looking at police violence, why then note Ferguson at all? Why not call it the “Facebook effect”?  

It is clear to me that how rapidly these incidents come to broad public attention is certainly due to omnipresent use of cellphones to record these incidents. So why not call it the “cellphone effect”? That’s a fair point. I’m not certain, were I to now begin writing that paper, whether I would have used “Ferguson Effect” or some other term. When I was writing the paper back in January, February, or March, that was the term of art, if you will. Not simply for what was happening with respect to Michael Brown in Ferguson, but for what was happening across the country with respect to tensions between police and local communities and controversial incidents of police use-of-force. I wanted to join together some issues in that debate, so I used the term.

I also used it because, although Heather Mac Donald grabbed it from from local media and certainly was responsible for publicizing it nationwide, it really originated with the St. Louis police chief, who had a rather different take on what it meant. In any event, I do understand that, at the very least, using that term can be simply confusing. I certainly did not mean that it only refers to Ferguson, or to exclude how social media and cellphones have really entered into our perception and understanding of these incidents in a way that simply was not the case in the past.

Does using the term “Ferguson Effect” do more to help illuminate the issues underlying crime and police violence? Or does it undermine efforts on the ground to bring police reform?

Had it not been for Heather Mac Donald’s use of the term, there probably would not have been so much blowback from you and others. I take these criticisms quite seriously. These are meaningful criticisms. But what I would say is that the “Ferguson Effect,” in the way that I think it ought to be used, doesn’t just simply refer to the Michael Brown killing. And certainly not, in my mind, does it refer to the possibility that police have withdrawn.

It also refers to the first—and still only, if I’m not mistaken—complete Justice Department report on Ferguson. I read that report very carefully, and it does call attention to longstanding grievances between the African-American community, or at least a segment of it, and the Ferguson police department—and the misuse of force on the part of Ferguson police.

Now that report received a great deal of publicity. So if that’s included in what one might mean by a “Ferguson Effect,” then I don’t have a lot of trouble with its use. As other reports emerge—we’ll soon finally get reports from Baton Rouge, Minnesota, and elsewhere—then the conversation will broaden and that term will begin to lose whatever significance it might’ve had.

But as of now, I would argue that it calls attention to a term that’s widely familiar, and with a little bit of pushing will get people to think about some of the elements of the DOJ report on Ferguson and police-community relations relations writ large, not just police withdrawal.  

The District Attorney in Baton Rouge said after the Alton Sterling killing by police that, “We did not want another Ferguson,” which became a headline. How should that be interpreted, especially since “Ferguson” is such a loaded term?

I think no one wants or wishes for an outbreak of community unrest and violence associated with these incidents. Certainly, I would hope that when a local prosecutor says, “We don’t want riots,” that he would also add, “And we don’t want police misconduct, we don’t want police brutality, and we don’t want a relationship between certain segments of the African-American community and police that is so fraught and has become so alienated.”  

There are a lot of things we don’t want in addition to urban unrest in response to these incidents. If he left it simply at that, then I would say, at the very least, his statement was incomplete and could be interpreted as meaning that that’s all he cares about: Whether the community is going to go up in flames, as opposed to what tends to happen to people on a daily basis at the hands of police.

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