Ferguson Effects

There is no nationwide Ferguson Effect, experts say, only a local one, restricted to some large and medium cities and a few neighborhoods in those cities. On certain blocks, people are dying at a greater rate than they were in 2014 — and not just anyone, but disproportionately young black men.

In a paper to be published in the September 2016 issue of the Journal of Criminal Justice, but available now online (behind a paywall),* four social scientists have studied crime trends for the year before and after August 2014, when Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson killed Mike Brown. They have concluded that crime did not rise nationally and systematically after the shooting and subsequent social media attention but that certain crimes, like robbery and murder, did increase in select cities, which they characterize by their “historically high levels of violence, a large composition of black residents, and socioeconomic disadvantages.”

The authors arrive at two global conclusions about the seventy-six cities they have studied. First, they make a general claim. “Altogether, we can conclude that there is no systematic evidence of a Ferguson Effect on aggregate crime rates throughout the large U.S. cities represented in this study.” They studied 76 cities and found no “systematic” rise in overall crime rates after August 2014.

However, for certain crimes, they found a statistically significant rise. “While there was a clear absence of evidence for a Ferguson Effect among aggregated crime types, the conclusion from this disaggregated analysis is that changes in robbery rates constitute the lone exception to a spurious Ferguson Effect.” They found that robbery rose at a rate of .26 incidents per capita.

Okay, those are their claims about a “systematic” Ferguson effect. They also note wider heterogeneity across the cities–that is, after the Brown shooting and the Ferguson riots, some cities saw little to no change while others experienced huge spikes in violent crime. Think Baltimore or St. Louis.


“Notably, St. Louis, the metropolitan area that includes Ferguson, scored among cities with the largest increases in homicide rate trends. To the extent that any Ferguson Effect exists, it appears to be constrained to a small number of cities, particularly cities with historically high homicide rates, as we show below.”


“Several cities (Baltimore, St. Louis, Newark, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Milwaukee, and Rochester among others) experienced large increases in homicide rates following the events in Ferguson. Accordingly, the data offer preliminary support for a Ferguson Effect on homicide rates in a few select cities in the United States.”

These examples, however, appear as asides in the article, not allowed to contaminate the main “take-away,” the one the authors hope the media will pick up and run with, namely, that the Ferguson Effect, as construed by conservatives and certain media outlets, is “spurious.” This is too strident, in my opinion, in light of the available evidence that *something* did change over the past year. It’s not as if the change was in aggravated assault, a notoriously unreliable classification subject to manipulation by police command. No, the change was in murder, hardly a trivial matter.

Interestingly, the cities that experienced a jump in murder tended to have more officers per capita, a larger black population, historically high crime rates. Almost 15 percent had a consent decree with the Justice Department, suggesting a historically weak relationship between the police and minority residents. By comparison, slightly more than seven percent of cities with a negative rate of change and almost four percent of cities with a low/positive rate of change had consent decrees in place.

Lastly, the authors were unable to link crime trends to the sense that police had backed off in the era of #BlackLivesMatter. They write: “It is important to note that the city-level crime data used in this analysis cannot establish whether loss of legitimacy or de-policing is at the root of an observed increase in crime, or whether contagion induced by social media was responsible for transmitting these changes.”

That, of course, is the argument that cops have made. Police have contended that after the deaths of Mike Brown and Freddie Gray, and the intense public criticism of over-policing, they have made fewer discretionary street stops and scaled back proactive Broken-Windows-style policing, and as a result, they say, opportunistic criminals have entered the void and committed more violent crimes, like murder.

In light of all the killing in 2015, I’m willing to entertain this idea. I don’t understand why some seem to think that conceding this premise — that protest has had some effect on police — threatens the Left and its agenda. Massive street protests and intense sustained media attention surely have affected cops — indeed, many have said as much. We can grant that and still maintain the legitimacy of protest and our concerns.

A final thought about the journal article and its main claim. Lacking any training in statistics, I cannot evaluate the technical aspects of the authors’ analysis except to note with approval a significant caveat raised by Fordham law professor John Pfaff on Twitter:

Essentially, Pfaff acknowledges that the researchers have followed the standard protocols of their field in concluding that the post-Ferguson crime rise was not statistically significant. But, he says, this conclusion is also misleading. Violent crime did rise after August 2014 by a factor of ten. From the standpoint of public policy and public interest, that is a significant change. In September 2015, if I understand correctly, the rate of violent crime across 76 cities was ten times higher than it had been the previous September.

And in certain cities, we know it was much higher. Here are two graphs posted by sociologist Peter Moskos on his blog Cop in the Hood:

Writing in December 2015, Moskos continues:

There are about 180,000 black men in Baltimore. To date 273 have been murdered. Yes. This year, one in every 660 black men in Baltimore has been murdered.

[Update: 304 black men were killed in Baltimore in 2015. One in every 600 black men was murdered in 2015.]

And it gets worse. There are only about 45,000 18- to 35-year-old black men in Baltimore. By year’s end, more than 200 will have been killed and another 500 will be shot but live. 45,000 divided by 700 is 64. One in 64 black men 18 to 35 will be shot or killed. One in 225 will be murdered. One year. Think of those odds.

In 2015, the murder rate in Baltimore was 55 per 100,000, surpassing the city’s last high-water mark of 48 per 100,000, in 1993, smack-dab in the tough-on-crime era. The Chicago Police Department reported “68 murders in 2015, a 12.5% increase from the year before. There were also 2,900 shootings, 13% more than the year prior.”

According to Heather Mac Donald, writing in the Los Angeles Times, murder in LA rose by ten percent in 2015. By last August murder was up by 60% in St. Louis. In the nation’s 60 largest cities, homicide was up by 16% in 2015. Thomas Abt, a Senior Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, has written that the “14.6% national spike in murder [in 2015] would be the largest single-year increase since at least 1960.” And this past January, Chicago had 51 homicides, the highest number in sixteen years.

Nevertheless, crime remains historically low — at least for most people, but for a subset of our population, young black men who live in poor urban neighborhoods, the crime crisis is real. It grips their daily lives and the lives of their neighbors.

We should push back against folks like Heather Mac Donald and the rest of the ideological right-wing who attribute crime and disorder to black pathology and a culture of poverty. But we should also seek to build a left agenda that acknowledges the actual plight of poor people. While we should absolutely argue against the likes of Mac Donald, our task should not rest with refutation. We need to build something positive rather than settle for dismantling bad arguments.

That begs the question — can we build a viable left politics on the issue of public safety, which so often has been a spur to carceral initiatives? I have serious doubts that any federal policy that gives more money to police will make a meaningful positive difference. (Historians now argue that federal funding for state and local police, dating to 1965, has made things substantially worse.) Putting more cops on the street may suppress crime in the short-term — and possibly save lives — but it comes at a cost. With more cops, you’ll likely get more stops, more arrests, more jail time, that is, more of the same. No, at the federal level, I think we should push for redistributive policies that will have the desired long-term effect of lifting people out of poverty, thereby bolstering community stability.

Perhaps, then, our focus should primarily be at the state and city level. In order to build the required coalition, we will need to reach people where they are. We will have to reassure city residents desperate for relief that non-carceral and non-police solutions to the crime emergency on their blocks will be effective. We can’t assume that they already support a lighter police presence — or even abolition — simply because the harms caused by over-policing and mass incarceration appear so obvious.

Right now, residents of hard-hit Austin, Chicago, for example, only have the cops — and the cops are not exactly eager to help given the public criticism. The tragic irony of austerity policies is that the most readily available state institution in poor urban neighborhoods, the police, is also the least-trusted by residents.

We have lots of work to do. Refuting the so-called Ferguson Effect — which essentially asks who’s to blame, which conservatives like Mac Donald use to undermine legitimate democratic protests against abusive state practices — when the evidence actually does indicate an increase in violent crime, should be the least of our concerns.


*David C. Pyrooz, Scott H. Decker, Scott E. Wolfe, John A. Shjarback, “Was there a Ferguson Effect on crime rates in large U.S. cities?” Journal of Criminal Justice, Volume 46, September 2016, Pages 1–8

One thought on “Ferguson Effects

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s