The Ferguson effect debunked: The theory not only lacks evidence, it makes no sense

The ups and downs of violent crime can't be explained by protesters cowing police

Published June 3, 2016 9:58AM (EDT)

A man watches as police walk through a cloud of smoke during a clash with protesters, Aug. 13, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo.                         (AP/Jeff Roberson)
A man watches as police walk through a cloud of smoke during a clash with protesters, Aug. 13, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. (AP/Jeff Roberson)

In Chicago, 69 people were reported shot, six fatally, over the long weekend. In Baltimore, bullets fired from a passing car hit five people at a cookout on Monday. One of the victims, a 20-year-old man hit in the arm, was later arrested after allegedly returning to the scene with a loaded .38 in his waistband.

In many American cities with large, segregated populations of poor black people, murders have been on the rise. So too has been the use of urban carnage, often to conservative political ends, by those hawking the so-called “Ferguson effect,” which posits that protests over police shootings cause officers to pull back from enforcement and thus drive more gunfire.

“Ultimately, denial of the Ferguson effect is driven by a refusal to acknowledge the connection between proactive policing and public safety,”  the Manhattan Institute scholar who began popularizing the idea last May, recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “Until the urban family is reconstituted, law-abiding residents of high-crime neighborhoods will need the police to maintain public order in the midst of profound social breakdown.”

The argument, as has been repeatedly pointed out, lacks evidence and is nakedly geared to delegitimize criticism of police misconduct. It is also entirely implausible.

Among the many critiques of the Ferguson effect, the most devastating but least mentioned one is very basic: it has no causal mechanism. If police are standing down on the margins — and I’ll get to whether that’s happening in a moment — there is no explanation as to how that information would be conveyed to criminals so as to cause them to quickly make decisions to fire their guns with more frequency. The relationship between crime, policing and imprisonment is vexed, and this is nowhere more true than with shootings: much gun violence is driven by interpersonal and inter-group conflicts, and so there is little reason to think that traditional aggressive policing methods, from stop and frisk to small-time quality of life enforcement, does much to prevent it.

So then, how exactly is the Ferguson effect supposed to work?

“That’s a pretty good place to start because none of the people claiming there is a Ferguson effect have any idea either,” says David Kennedy, director of John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s National Network for Safe Communities and a leading expert on gun violence. “Most of the people behind that have essentially said, ‘Violence is up. People are mad at the police. Therefore people being mad at the police is driving violence up ’—and then left people to challenge them about why that might make sense. But there isn’t much of a story, and there’s certainly next to nothing in terms of real facts or analysis that says ‘this is what’s going on in the streets, and these are the ways its leading to increased violence.’ It’s really not an analysis. It’s more a position.”

The factual basis of that position relies on two things being true. First, anti-police protests and Black Lives Matter must be causing police to not do their jobs. Second, that pullback must lead to more shootings. To begin with, evidence of any pullback is decidedly mixed.

In Baltimore, there is evidence of decreased drug enforcement and the beginning of a sharp spike in shootings around the time of the riots that followed Freddie Gray’s death, according to crime analyst Jeff Asher. But there are likely other factors stemming from a riot that could drive more shootings beyond enforcement— such as young men already involved in gun violence encountering one another more frequently in the street.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins found “fundamentally unclear” and inconclusive evidence of a Ferguson effect in Baltimore: after Ferguson protests, arrests in the city fell and crime initially fluctuated within expected bounds; after Freddie Gray died, arrests declined, including quite precipitously in the case of serious crimes like murder, and murder began to skyrocket. Notably, according to the Baltimore Sun, gun seizures started rising last June—just after the Grey protests and riots and amidst a deluge of murders. Shootings have since declined.

“There are a number of really important facts that push in the other direction,” says Kennedy. The seizures are “the one kind of day-to-day policing that one might expect would have the most direct impact on homicide and gun violence. And while violence is thankfully trending back down in Baltimore, it’s not coming back down at a level commensurate with those gun seizures—that’s for sure.”

It's quite possible that the murder spike and the riots were related—but not at all in the way that Ferguson effect promoters, who contend that pulling back from discretionary enforcement activities like pedestrian stops drives violence, would like to think.

In Chicago, analysts Rob Arthur and Jeff Asher found that murders spiked while arrests fell—including for shootings and murder—after shocking video of an officer killing teenager Laquan McDonald was made public in late November. But it’s also true, according to a recent story in The Trace, that gun seizures in the city have held steady this year even as street stops have fallen. What’s clear is that the data doesn’t tell a clear story. Often, quantitative data doesn’t.

Numbers are key but don't make up for the dearth of qualitative data. Understanding why a particular person shoots another is often knowable. Much gun violence involves a relatively small number of people in any given city, and there are discrete stories behind individual shootings and neighborhood patterns of violence. Reporting or ethnographic research can reveal these stories. It doesn’t have to be a guessing game. There is too much interpretation of the smoke and not enough investigation of the fire.

“There's just very little field work done in this area,” emails Kennedy, who prizes such work. “It's nearly all done with official administrative data.”


The Ferguson effect idea really took off last May after the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald warned Wall Street Journal readers that a “two-decades-long crime decline may be over,” and that “the most plausible explanation of the current surge in lawlessness is the intense agitation against American police departments over the past nine months.”

More recently, FBI Director Jim Comey helped pushed the theory back into the limelight, telling reporters in May, that a “viral video effect…could well be at the heart” of the violent crime spike.

“There’s a perception that police are less likely to do the marginal additional policing that suppresses crime — the getting out of your car at 2 in the morning and saying to a group of guys, ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’” Comey said.

Notably, the head of the National Fraternal Order of Police disagreed with this account and took offense to it.

It's very true, however, that, murders have been surging in some cities. Overall, there are still far fewer murders than during the bloody 1980s. But there was a 17% nationwide increase in murder in 2015, according to according to a Guardian report on still-unreleased findings from a study by University of Missouri St. Louis criminologist Richard Rosenfeld. That murder spike was driven by 10 cities, where killings increased by a third on average.

Rosenfeld was initially amongst the Ferguson effect’s most-cited skeptics but now calls it his “leading hypothesis.” Mac Donald and multiple media outlets have taken note. Last week, I emailed Rosenfeld to ask how the Ferguson effect, based on what I have laid out above, could possibly be true.

“There is no research I am aware of that suggests de-policing could have such a powerful effect on firearm violence -- except maybe if the police all went on strike and stayed home,” emails Rosenfeld. “There are two versions of the Ferguson effect. One emphasizes the role of de-policing in the homicide rise. The other, which I favor, suggests that longstanding grievances with the police in minority communities are activated by controversial and heavily publicized incidents of police use of force, resulting in more killings as community members settle grievances or respond to crimes without recourse to the police.”

In other words, Rosenfeld says that he doesn’t subscribe to Mac Donald’s Ferguson effect. Instead, Rosenfeld believes that something very different might be going on: when police lack legitimacy people don’t trust law enforcement, which leads people to govern their communities via vigilantism and preventative violence.

Kennedy says this account is far more plausible. But it leads to an entirely different set of conclusions.

“It’s not depolicing as such,” says Kennedy. “It is a steady and very serious rise in perception that the police are illegitimate. There is very strong science on this that says in the neighborhoods…where violence is always concentrated…as public perception of the legitimacy and standing of the police goes down, homicide and serious violence goes up.”

The Ferguson effect, it seems, isn't the right name for this other theory.

And even this explanation runs into one very large counterexample: New York City, the nation’s largest city. Stop and frisk, one of the most broad-based enforcement programs in U.S. history, has in recent years declined dramatically thanks to legal action and widespread protest. In the meantime, murders have continued their long-running decline as well. The first quarter of 2016 saw the fewest shootings and murders in the city’s recorded history. As recently as 2011, stop and frisk was so widespread that the NYPD stopped young black men more times than there were young black men in New York, according to the NYCLU.

“The predictions, including from many of the folks now touting the so-called Ferguson effect,” says Kennedy, were that “if police drew back…the streets would be running red with blood.”

They aren’t. But the fact that the sky hasn’t fallen didn’t stop critics like the New York Post from howling last June, amidst what turned out to be a temporary uptick in shootings, “Hizzoner’s stop-and-frisk ban intentionally ties cops’ hands, leaving city streets potentially awash in guns. And blood.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio touts rising gun seizures and gun arrests, after a period of declining seizures. But why would seizures work so well in New York but not Chicago? Police, like the general public, tend to view crime through the lens of policing. People also tend to downplay the good news, in this case from New York, in favor of the bad news, which is now emanating full force from Baltimore and Chicago. All should be approached with humility and caution.

Correlation, of course, is not causation. Economist Mark J. Perry, blogging at the American Enterprise Institute, would love to make the case to you that rising gun ownership might be what caused murder rates to decline since the early 1990s. History, however, tells us that the huge increase in murders that began in the 1960s was not primarily the result of policing. Rather, it stemmed from many complex and factors, including waves of drug epidemics, grounded in the grinding experience of highly concentrated and hyper-segregated black poverty.

As The New York Times points out, one of the ways that New York is very different from Chicago is that New York has nothing like the huge swaths of black concentrated poverty that prevail in large swaths of Chicago.

“Segregation in New York is nothing like in Chicago: The perfectly isolated neighborhood – where every man, woman and child is the same race – is rare in New York. Less than 1 percent of the population lives in such areas, and most of them are white. In Chicago, 12 percent of the black population is in a census block group that is 100 percent black.”

That historical fact, of course, doesn’t explain the recent surge in violence. But it provides us with a good clue as to where to look and who to ask. The answer lies not in data points but in real life human beings who carry guns and have an all-too reasonable fear of being shot.

By Daniel Denvir

Daniel Denvir is a writer at Salon covering criminal justice, policing, education, inequality and politics. You can follow him at Twitter @DanielDenvir.

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