It is a fact that murder rates in many cities rose last year. The full nationwide picture, however, will only become clear on Sept. 26, when the FBI publishes its 2015 crime data. As it turns out, that’s the same day as the first presidential debate, as Lois Beckett observed at The Guardian. The data will convey a lot of information, and a fast-moving political circus will likely engulf it in confusion.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, running a hysterical law-and-order campaign, will likely point to a rare fact to bolster his case. Other conservatives, who since last year have blamed urban bloodshed and the murders of police officers on Black Lives Matter, will no doubt claim vindication. But reporters shouldn’t let anyone get away with such quick inferences. The overall murder rate is still way down from the worst years of the early 1990s, and the current spike is being driven by a small number of cities.
A recent New York Times analysis found that the murder rate rose sharply in 25 of the nation’s 100 largest cities, confirming a trend identified in a June report for the National Institute of Justice conducted by criminologist Richard Rosenfeld. Experts estimate that the FBI will report a nationwide increase of between 6 percent and 13 percent, according to Beckett. Numbers, however, don't speak for themselves.
Many conservatives have been peddling a theory known as the “Ferguson effect,” which posits that Black Lives Matter protests are causing the police to pull back from doing their jobs, leading to increased crime. Such commentators and some credulous reporters will claim that this data proves their case. But the Ferguson effect theory, aimed at delegitimizing the movement against police violence, remains as unsubstantiated and implausible as ever. What follows is a handy guide for fighting politically motivated disinformation in the weeks and months to come.
The Ferguson effect doesn’t make any sense
The Ferguson effect theory, as I wrote in June, doesn’t make sense because it lacks a plausible causal theory as to how so-called de-policing (to the extent that it has taken place) leads to more people shooting one another to death. Much gun violence is the result of personal and intergroup disputes, and purveyors of the theory don’t explain how decreased police enforcement would lead to more shooting. Notably, gun seizures — which criminologist David Kennedy called “the one kind of day-to-day policing that one might expect would have the most direct impact on homicide and gun violence” — have been high in Baltimore and Chicago, two of the bloodiest cities.
In regard to a causal mechanism, Kennedy told me, “none of the people claiming there is a Ferguson effect have any idea” what it might be. “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.”
Kennedy, director of John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s National Network for Safe Communities and a leading gun violence expert, added, “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 it's leading to increased violence.’ It’s really not an analysis. It’s more a position.”
The murder spike is not a nationwide phenomenon
According to the Times, just seven cities— Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Milwaukee, Nashville and Washington — were responsible for half of the murder rate increase. In five cities, murder rates actually decreased significantly. In 70, they were mostly stable. The real story is thus embedded in a series of local circumstances and cannot be explained by easy recourse to the national debate over policing.
In Baltimore, for example, the murder rate is particularly out of control. In fact, it's horrific: Last year's was the city's highest rate on record. But as the Times noted, “Some experts attribute the sudden spike in violence largely to a flood of black-market opiates looted from pharmacies during riots in April 2015.” It’s possible that decreased police enforcement played some role. It could also be that the riots caused a lot of young men already involved in gun violence to encounter one another in the streets, leading to more violence. The correlation that researchers have found between decreased enforcement in Chicago and Baltimore and rising murder, as I explained at length in June, does not demonstrate causation.
Three of the cities that drove the upsurge — Baltimore, Chicago and Cleveland — have been centers of widespread protests. Yet all seven have poverty rates above the national average. And cities like Baltimore, Chicago and Cleveland also contain something else: large, geographically contiguous segregated concentrations of black poverty. More reporting and research is necessary to discover why murder is spiking in certain cities—and also why it is dropping or holding steady in others.
Murder rates continued to decline in the nation's two largest cities, Los Angeles and New York. In New York, crime has continued to fall even after it implemented one of the largest de-policing measures in history under massive public and legal pressure: ending mass stop-and-frisk practices. Contrary to the New York Post, the sky did not fall.
Beware of headlines that blare, “Murder rate increase highest since 1990.” Beckett wrote that “overall murders would have to spike 73 percent, not 6 percent, to actually put the U.S. back at the record-breaking murder totals of the early 1990s.”
Because murders have declined so much in recent decades and the crime rate is currently so low, a relatively small increase in the absolute number of murders can make for a dramatic percentage increase in the murder rate.
If there is a Ferguson effect, it might not be what you think
Many experts have long believed there is a relationship between policing and gun violence but it's not the relationship that many people might presume to exist. Instead, a lack of police legitimacy in poor black communities might fuel shootings because when people don’t trust police to solve their problems they are more likely take matters into their own hands. And so rather than protests against police violence causing more gun violence, the protests may instead be highlighting one of the causes behind increased violence.
After University of Missouri St. Louis criminologist Richard Rosenfeld conducted his June research showing rising murder rates in certain cities, he was reported to be having second thoughts about the Ferguson effect, which he initially thought to be implausible. This is not quite right.
In fact, Rosenfeld told me at the time that he is unaware of any research “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.” Rosenfeld said, “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.”
Don’t cede the discussion about street violence to the right
The release of the FBI data will undoubtedly lead to more accusations from conservatives that black people care too much about police violence and not enough about everyday murders in their communities (which conservatives tend to blame not on poverty but on what they describe as pathologically broken black families). Anyone who is from a neighborhood pervaded by gun violence or who has spent much time in one knows this is false. In Philadelphia, where I worked as a reporter, the sadness and grief wrought by gun violence was persistently a top issue in the news and on the streets.
Some people on the left, however, do evade discussions about the relationship between crime and punishment, fearful that doing so might legitimize mass incarceration. But crime, real and imagined, matters to people and has political impact — and not just for paranoid white suburbanites. It’s a mistake for people on the left to cede the discussion about gun violence to the right or to limit their demands to gun control (especially since gun-control measures often dovetail with more policing and imprisonment).
Instead, the left must propose its own solutions. The good news is that unlike the right’s, they have the virtue of being rooted in empirical reality. In the long term, the social and economic conditions that foment gun violence must be ameliorated. In the short term, investments in long-neglected programs that reach out to young people engaged in violent feuds, defusing disputes and offering new opportunities, must be funded and supported. The left must stay engaged in the conversation because not engaging won’t make it go away. The murder spike has the potential to poison the political climate and destabilize the push to end mass incarceration. Those committed to ending mass incarceration can't let that happen.
Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, told me that he is optimistic that while “some candidates” may “seize on such reports as wedge issues . . . given the pace of change on criminal justice reform, it's unlikely we'll see anything like the widespread call to ‘get tough’ that was so prevalent in the 1980s.”
I think he’s right. But I’m deeply pessimistic about the way that crime in black communities can be deployed as a perennial political two-by-four, and also about Americans’ willingness, in a complicated moment of crosscutting fears, to fall for it.
For society to reduce gun violence, it has to be understood in its local particulars. Gun violence is not a mystery. In many cities, a horrific number of people are shot dead every year. But on a data level, the number of gun homicides is not so huge that it is impervious to research and comprehension. Wild and unsubstantiated inferences aimed at smearing Black Lives Matter is likely to lead not to solutions but to more death.