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by Peter Moskos

February 6, 2016

Defining the Ferguson Effect

Denying the Ferguson Effect and any link between policing and crime has become almost a cottage industry in some circles. It's sort of the liberal equivalent of conservatives denying climate change and, er, on the small chance it is changing, any link between global warming and human activity. Sure, the world may be warmer. But God works in mysterious ways. Same with crime, if you listen to many of the Left.

Here's a new study :
There is no evidence to support a systematic Ferguson Effect on overall, violent, and property crime trends in large U.S. cities.
OK. But the author do admit:
The disaggregated analyses revealed that robbery rates, declining before Ferguson, increased in the months after Ferguson. Also, there was much greater variation in crime trends in the post-Ferguson era, and select cities did experience increases in homicide.
OK.... So doesn't that mean there is a Ferguson Effect? Apparently not:
Overall, any Ferguson Effect is constrained largely to cities with historically high levels of violence, a large composition of black residents, and socioeconomic disadvantages.
"Constrained to"? Isn't "constrained to" synonymous with "present in"? Aren't cities with "historically high levels of violence, a large composition of black residents, and socioeconomic disadvantage" exactly where you'd expect to find a Ferguson Effect!? I mean, I wouldn't expect to find a Ferguson Effect in Winnetka, for crying out loud! (Winnetka, Illinois: median income $211,000; 0.3 percent black.)

Liberals, myself excluded, have long tried to discount the efficacy of policing vis-à-vis crime prevention. And now academics seem to want to deny any "Ferguson Effect" because... I don't know. Just guessing, but maybe it goes against a Progressive narrative that police are racist enforcers of bourgeois heteronormative values?

There's no reason the Ferguson Effect needs to be universal or even linked specifically to one event in August, 2014. The question shouldn't be if all cities haven't seen an increase in all crime but rather why why some cities -- most cities, in fact -- have.

What if, hypothetically to be sure, a laser-like focus on police-violence reduced police-involved killings but simultaneously allowed hundreds and even thousands of more murders to happen? If that were true, then what?

What if "hands up don't shoot" were built on a false narrative? What then? What if, just for the sake of debate, we assumed that most police-involved killings were actually justified (since most are) and even life saving? What if the goal of eliminating police-involved killings was, in part, counterproductive? Then what?

Different cities have had different "Ferguson Moments." It wasn't like something magically changed everywhere when Michael Brown was (justifiable) killed. All policing is local.

In New York City the Ferguson moment may have been protests after the death of Eric Garner. Cops were verbally attacked, physically attacked, and two were killed and another bludgeoned with a hatchet. If you think none of that matters... well then you haven't talked to any New York City cop.

In Baltimore, just thinking out loud here, perhaps it was the protests and riots after the death of Freddie Gray. And the misguided criminal prosecution of innocent cops. In Cleveland, not that I know much about Cleveland, I would assume policing changed related to the killing of Tamir Rice. In Nashville? Beats me. But maybe it was giving hot chocolate and coffee to protesters. I applauded that move. Liberals like me love that shit. But I bet it pissed off a lot of the rank and file.

So no, it's not Ferguson per se. Call it whatever you effing want. (I've never been a fan of the actual term "Ferguson Effect.) I'm talking about the real-world effect of an anti-police narrative, the fear cops have of getting in trouble for doing their job, and perhaps the first-hand experience of policing anti-police protests.

Meanwhile, in Chicago:
Cops say they have avoided making many of the stops they would have routinely done last year. They fear getting in trouble for stops later deemed to be illegal and say the new cards take too much time to complete.

Their reluctance to make stops was borne out by a police statistic released Sunday: Officers completed 79 percent fewer contact cards in January 2016 than over the same period last year.

January 2016 was the deadliest first month of the year since 2001
Just coincidence, of course. There's no way to prove any of this. But I sure haven't heard any good alternative explanation. (At some point, I am partial to Occam's Razor.)
The ACLU rejects any correlation between declining street stops and rising violence.... Other cities have scaled back their street stops without an explosion of shootings. The reduction of "invasive" street stops is actually a good thing.
Really? Well, yes, the NYPD scaled back its stops and crime did not increase. (Not only did crime not increase, between 2011 and 2013 homicides in New York City plummeted 35 percent!)But that doesn't mean that all police stops are bad and to be prevented.
The ACLU released a report in March that found blacks accounted for 72 percent of [Chicago] stops between May and August of 2014, but just 32 percent of the city's population.
Again?! Once again we have a denominator problem. Eighty percent of Chicago homicide victims are black. And presumably murderers, too, since most homicides are intra-racial. Should only 32 percent of those arrested for homicide be black? I don't think so. Are only 32 percent of public drug dealers black? No. So why would one expect only 32 percent of those stopped by police to be black?

Look, cops aren't always right. And cops will always complain. But if homicide is going up and cops are saying, "Uh, here's the problem: I can't do my job. And this is why...." Perhaps we should listen. What worries me is the goal to eliminate virtually all discretionary police activity couched int he language of social and racial justice. But if you want police to do less, there's no better way than mandating a two-page form for every stop.

We will see what happens. But crime already is up in many cities. And that -- not reducing the number of police stops -- should be our first concern.

[see also this]


Rich Giordano said...

An article in today's Philadelphia Inquirer (actually from philly.com it's online version) http://www.philly.com/philly/news/Teen_killers_prison_lifers_given_a_ray_of_hope.html

It's an interesting piece and while it barely mentions victims or the need to impose sentences which give a society a definition of ITSELF in terms of how it deals with the most egregious violators of its norms, it makes a case for consideration of how to deal with people who committed horrible crimes at a point in their lives when we know their ability to make judgments remains somewhat limited. However, it clearly exemplifies your "denominator" problem. Under the title racial disparity it indicates that 80% of juvenile lifers in Pennsylvania are minorities without ever considering what the percentage is of minorities who commit such crimes. Later it has a chart with the percentages of juvenile lifers by the top ten counties in the US versus the percentage of the country's population those counties represent as if there are significant numbers of juveniles in Des Moines committing such crimes but not getting this kind of sentence. Either the authors don't realize what they are doing- a scary thought in itself- or more likely they do and deliberately try to slant a question with such meaningless and misleading numbers.

Bill Harshaw said...

At this point I'm confused. If there is a Ferguson effect, should it operate on all crimes, homicides, or all crimes of violence, or are our statistical categories adequate to capture the effect? What statistics other than crime would support the existence the effect: i.e., police stops, demographics, street demonstrations?

Peter Moskos said...

It might. But presumably people aren't going to beat up the girlfriend more because of Ferguson. I think you'll see it crimes that evolve from public gathering and disorder, public drug dealing in particular.

Honestly, and perhaps to my fault, I don't see much of a need to look beyond shootings and homicides. It's the most reliable crime stat. Everything else, while potentially good in a data sense, needs to be taken with a larger grain of salt.

Less proactive policing means fewer on-view arrests. Fewer arrests means (statistically) less crime! Voila. Certainly other data is worth looking at. Calls for service. Warrant-related arrests are interesting to look at, since presumably they are an indicator of interactions with citizens. Traffic stops are mostly discretionary.

As to what causes a change in policing, I think you need to get qualitative. Certain protests can have an impact. Al Sharpton making an invited appearance. Local politicians "escorted" suspects to jail. Criminally charging innocent cops. Telling people you've given protesters "space to destroy." All this matters. So does under-staffing and tired cops.

Thorn said...

I like the climate change denial analogy. It's one thing to talk about the pros and cons of proactive/aggressive policing (and many other topics like state surveillance) but it strikes me that there is a determined effort afoot to stop such an honest debate from happening by pretending there ARE no negative effects, no matter how serendipitous it must be to have all these crime spikes happening at this moment.

Then there is the other part of the 'Ferguson Effect' that doesn't deal with crime rates so much as police morale, mentality and productivity changes. When cops and former cops talk about the significant effects of all the anti-police rhetoric on officers it seems like journalists, politicians and laypeople who have no experience in LE except for watching CSI suddenly become experts and demand proof of anything negative going on (though I haven't heard what they would accept as proof).

It may be that it's worth going down this path to try and somehow correct structural issues of racism and poverty (though I'd argue that the only honest way to address such issues in policing is via legislation and legalization rather than finding individual cops like Darren Wilson to sacrifice). But there's always a cost, even if we all cover our eyes as best we can.

Andy D said...

""I'd argue that the only honest way to address such issues in policing is via legislation and legalization"

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. What if, instead of demanding that police DO SOMETHING about crime, then complaining about the "something" that they do, we stopped asking cops to do those things. Legislation and legalization (specifically of drugs) would dramatically reduce the things that society demands that cops do. I'm sure they'd rather just rescue kittens from trees and shit instead of clearing drug corners. Believe me that the most rewarding things I've ever done as a cop were of the kittens in trees or old ladies with flat tires type, rather than the arrest-another-drug-dealer type. But there is no time for those more pleasant and public service type tasks when drugs and the violence and crime that attend drugs keep you humping from call to call.

Unfortunately those who are calling for legislation seem to only be calling for legislation to make it easier to prosecute cops, rather than anything that would deal with the root causes of the things that put cops in situations where (overwhelmingly young, minority males) need to get confronted by armed agents of the state, with predictable consequences.

Otis Blue said...

Here are two recent police shooting that are extremely similar:




Both involve officers attempting to arrest suspects with known violent histories. The San Antonio officer specifically knew his suspect had a history of firearms possession. Both involve the suspect not complying, not showing his hands, and officers making decisions that would have life changing effects.

Of course there is a key difference. One officer shot and lived. The other used a taser and died.

Would the Oregon officer have been justified in shooting his suspect rather than tasering him? The knowledge after the fact of whether the suspect had a gun or not is certainly emotionally powerful in forming our judgements of these officers, but it is irrelevant legally to the officer on the scene attempting to effect an arrest of a non-compliant suspect.

If the San Antonio officer's actions can be deemed as wrong because he only feared (albeit reasonably) the suspect had a gun, then the Oregon officer would also had been wrong to have shot his suspect rather than use a taser. Of course if he had shot, the Oregon officer would likely be alive. Would the masses scream and rage and demand he be arrested, fired, and sued? Unlikely, but the way the law works either both officers could have legally shot or neither of them should have.

The fact that the media and the masses apply this rule of hindsight to police use of force and are pressuring police agencies to do the same for internal investigations makes me fearful that the courts will soon start pushing to adopt this same rule of hindsight. That is my personal Ferguson Effect.

Thorn said...

"What if, instead of demanding that police DO SOMETHING about crime, then complaining about the "something" that they do, we stopped asking cops to do those things. "

Yeah that's something that really annoys me about some of the parties decrying any police "slowdown" and yet becoming immediately and vociferously critical of anything that goes wrong in a police encounter as indicative of policing in general. Non-consensual police encounters are dangerous, potentially violent things. 90% of the time everything goes okay. Of those encounters that go bad and require force, most can still be resolved fairly well, but maybe a small percentage of that percentage end in death of the suspect. And of that tiny percentage, some were killed due to mistakes or illegal force used by the police.

You can punish those officers but unless you think police go out there every day hoping to shoot a black man you're not going to get rid of those incidents. Every 'loosie cigarette' law will eventually get someone killed, rightly or wrongly. Even jaywalking offenses go bad. But politicians keep passing the laws and then can't imagine how anything could go wrong.

I'm not a big proponent of legalization in general but if you're tired of hearing about people dying "because he had a taglight out" (never the proximate cause!) stop passing laws that cause police interactions. Of course if you stop pulling people over for "chickenshit" violations (as one DA artfully called a traffic stop) then accept that you also will miss bigger crimes that get caught in the net...

Peter Moskos said...

Well said, Otis.
Well said, Thorn.

bacchys said...

All street stops aren't bad. They aren't all good, either, and when the "all street stops aren't bad" is an excuse for complete contempt of the right of people to go about their day without being harassed it's not exactly producing much trust and faith in law enforcement among the very people the police will later complain don't cooperate with them.