The Upsurge in Crime: The ‘Ferguson Effect’ Is Called into Question



Last November, St. Louis police Chief Sam Dotson blamed the “Ferguson effect” for the sudden rise in crime in his city, which included a 47 percent increase in homicides.

“I see it not only on the law enforcement side, but the criminal element is feeling empowered,” he added, citing the fatigue and stress experienced by police officers in his city after several months of protests against the death of Michael Brown, the young black man killed by a white police officer in the neighboring city of Ferguson. This fatigue and stress may have contributed to a decrease in the number of arrests and encouraged criminals to take advantage of the situation.

What if the “Ferguson effect” were not confined to St. Louis? Other large American cities have seen an upsurge in violent crime. In Milwaukee, as of May 17, there has been a 180 percent increase in homicides compared with the same period last year. In Houston, by the end of March, they had seen a rise of nearly 100 percent. Baltimore has not been spared either. Last Thursday they recorded the one hundredth homicide since the start of the year, which is 29 more than by the same date in 2014. Neither have Atlanta, Los Angeles nor even New York been spared. In Atlanta, homicides had increased by 32 percent by mid-May, in Los Angeles, shootings and felonies had seen a 25 percent rise and in New York, homicides increased by 20 percent during the first five months of the year compared with the same period in 2014.

Reverse Trend

These statistics are all the more striking since during the first six months of 2014 crime rates in the majority of large American cities had continued to fall, as they had for the past 20 years. According to Heather MacDonald, researcher at the conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute, there is no doubt: The “Ferguson effect” is felt “across the country.” In an article for the Wall Street Journal, from which some of the statistics cited above are taken, she wrote last week that “officers scale back on proactive policing under the onslaught of anti-cop rhetoric. Arrests in Baltimore were down 56 percent in May compared with 2014.” In April, it must be remembered, Baltimore was shaken by protests and riots following the arrest and death of Freddie Gray, a 25 year-old African-American.

In New York, representatives of the police unions have seconded Heather MacDonald’s thesis. “What you’re seeing now are the perps carrying their guns because they’re not afraid to carry them,” declared Ed Mullins, chief of a New York police union, the day after statistics were published showing a 20 percent rise in homicides in New York during the first five months of the year. “We have created an atmosphere where we have handcuffed the police.”

The climate that Ed Mullins is talking about is not only due to the supposed “Ferguson effect.” In his opinion, it is down to the decision of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ending of the practice of “stop and frisk,” which was considered to be discriminatory toward young blacks and Latinos.

Gang Warfare

The New York tabloids have also attacked the mayor of New York on this question. But he has accused his critics of myopia, highlighting that overall crime has fallen by 6.6 percent in New York during the first five months of the year. He says that the rise in homicides is due to gang warfare in some red-light districts in the Bronx and Brooklyn where police reinforcements will be deployed. According to the mayor, the same phenomenon occurred last spring, yet the number of homicides in New York still reached a historic low by the end of 2014.

James Fox, professor of criminology at Northeastern University in Boston, has a similar view, which casts doubt on the existence of a “Ferguson effect” on the work of police officers and criminal behavior. “It is hasty and reckless to warn of a coming crime wave and blame it on cops becoming tentative in face of criticism over police shootings of unarmed black citizens,” he warned in response to Heather MacDonald’s thesis. “The reported jump in crime [in some cities] reflects only a few months, a statistically unreliable indicator of trend.”

In fact, according to Professor Fox, we may need to wait more than a year before we are able to determine whether or not the “Ferguson effect” exists.

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