The Myth Of The ‘Ferguson Effect’


Black Lives Matter protesters in Miami in 2014

Ever since unarmed teenager Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, MO last year, people across the country have taken to the streets en masse to protest police brutality and the mistreatment of black men and women. At the same time, police officers and pundits have argued that demonstrators are jeopardizing community safety, pointing to rising violent crime rates in recent months. As the “Ferguson Effect” theory goes, police have slowed down enforcement due to public scrutiny, which has lead to more crime, including homicides. In the absence of tough policing, chaos reigns.

But a new report from the Sentencing Project reveals the shooting of Brown and subsequent police backlash last August did not cause the uptick in St. Louis homicides last year.

sentencing project 1

CREDIT: The Sentencing Project

In 2014, there were 159 homicides in St. Louis, compared to 120 in 2013 — an increase of 32.5 percent. Drawing on local police data, the Sentencing Project discovered that the ratio of monthly homicides, from 2014 to 2013, was highest in the first quarter of the year. The ratio of homicides jumped between February and April, decreased in April and May, and rose again in June — months before Brown was killed. And while the number of homicides climbed after August 2014, the ratio was never as high as it was in April. In other words, homicides occurred most frequently in the first part of the year, and therefore, evidence does not support a causal relationship between the events that unfolded in Ferguson and subsequent homicides.

sentencing project 2

CREDIT: The Sentencing Project

Additionally, little evidence supports the notion that non-homicide violent crimes, including robbery and assault, in St. Louis were instigated by police grievances in Ferguson. Although the ratio accelerated between September and December, it was also high at the beginning of the year. And similar to the ratio of homicides, the ratio of violent crimes decreased over a two-month period, but increased again in May, long before Brown was shot. If anything, the most promising evidence in support of the “Ferguson Effect” was the ratio of property crimes in St. Louis, which remained relatively consistent until August, and increased thereafter.

But law enforcement officials and media outlets continue to make sweeping generalizations about the state of policing and increased criminal activity nationwide. Notably, a Wall Street Journal article written by Heather Mac Donald pointed to high rates of gun violence in Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City and police disillusionment in those cities. “Similar ‘Ferguson effects’ are happening across the country as officers scale back on proactive policing under the onslaught of anti-cop rhetoric. Arrests in Baltimore were down 56% in May compared with 2014,” she wrote. “Even if officer morale were to miraculously rebound, policies are being put into place that will make it harder to keep crime down in the future. Those initiatives reflect the belief that any criminal-justice action that has a disparate impact on blacks is racially motivated.”

The New York Times published another article about the spike in murders after Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore, MD, emphasizing officers’ hesitance to enforce the law. “At the time of her announcement, Ms. Mosby’s charges [for the officers involved] were seen as calming the city. But they enraged the police rank and file, who pulled back,” the article asserts. “The number of arrests plunged, and the murder rate doubled in a month. The reduced police presence gave criminals space to operate, according to community leaders and some law enforcement officials.”

Two anonymous Baltimore Police Department officers told CNN that the latest murder rate can be attributed to calls for less aggressive policing in the wake of Gray’s death. Union leader and Lt. Kenneth Butler of the BPD also claims that fear of suspension and criminal charges has scared cops out of policing effectively in the city.

In response to these claims, Executive Director Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project told ThinkProgress, “Every city is going to be unique. There are certain trends that can affect crime rates nationally, but we do know that crime is very much subject to local circumstances. It can be demographics, the proportion of young men in a given population, the size and the kind of policing that goes on, the employment rates, types of drug abuse. All those factors can vary quite substantially.”

Applying the “Ferguson Effect” to New York City is hard to do, for example, since the police slowdown following Eric Garner protests did not have a negative impact on the city’s crime rate, according to Police Commissioner Bill Bratton. After two officers were killed during the weeks of demonstrations, the NYPD staged its own protest by refusing to arrest people for petty crimes. Many thought the move would prompt chaos, but crime actually dropped in every borough.

Mauer thinks the “Ferguson Effect” is a dangerous concept, saying, “It gets us back the era of the 1980s when police had crime policy developed by soundbites and anecdotes. We had the War on Drugs and ‘three strikes, you’re out.’ Far too often one sensationalized crime was made to stand in for the entirety of the crime problem. It’s not a reasonable or ethical way to go about doing research, and it doesn’t inform us about public policy and what we should be doing.”