FBI Director James Comey, who was rebuffed by the White House after suggesting that a “Ferguson Effect” could be behind the latest uptick in crime, may have found at least some vindication from a recent study posted on the American Psychological Association’s website, entitled “The Alleged ‘Ferguson Effect’ and Police Willingness to Engage in Community Partnership.” The study is paywalled, but Tom Jacobs of the Pacific Standard has a good summary:
A new study focusing on one mid-sized sheriff’s department found negative publicity about policing has indeed reduced some deputies’ motivation, as well as their willingness to form partnerships with members of their communities. […]
In February, the researchers surveyed 567 deputies at a mid-sized sheriff’s department in the Southeastern United States (an impressive 85 percent response rate). The deputies were asked a series of questions regarding how recent negative publicity about police actions has impacted their work. They indicated, on a five-point scale, the extent to which such coverage has “made it more difficult for you to be motivated at work,” and “caused you to be less proactive on the job.” […]
“It appears that officers in our sample have been affected by negative ‘Ferguson-type’ press,” [the authors] write. “Some officers indicated being less motivated to perform their duties. This is important from a managerial standpoint, because feelings such as these need to be subverted if possible.”
The study does not determine—or attempt to determine—whether officers’ post-Ferguson disengagement has actually caused the spike in crime. It also found—crucially—that the effect is smaller or nonexistent for officers who feel more supported by their departments, as Jacobs emphasizes. Nonetheless, the finding that recent protests against police practices have made many officers—at least in the department surveyed—fearful of performing their regular duties poses real challenges for those who suggest there’s nothing at all to see here.
The debate over this issue has thus far split along ideological lines, with law-and-order conservatives like Heather MacDonald sounding the alarm about the Ferguson Effect and left-wing criminal justice reformers like Ta-Nehisi Coates insisting that it’s a scare-term that has essentially been fabricated for ideological reasons. But this survey actually highlights the fact that the existence of a Ferguson Effect could actually be a good thing for criminal justice reformers in the long run.
There is strong evidence that crime has gone up in major urban centers over the last few months, and there is good reason to believe that if this crime spike persists, it could imperil promising prison reform efforts currently underway. If the cause of the rising crime is really the “Ferguson Effect”—officers’ desire to lay low in the current environment, for fear of being swept up in a high-profile controversy—then it is likely to turn out to be transitory. Moreover, as the study says, police departments can take relatively straightforward steps to make officers feel more confident.
If, on the other hand, there is no Ferguson Effect, then we have no idea why crime has been rising, no idea if it will continue to rise, and no clear way to counter it—except, of course, more draconian criminal justice policies.
Mass incarceration was a result of the high crime rates in the 1970s through the 1990s (the causes of which are still a matter of debate, but which likely had deep social and demographic roots), and the current moment of opportunity for prison reform is a result of the historically low rates of crime we are experiencing today. If crime rates remain elevated over the long term, that window of opportunity may close. Prison reformers should be hoping that the cause of the latest spike is something as simple, tractable, and likely temporary as the Ferguson Effect.