Crime and Punishment
New Evidence of a Ferguson Effect

For over a year, the Obama administration has vigorously denied the existence of a Ferguson Effect—the hypothesis, popularized by the Manhattan Institute’s Heather MacDonald, that the uptick in violent crime experienced in major cities was related to the high-profile controversies over police shootings. But now, a federally-funded study says that these episodes may indeed have undermined the legitimacy of police in the eyes of their communities, making witnesses less likely come forward, deterring officers from acting aggressively, and contributing to one of the biggest single-year murder rate increases in a quarter century. The Guardian reports:

A new justice department-funded study concludes that a version of the so-called “Ferguson Effect” is a “plausible” explanation for the spike in violent crime seen in most of the country’s largest cities in 2015, but cautions that more research is still needed.

The study, released by the National Institute of Justice on Wednesday, suggests three possible drivers for the more than 16% spike in homicide from 2014 to 2015 in 56 of the nation’s largest cities. But based on the timing of the increase, University of Missouri St Louis criminologist Richard Rosenfeld concluded, there is “stronger support” for some version of the Ferguson Effect hypothesis than its alternatives.

Debates about the existence of a Ferguson Effect have always been deeply distorted and corrosively politicized. When reports of a crime spike started to surface, many left-of-center analysts went to great lengths to deny that anything unusual was going on, perhaps because they perceived that it would undermine the criminal justice reform project. They also rushed to try and discredit the Ferguson Effect hypothesis, perceiving it as an attack on the people in places like Baltimore and Ferguson who protested what they saw as instances of police brutality. This perception was not entirely unwarranted: Law-and-order conservatives have sometimes used the hypothesis as a bludgeon against racial justice activists who they said were waging a “war on cops.”

But the truth is that the knee-jerk liberal defensiveness at the mention of a Ferguson Effect is probably unnecessary. At its essence, the theory (at least, the version of it supported in the latest research) only posits that there has been a breakdown in trust between police departments and the low-income minority communities they patrol, and that this mistrust came to a head after the unrest in major cities over the last year. It might counsel against a unilateral reduction in the police presence in high-crime areas, but it doesn’t counsel a more invasive law-enforcement campaign, either.

Rather, the fact that police are increasingly regarded with suspicion in at-risk communities means that states and localities need to invest more in building up the legitimacy of law-enforcement. This could include programs like Ceasefire, a successful early-intervention program pioneered in Boston, or even hiring more detectives, so that the police can solve more serious crimes without resorting to things like stop-and-frisk or arrest-sweeps. The existence of the Ferguson Effect shows that we need to think harder about how to make policing more effective and legitimate—but not necessarily more punitive. In fact, an overly-harsh campaign that some conservatives are calling for could further undermine trust and make the problem worse.

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