The Nuances of the Ferguson Effect

The Nuances of the Ferguson Effect

According to the "Ferguson Effect" theory, police became demoralized and timid following the death of Michael Brown — and the subsequent protests — in August of 2014. Other incidents, such as that involving Freddie Gray in Baltimore in April of 2015, only worsened matters. Crime rose.

As I pointed out last September, this theory makes a prediction: The protests were heavily focused on race, so cities with higher black populations should have had greater increases in crime. Presumably, police worry less about setting off a public-relations nightmare when they interact with white civilians.

I tentatively confirmed this using data FiveThirtyEight had collected from 60 cities. Those numbers covered most of 2015 and the same period in 2014, and they suggested a 16 percent increase in homicides — an increase that was indeed somewhat concentrated in cities with high black populations. The effect wasn't dramatic, but it was there.

A new academic study, using data from 81 cities and focusing on the year before and after Ferguson, argues against the existence of a widespread Ferguson Effect — but it also confirms my findings on race and homicide. From the abstract (emphasis mine):

No evidence was found to support a systematic post-Ferguson change in overall, violent, and property crime trends; however, 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. Overall, any Ferguson Effect is constrained largely to cities with historically high levels of violence, a large composition of black residents, and socioeconomic disadvantages.

Cities with declining homicide trends were, on average, about 12 percent black, just below the national figure. Those that experienced flat trends or modest increases were 18 percent black. And the cities with the biggest increases were 35 percent black.

The authors themselves are hesitant to tie this to changes in policing, though, offering a different way of viewing the correlation:

What is important about these cities is that they had much higher crime rates before Ferguson, which in turn may have primed them for increases in crime. Cities with post-Ferguson increases in crime tended to have a higher proportion of black residents, lower socioeconomic status, and more police per capita—important macro-level correlates of crime rates (Pratt & Cullen, 2005; Sampson, 2012). Simply put, these other predictors of crime rates lead to questions that may inhibit any ability to attribute crime increases specifically to the Ferguson Effect in these cities.

The biggest question is this: If these cities were "primed ... for increases in crime," what besides the Ferguson Effect actually set off the increases? At the very least, it's an odd coincidence that homicide rose specifically in heavily black cities after Ferguson.

I should also note that some are troubled by the implications of this theory. Indeed, you could use it to argue for censorship, or for ignoring police abuses. I'm not particularly tempted by this line of reasoning — the right to protest is sacrosanct, and we should always try to find the truth, even when it makes us uncomfortable.

That includes the truth about cops. It also includes the truth about anti-police sentiment.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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