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.
“The other explanations have a difficult time … explaining the timing and magnitude of the increase we saw in 2015 and continue to see in some cities in the current year,” Rosenfeld said.
Related: ‘Ferguson effect’ did not impact crime in Baltimore – but ‘Gray effect’ may have
The new research cuts against months of statements from Obama administration officials denying that there is any evidence for a Ferguson Effect, a suggested link between protests over police killings of black Americans and an increase in crime and murder.
“While certainly there might be anecdotal evidence there, as all have noted, there’s no data to support it,” attorney general Loretta Lynch said in November.
In early May, the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, said: “There’s not evidence at this point to link that surge in violent crime to the so-called viral video effect, or the Ferguson effect. There’s just no evidence to substantiate that.” He added: “If there’s evidence that materializes to substantiate that claim, then we should figure out something to do about it.”
Early findings from Rosenfeld’s study were first reported by the Guardian in early May. Rosenfeld, whose research on homicide trends in St Louis were used to debunk the Ferguson Effect last year, said that his “views have been altered” after doing a broader national analysis.
In interviews with the Guardian, Rosenfeld cautioned that the version of the Ferguson Effect he finds plausible is very different from the one that some leading conservatives have described.
The “dominant interpretation” of the Ferguson Effect, he wrote, is that criticism of the police after the killings of unarmed black citizens causes the police “to disengage from vigorous enforcement actions”. Rosenfeld explores an alternative version of the Ferguson Effect, in which “longstanding grievances and discontent with policing in African American communities” are “activated” by controversial incidents of police violence, and then “chronic discontent erupts into violence”.
Inimai Chettiar, director of the justice program at the liberal Brennan Center for Justice, said Rosenfeld’s findings offer “very similar conclusions” to a report issued by her organization in April. That report found the homicide spike was localized in only a few cities, and pinned blame on “community conditions” – not a “national pandemic”.
She said Rosenfeld’s decision to refer to his theory as the “Ferguson Effect” could be problematic.
“I do think it’s harmful to use the term Ferguson Effect, to mean something different than what it’s now commonly interpreted [as], because I think it’s going to leave it open to confusion,” she said. “It’s opposite of what people are saying.”
The concept of a Ferguson Effect was coined three months after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri in August of 2014. St Louis police chief Sam Dotson used the term to describe the way that the local “criminal element” was, in his opinion, “feeling empowered by the environment” in which law enforcement was diverted from its normal responsibilities to quelling the unrest.
The idea was popularized in a Wall Street Journal op-ed by the conservative writer Heather Mac Donald, and gained cachet as national figures like Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and FBI director James Comey invoked it, or a similar “YouTube” or “viral video” effect, to describe a behavior among law enforcement of rolling back their most proactive policing strategies in response to criticism and scrutiny from the general public.
Rosenfeld describes this version of the Ferguson Effect as unlikely to explain all of the increase in homicides, noting, as many of the idea’s critics have, that this might overestimate the effect that policing has on crime rates. Rosenfeld said that while some policing strategies have a demonstrated impact on crime, the research evidence has not suggested that the effect of policing changes could lead to the 50% increase in homicide seen in several cities, even with “the most effective policing strategies to prevent crime”.
What the study suggests may have driven up the homicide rate is a more systemic breakdown in community trust in institutions. “When persons do not trust the police to act on their behalf and to treat them fairly and with respect,” Rosenfeld writes, “they lose confidence in the formal apparatus of social control and become more likely to take matters into their own hands.”
This idea, which is not new in the fields of criminology or sociology, holds that the emergence of “honor codes”, for example ones which admonish “snitching” and promote informal resolutions to conflict, can drive violent crime. “Predatory violence increases because offenders believe victims and witnesses will not contact the police,” Rosenfeld said.
Phillip Atiba Goff, a leading researcher on racial bias in policing and the president of the Center for Policing Equity, told the Guardian in April that it would a “reasonable hypothesis” to suggest “the decay in police legitimacy is harming both police morale and community morale”.
Rosenfeld notes that 10 cities with relatively large African American populations accounted for two-thirds of the increase in homicides, which would be expected if the spike represented a crisis of confidence endemic to black communities.
Polling data suggests that this disparity in confidence in police does exist, as just 37% of black respondents compared with 59% of white respondents expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police in Gallup surveys conducted between 2011 and 2014.
Rosenfeld concedes that discontent is not new and did not increase after Ferguson, but he said it gets activated “during periods when we have many heavily publicized and very controversial incidents of police-use of force”.
Rosenfeld does not describe this alternative version of the Ferguson Effect as a slam dunk, and concedes that “very little is known about this hypothesized relationship… that translate[s] community discontent with the police into escalating levels of violence”. The study’s primary recommendation is that crime data be published more rapidly by the FBI so that researchers can assess the drivers of crime more easily.
The paper also recommends that researchers analyze local data on policing activity, including “data on pedestrian and traffic stops, building checks, and other self-initiated police activity”, to see if there is any link between drops in police activity and an increase in homicide. A study of Baltimore’s dramatic homicide spike found a close correlation between drops in some proactive policing and a rise in violence. Researchers dubbed this the Freddie Gray effect. An analysis of recent Chicago police and crime data by FiveThirtyEight found a similar link.
One of the other potential contributors to the homicide rate referenced by the study is the expansion of urban drug markets fuelled by the heroin epidemic. Rosenfeld notes, however, that the epidemic began years before the crime spike, and that most of the growth in the heroin trade and usage has been in predominantly white, rural areas apart from where the increases in homicides have been observed.
The third possible contributor outlined is a growing number of released prisoners in the nation’s cities tied to decarceration. But Rosenfeld said better data collected at the local level would be needed to confirm any connection.
Chettiar, of the Brennan Center, said she would have liked Rosenfeld’s analysis to have considered more theories.
“One of the things that we have hypothesized is that some of the deteriorating conditions of these cities is what might have driven these murder rates,” she said, citing economic factors like unemployment and alcohol consumption.
Rosenfeld said that while “economic disadvantage is an extraordinarily important predictor of the level of homicide in cities”, there is “no evidence of a one-year substantial economic decline in those cities. There have to be other factors involved”.
If Rosenfeld’s theory that a crisis in police legitimacy is driving the murder increases is true, Chettiar said: “That’s very troubling and that’s something that needs to be addressed.”
Still, she continued: “I would just say I think none of this should be interpreted to imply there’s some nationwide issue, but I do think it should be taken seriously in terms of what’s happening in these cities.” Like Rosenfeld, she said additional research was needed.
Copyright © 2016 theguardian.com. All rights reserved.
This content is published through a licensing agreement with Acquire Media using its NewsEdge technology.