Cops in America have gone soft. Or so goes a dubious new theory.
Where once they had been bold in facing criminals, urban police departments are now meek. The result, we’re told, is the substantial increase in homicide rates in more than 30 American cities. This tragic misfortune is mostly the fault of Black Lives Matter. The loosely organized movement, it seems, using little more than a Twitter hashtag and hand-lettered signs at protests around the country, has effected a sea change in urban policing.
I’m not making this up. This ill-founded conspiracy theory is now being peddled in the leading conservative opinion journals in the land, such as National Review and the Wall Street Journal. And it was lent legitimacy by a recent front-page story in the New York Times that, in a strenuous effort to be “balanced,” utterly failed to appraise the conceit on its merits.
It’s called the “Ferguson effect.” It’s the contention that the massive public attention on policing since the shooting death of Michael Brown in a St. Louis suburb is causing law enforcement nationwide to cower. And criminals are taking advantage, committing murder and other crimes in greater numbers.
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The argument is particularly appealing to police officers and their spokespeople. Here’s what former New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said recently on MSNBC’s Morning Joe: “I think you'll see, you know, the rise in murders in 30 cities, that’s the so-called Ferguson effect where cops are less reluctant to engage in proactive policing.” I think he meant “more reluctant,” but his reasoning was as confused as his syntax.
First, let’s acknowledge that for people like Kelly this looks suspiciously like self-exculpating spin. Is there a spike in crime? It can’t be our responsibility! Is there a nationwide and very visible protest movement against manifest police brutality? That’s not our fault!
Now on to the statistics and what they might tell us. There seem to be large spikes in homicide between 2014 and 2015 in several cities, most notably Milwaukee, St. Louis, Baltimore and Washington. According to the Times, murders spiked by 76 percent in Milwaukee, 60 percent in St. Louis, 56 percent in Baltimore and 44 percent in Washington. The obvious question is why.
According to Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, writing in the Wall Street Journal, “The most plausible explanation of the current surge in lawlessness is the intense agitation against American police departments over the past nine months.”
A closer look at the data in St. Louis — where tensions between police and the community have been among the most pitched — reveals a different story. Richard Rosenfeld, a criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, found that the murder rate there had begun to rise before the shooting death of Michael Brown.
It’s important to remember that murder rates go up and they go down, and criminologists are usually at a loss to explain why. Think tank hacks, on the other hand, have no problem jumping to conclusions that fit their political narratives.
Rosenfeld noted in a report for The Sentencing Project: “(E)verybody’s data is anecdotal, a cherry picker’s delight. If you want to tell a story of crime increase, you can. If not, just pick from a different tree.”
To understand what is really happening in a city, criminologists tend to agree, it is best to go hyper-local in focus; seek to understand what dynamics, gang rivalries, drugs or other factors might be at play.
Left unexplained by the “Ferguson effect” thesis is why homicides in New York City — whose police force was embroiled in one of the more notorious killings of an unarmed black man — increased only 9 percent.
From a forensic standpoint, the thesis is riddled with fallacy. We all know, or ought to know, that correlation is not causation — and it’s not entirely clear to what extent there’s a correlation here to begin with.
What clearly is going on is obvious from the headline National Review gave its screed on the topic: “#BlackLivesMatter Costs Black Lives.” That’s another way of saying, “Shut up, uppity black people” — a message conservatives have been sending in various guises for decades.
Let’s resolve to take these changes in murder rates seriously but also to place them in proper context. We have no wish to return to the homicide rates of the 1990s, which were truly horrific. Nor do we wish to maintain a status quo in which police can take black lives unjustly and with impunity.