Homicide totals rose unexpectedly in most major U.S. cities last year, but why?
To criminologist Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri St. Louis, the most plausible reason may be a “police legitimacy crisis,” particularly among African Americans. He noted that cities with the highest rates of homicide increase have a proportion of population that is African American double that of other cities.
Rosenfeld talked about his theories Thursday [July 7] with a standing-room-only audience on Capitol Hill, the first in a series of “Ask a Criminologist” discussions sponsored by the new Crime & Justice Research Alliance.
Much of the session was devoted to a report Rosenfeld delivered last month to the U.S. Justice Department’s research arm, the National Institute of Justice.
In it, Rosenfeld considered and rejected two other possible reasons for the homicide rise: more strife in drug markets, particularly heroin, and a large number of prisoners released every year. Both may contribute to the problem, he said, but there is no apparent reason that either would have caused murder to become more prevalent just last year.
More likely as a driving force, he said, would be some variant of the poorly named “Ferguson effect,” the notion that the crime picture changed markedly after the police killing of Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb in August 2014.
One version of the Ferguson effect (a term coined by St. Louis police chief Sam Dotson) is that police officers are less aggressive in enforcing the law because they fear criticism.
Some news media accounts have supported that idea, based primarily on anecdotal evidence in cities like Chicago and Baltimore, but Rosenfeld believes it is an unproved theory so far. One indicator of its accuracy would be whether arrests declined dramatically in many areas, but city-by-city data are lacking so far.
More probable, he believes, is that public trust of the police reached a low point in cities last year, and criminals became “activated” by the ideas that police in general would not protect them and that lawbreaking would not be reported to authorities by witnesses.
“When people are alienated, they take matters into their own hands,” he said. “They perceive that they can commit crime with impunity–that [witnesses] won’t contact the police. They settle conflicts on their own–with violence.”
Rosenfeld acknowledged that much public lack of confidence in law enforcement “long predated Ferguson.”
So why would things come to a head now? Rosenfeld compared the last two years with the 1960s, when there also was longstanding distrust of police by minority groups, but a series of incidents set off violence in inner cities, and an increase in violent crime rates.
“That may be happening now,” he said.
It’s difficult to predict whether civil unrest and crime totals both will increase. So far, last year’s homicide rise was a “temporary trend reversal,” Rosenfeld said, noting that overall, national crime rates had been falling since the early 1990s.
What might be done to halt the distrust and stem the homicide jump? Rosenfeld cited last year’s “21st century policing” report by a White House-appointed task force as presenting a blueprint for improving community policing nationwide.
It’s difficult to apply in practice, he said. It may take a “painstaking effort” by police officers in urban areas to make face-to-face contact in affected areas by visiting citizens door-to-door, he said.
Nancy La Vigne of the Urban Institute, chair of the Crime & Justice Research Alliance, noted that the Justice Department has pilot projects under way in a half dozen cities to test ways to improve the often toxic relationship between minorities and police.
Tom Jackman, a Washington Post reporter who took part in yesterday’s discussion, offered some support for the anecdotal evidence of the Ferguson effect on police officer conduct.
“If officers sense hostility [from a suspect], they are more willing to step back,” Jackman said. “They are less willing to put their hands on someone if it can easily be filmed.”
Rosenfeld’s report on last year’s homicide totals was compiled with data from the Washington Post and the Major Cities Chiefs Association. It found that homicides increased in 40 of 56 cities from which data were available. The biggest percentage increases were in Orlando, Cleveland, Nashville, Milwaukee, and Denver.
As he has in the past, he chided the FBI yesterday for not releasing national crime data more quickly, to enable criminologists and other experts to spot trends earlier.
Typically, the FBI issues in September its national report of data from the previous calendar year.
When the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program, which assembles reports from local police departments, was started in the 1930s, it issued monthly reports.
Even though there are many more police departments and more crime now than there was then, data are compiled digitally by state agencies now, compared with paper and pencil reports in the 1930s, Rosenfeld said. “A lot could be done at the federal level,” he added.
The Crime & Justice Research Alliance is a coalition of two academic groups, the American Society of Criminology and the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. It was formed as a connection between criminal justice researchers and policymakers.
La Vigne commended congressional appropriations committees for proposing to increase the research budget for the National Institute of Justice in the annual federal spending bill now pending in Congress.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments.