Two prominent criminologists have offered what they say is conclusive evidence disproving the theory that a reduction in arrests in the wake of controversy over the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. —described as “de-policing” —led in turn to a sharp rise in U.S. homicides the following year.
“We found no evidence for a ‘Ferguson effect’ linking police killings of black citizens to the homicide spike via de-policing,” wrote Richard Rosenfeld and Joel Wallman in a research and policy brief published by the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.
Rosenfeld, a past president of the American Society of Criminologists and professor emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and Wallman, director of research for the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, were careful not to discount the possibility that some cops did in fact adopt a lower profile on the streets of many U.S. cities—especially in high-crime neighborhoods—either because of anger at anti-police protests, or because they feared being subjected to charges of misconduct.
“Whether other forms of de-policing, such as a possible drop in police stops or in targeted patrols in high-crime urban areas, underlay the homicide increase would need to be examined in future research,” the authors said.
In 2015, the big-city homicide rate jumped by 15.6 percent over the previous year, a startling rise in murder that, according to some law enforcement defenders, showed that sustained public criticism of police, in effect, threatened public safety.
But the Rosenfeld-Wallman study, which examined the impact of arrest rates in 53 cities on homicide rates over a six-year period between 2010 and 2015, found that arrest rates had already been dropping in the years before the post-Ferguson spike of killings.
The so-called “Ferguson effect” was first named by St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson, who argued that police decisions to take a lower profile, including reducing arrests, explained a rise in crime in his city following the protests in Ferguson.
Other law enforcement figures seized on the phrase in an effort to deflect rising popular anger over police killings of unarmed civilians. The shooting of Michael Brown was one of a series of controversy-riddled incidents, such as the 2012 death of Staten Island, NY resident Eric Garner after he was put into a chokehold by arresting officers, and the 2015 death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in Baltimore.
Then-FBI director James Comey gave the “Ferguson Effect” special resonance when he claimed that closer public attention to police behavior through citizen videos had made police more cautious.
“I do have a strong sense that ….a chill wind[is] blowing through American law enforcement over the last year,” he said in 2015. “And that wind is surely changing behavior.”
Although he quickly came under fire for the assertion, Comey returned to the theme a year later, arguing the pressure placed on police by “viral videos” was destructive to U.S. law enforcement.
“There’s a perception that police are less likely to do the marginal additional policing that suppresses crime — the getting out of your car at 2 in the morning and saying to a group of guys, ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’” Comey said.
Subsequently, other top police chiefs added more nuance to the concept. Then-Los Angeles Police Chief Charley Beck, for example, argued that the “real” Ferguson effect was the loss of public confidence in police.
But assertions linking police disengagement with increases in the murder rate received equally determined opposition from other police experts and criminologists—including Rosenfeld, who argued as early as 2016 that there was insufficient data to support it.
Nevertheless, the debate continues to churn.
In the years since the Ferguson tragedy, the issue of police misconduct, particular in communities of color, sparked the largest sustained civil rights protests in over half a century, and it led to calls for major reforms in training and community oversight—embodied in the Task Force on 21st Century Policing established by former president Barak Obama.
At the same time it also generated a bitter reaction by “tough-on-crime” opponents, which gained traction following the election of President Donald Trump.
And the notion that activist protests have tempered aggressive police behavior is undermined by a string of continued cases of alleged misconduct. The most recent incident occurred this month with the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, after being pinned to the ground by police, with one officer pressing his knee into the man’s neck. The four officers involved were subsequently fired.
While the impact of the “Ferguson Effect”—or whether it exists at all—is still a long way from being settled, the Rosenfeld-Wallman study appears to close at least one chapter in the controversy by showing there is no evidence of a link between declining arrests and rising homicide rates.
Drilling down further, they said they found no evidence that arrest rates for African Americans had declined faster than whites in 2015, “as would be expected if de-policing occurred as a result of criticism of police following the Eric Garner and Michael Brown incidents.”
They added: “As well, if the homicide increase had been produced by de-policing, we might expect to observe a greater falloff in Black than in White arrests in 2015, resulting from heightened tensions and police disengagement in Black communities.
“But we found no such racial difference.”
The authors also explored other hypotheses for the homicide spike, including one that took the opposite tack from the de-policing theory, to the effect that it was the high-profile police killings themselves that fueled even more homicides, because they further reduced police legitimacy in at-risk minority communities, and gave criminals a freer hand to settle scores on their own.
But if this hypothesis were correct, the data would show more homicides among African Americans than among whites. In fact, the data collected by the authors showed that while murders of blacks increased by 15 percent during the spike, the killing of whites increased by 9 percent—suggesting that other factors were involved.
The briefing paper acknowledged that arrest rates were a critical factor in controlling many types of crime, and strategies such as “hot-spot policing” which focused concentrated police forces on high-crime areas were an important deterrent.
But the evidence for the frequently used argument that other, more controversial, forms of pro-active policing, such as “stop and frisk” and “broken windows” (cracking down on non-felony offenses) promoted public safety has been discredited in several studies.
Instead, that kind of aggressive policing has generated community anger and protest, not to mention court rulings.
Many police departments have cut back on such strategies—in what might be called another form of “Ferguson Effect” —and have seen crime rates continue to fall.
The authors argue that the real policy lessons to draw from the 2015 spike in homicides is that pro-active policing should be “nested in a broader policy” that takes into account the views of all stakeholders in a community, including police “whose chief objective should be to reduce avoidable police violence against citizens.”
“The primary task as far as crime is concerned would be to keep lines of communication between the police and affected communities as open as possible, make certain that all instances of police use of deadly force were investigated thoroughly and without prejudice, and ensure that illegal conduct by officers was brought to light and dealt with justly,” the paper concluded.
Additional Reading: Can Procedural Justice Training Reduce Officer Misconduct?
The full policy brief, “Did De-Policing Cause the 2015 Homicide Spike?” can be downloaded here.
This summary was prepared by TCR editor Stephen Handelman