‘Minneapolis Effect’ Blamed for Spike in Homicides

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Memorial to George Floyd, Minneapolis. Photo by Sandy Ann Perez via Flickr

After anti-police protests erupted over the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., some authorities suggested that cops were becoming more cautious in their response to street crime, partly in response to fears of lawsuits, and partly out of resentment.

The evidence for linking such a slowdown to an increase in crime, first identified as the “Ferguson Effect” by St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson and later amplified by then FBI Chief James Comey, was thin. But some research found that the sharpest increase in homicides in large U.S. cities between 2014-2015 occurred in cities with large African-American populations— where community-police relations were already strained.

Less than five years later, a similar dynamic—now called the “Minneapolis Effect”—has been linked by a forthcoming study in the Federal Sentencing Reporter to a fresh increase in murder this year.

On May 25, George Floyd choked to death after a Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee against his neck for almost eight minutes in a videotaped encounter that soon went viral. His death provoked hundreds of angry demonstrations in cities around the country, a national conversation about systemic racism, and calls for radical police reform such as “defunding.”

It was also followed by an increase in homicide that was “remarkably large, suddenly appearing and widespread,” according to Paul G. Cassell, a former U.S. District Court judge who is now a professor at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law.

Cassell tied the increase to a decline in “proactive policing” following the George Floyd protests, and he named the phenomenon the “Minneapolis Effect.”

“A close analysis of the emerging crime patterns suggests that American cities may be witnessing significant declines in some forms of policing, which in turn is producing the homicide spikes,” Cassell writes.

He continued: “The data also pinpoint the timing of the spikes to late May 2020, which corresponds with the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis and subsequent anti-police protests—protests that likely led to declines in law enforcement.”

Reports of a spike in homicides this year have focused the attention of legislators as well as criminologists. A Wall Street Journal analysis published in August found a 24 percent average increase in homicides in the 50 largest U.S. cities since January.

However, the apparently large percentage increases mask the fact that they began from a low base point, following a decade of steadily shrinking crime rates.

Cassell acknowledged that more definitive research was needed and cautioned that his conclusions about the “Minneapolis Effect” should be regarded as tentative.

Other Explanations

Still, he said other reasons advanced for the rise in homicides were open to dispute. For instance, some have blamed factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the national lockdown, such as an increase in firearm purchases and rising unemployment.

Cassell quoted a New York Times article analysis that two million guns were legally sold in the U.S. in March alone as fears of the coronavirus spread. But he added this was well before homicides started to skyrocket in May.

Moreover, data from the Brookings Institute, which collects information daily on firearms sales, showed that the “trends in firearms purchases do not appear to correspond to the homicide spikes.”

Turning to the economic chaos caused by the pandemic, Cassell noted that the Great Recession of 2008, a period of significant economic downturn, “did not seem to have much of an effect on crime rates.” Cassel wrote. “If anything, crime rates went down.”

‘The Minneapolis Effect’

“Having eliminated all of the other most plausible (and most commonly mentioned) explanations for the recent homicide spikes, the law enforcement possibility emerges as the most probable candidate,” Cassell concluded.

Cassell tied the “Minneapolis Effect” to a reduction in what he called “proactive policing.”

He cited Minneapolis, Chicago, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and New York City as cities where the phenomenon has taken place—all of which have experienced increases in murder. At the same time, increasing numbers of officers were retiring or pulling back from street patrols.

In Chicago, Cassell found that between June 1 and June 28, traffic stops dropped by 86 percent, street stops by 74 percent, and arrests declined by 55 percent compared to the same period in 2019.

Arrests have plummeted in New York City as well, and vehicle stops in Philadelphia are averaging less than 200 a day when it was averaging around 800-1000 pre-pandemic, and roughly 600-400 between April and June.

An Uncomfortable Spotlight

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the attention to killings of unarmed civilians since the Floyd death has put police across the country under an uncomfortable spotlight, and provoked widespread anger among rank-and-file cops, as well as police managers.

In Rochester, N.Y., for example the chief of police and his entire command staff stepped down last month in the wake of protests over the death of Daniel Prude, who died of asphyxiation while in police custody in March. A video of his arrest only became public following Floyd’s death.

In June, the entire special Emergency Response Team—57 officers—in the police department of Buffalo, N.Y., resigned in protest over disciplinary action taken against two officers who were suspended after being filmed pushing a 75-year-old protester to the ground.

Such police actions do not necessarily indicate that police are turning their anger into work stoppages, but Cassell argues that policymakers should be concerned about the long-term impact of major police reforms like “defunding.”

Cassell predicted that if current trends continue, there will be a year-to year increase of roughly 700 homicides.

However, other research suggests that the most significant factors affecting crime rates are economic and demographic trends.

A study published last month by three of the nation’s most prominent criminologists predicted that national violent and property crime rates are likely to fall through 2021—regardless of short-term spikes in the homicide rate—as long as the downward trend of “non-criminal justice” factors such as teen births continue.

“With few exceptions those economic and demographic changes have been exerting downward pressure on crime for nearly the past four decades,” wrote James Austin, a senior associate with the JFA Institute; and Todd Clear and Richard Rosenfeld, both former presidents of the American Society of Criminology, in the study sponsored by the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

Paul G. Cassell is the Ronald N. Boyce Presidential Professor of Criminal Law and a University Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Utah, S.J. Quinney College of Law. Cassell is also a former U.S. District Court Judge for the District of Utah.

The full report can be accessed here. 

TCR staff writer Andrea Cipriano contributed to this summary.