"Ferguson Effect" Is Likely Real, Skeptic Concludes — But Maybe Not for the Reason You Think


The University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist who's been one of the biggest skeptics of the "Ferguson Effect," which blames rising crime on the protests that followed Michael Brown's death at the hands of a police officer, is changing his tune.

Rick Rosenfeld now says he believes there is a Ferguson Effect — something he had long doubted — but that it might not be as simple as originally postulated. In fact, he says there are two possible versions of the Ferguson Effect, and both offer intuitive explanations for why 56 U.S. cities are experiencing their worst homicide wave in decades.

One, the original theory: That police officers responded to the 2014 protests by actively withdrawing from certain enforcement duties out of fear of liability or negative publicity.

The second version posited by Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology at UMSL, flips the perspective. It suggests that residents in disadvantaged minority communities lost their faith in law enforcement, leaving them less likely to call the cops when something goes wrong. "As people really become distrustful in the police, or lose confidence in the police to protect them, they're more apt to take matters into their own hands and settle disputes with violence," Rosenfeld explains. "Crime rates, and homicide rates specifically, might go up for that reason."

All that's missing — and will be until this fall — is the evidence.

"These are both plausible," Rosenfeld says.

In a paper he authored for the U.S. Department of Justice, published yesterday, Rosenfeld grappled with last year's 17 percent increase in homicides in the nation's largest cities. The Ferguson Effect is our best available answer, the paper concludes — but it's still not clear what's driving it, and what it means.

For Rosenfeld, his newly released report represents the latest twist in his relationship to the Ferguson Effect. Until now, critics have pointed to Rosenfeld's own work to debunk the "myth" that linked the 2014 protest movements to the recent crime wave. Now, Rosenfeld has seemingly resurrected the theory as legitimate. 

It was St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson who coined the term Ferguson Effect in November 2014, but at the time he wasn't talking about homicides. Arrests in the city had decreased as the protests over Michael Brown's death diverted officers from their regular duties. The enforcement vacuum had left criminals feeling "empowered," Dotson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

At the time, Rosenfeld cautioned that there just wasn't enough data to back up Dotson's theory, though he didn't discount it completely. However, Rosenfeld sounded confident in declaring that the Ferguson Effect couldn't explain St. Louis' rising homicide total, which was already spiking before Brown was killed by a Ferguson officer on August 9. In the same Post-Dispatch article, Rosenfeld said the killings were connected to disputes in the illegal drug market, not to protests or police scrutiny. 

Rosenfeld repeated that reassurance in a June 2015 report for the Sentencing Project, writing, "We can conclude with reasonable certainty that the events in Ferguson were not responsible for the steep rise in homicide in St. Louis." 

But when Rosenfeld expanded his research, the data on homicide increases in cities across the country told a different story. Across the board, murders increased sharply after August 2014. 

"The one brute fact that recommends some version of the Ferguson Effect over other explanations for the homicide rise is that at least the Ferguson Effect gets the timing right," he says. "Whatever produced that homicide rise must have changed relatively abruptly." 

Supporting the Ferguson Effect theory with data would go a long way in clarifying this terrifying trend in murders, but the FBI won't be ready to release the complete set of 2015 crime stats until later this fall.

The delay frustrates Rosenfeld to no end. 

"If police were withdrawing, that would be reflected in declining arrest rates where we’ve seen the largest homicide increases," says Rosenfeld. "The idea that we’re looking at this fall to receive information we need to evaluate what happened in 2015, that just baffles me." 

The second version of the Ferguson Effect will be even more difficult to corroborate. Arrest statistics won't help here. Researchers need to conduct in-depth studies in affected communities in order to determine residents' perceptions of police.

"It’s going to be painstaking to compile," Rosensfeld admits. "But I can’t think of another way of getting at this other version of the Ferguson Effect. It’s a tough one."

At this point, Rosenfeld says, we still don't know enough to draw solid conclusions about the cause (or causes) of the nationwide increase in homicides. We don't even have the full picture of crime rates in 2015. 

"I have no problem with people criticizing my views," Rosenfeld says. "What I would hope is that the criticisms are accompanied by alternative explanations.

"We all should be interested in what gave rise to a such a precipitous increase in homicides in a single year. What I’ve tried to do is suggest some research directions that would place that public debate on firmer foundation, make it a little bit more evidence-based and a little bit less ideology based. That’s the best I think a researcher can do." 

The complete report is below.

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_ Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected]

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