NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE P opularized by political commentator Heather Mac Donald, “the Ferguson effect” describes a process by which anti-cop rhetoric creates a climate that discourages law enforcement from engaging in proactive policing. The 11.4 and 8.2 percent increases in the U.S. homicide rate from 2014 to 2015 and then from 2015 to 2016 were presumed to be by-products of widespread de-policing.
For conservatives, the Ferguson effect represents a criminological phenomenon that threatens to reverse a 25-year sustained reduction in serious crime. For liberals, it is a specious “tough-on-crime” talking point designed to undermine concerns about systemic racism in policing. The scholarly literature, however, remains mixed.
Examining property and violent crimes in St. Louis, criminologist Richard Rosenfeld found partial support for the Ferguson effect, with only property crimes increasing. In a similar study, Johns Hopkins researchers again found mixed results. While arrest rates for less serious offenses had decreased in Baltimore following the events in Ferguson, crime rates did not increase in the eight months following. A similar pattern was observed in 118 Missouri police departments, where a significant reduction in stop-and-searches did not result in crime increases.
Furthermore, while some studies dismiss the systemic nature of the Ferguson effect and others support it, some posit a combination of the opioid epidemic and de-policing as an explanation for crime increases.
In general, neither side of the political debate gets the Ferguson effect completely correct as liberals mistakenly dismiss its existence, while conservatives overestimate its impact on national crime trends. But if the Ferguson effect isn’t what we think it is, what is it exactly?
While the Ferguson effect did not materialize in Baltimore following Michael Brown’s death in Missouri, it certainly did after Freddy Gray’s. Significant reductions in Baltimore police activity following Gray’s death correlated with 140, 92, 82, and 31 percent increases in shootings, homicides, car-jackings, and street robberies, respectively. The increase was coined the “Gray effect.” We observe a similar pattern in Chicago following the killing of Laquan McDonald by police: reductions of 69 and 48 percent in arrests for nonfatal shootings and homicides, correlating with 73 and 48 percent increases in nonfatal shootings and homicides, respectively.
In a recent study, Harvard researchers found that, after investigations of police departments following a viral incident of deadly police force (e.g., in Baltimore, Chicago, Cincinnati, Ferguson, and Riverside, Calif.), there was a marked increase in both homicide and total crime. Put plainly, the causal effect of de-policing in these five cities resulted in 893 more homicides than would have been expected with no investigation.
While the core tenet of de-policing amid public hostility is accurate, the Ferguson effect is a local-crime phenomenon triggered by a “viral” police killing but mediated by both the size of the local black populace and a formal investigation into the local police department. While some de-policing may occur, locales without this combination of factors are unlikely to experience a significant crime surge. As such, the Ferguson effect is not contagious. Some cities will experience a reduction in proactive policing and increase in crime while others will not.
This version of the Ferguson effect might not affect national crime rates, but much has changed since 2014. Indeed, outcries for unprecedented reform, coupled with crises of legitimacy and personnel in policing, may yield a version of the Ferguson effect that resembles the one described by conservatives. In short, a national crime surge could be on the horizon if we are not cautious.
On a gut level, the death of George Floyd feels different from the deaths of Michael Brown or Freddy Gray. That sentiment has been echoed by Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina. Given the unprecedented nature of both the protests and the proposed police reform, it is indeed an inflection point in relations between police and the public.
More than 450 protests have erupted across the U.S., with at least 40 countries and every continent except Antarctica taking part as well. Furthermore, popular television programs such as Cops and Live PD have been taken off the air, with additional calls for the cancellation of movies and shows featuring police.
Most indicative of this inflection point, however, are the unprecedented actions against law enforcement. Buoyed by calls to defund or outright abolish police, several cities have taken major steps toward that objective. The Minneapolis city council has voted to replace the city’s police department with a community-led public safety system while, New York, Los Angeles, and San Leandro City have pledged to reduce their police budgets by $1 billion, $150 million, and $1.7 million, respectively.
In short, we are witnessing an unprecedented sociocultural and legislative movement against law enforcement, as reflected in opinion polling. This has seemingly compounded the growing legitimacy crisis within policing.
While 60 percent of Americans oppose defunding the police, according to ABC/Ispos, by a two-to-one margin they “are more troubled by the actions of police in the killing of George Floyd than by violence at some protest,” according to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. Moreover, a majority of Americans (57 percent) and plurality of whites (49 percent) believe, for the first time, that police are more likely to use excessive force against African Americans, according to Monmouth. In fact, Rasmussen reports, 62 percent of Americans now have a favorable view of Black Lives Matter, compared with 37 percent in 2016. Moreover, the share of Americans who viewed cops favorably plunged plunged 10 percent amid the protests.
This seismic shift in public sentiment has created shockwaves across law enforcement, with many officers quitting tactical units or leaving their forces altogether. However, this is reflective of a broader personnel crisis in law enforcement.
According to a 2019 report from the Police Executive Research Forum, 63 percent of North American police agencies reported a steep decline in applications over the preceding five years. Furthermore, 47 and 69 percent of agencies said that personnel retired and voluntarily resigned within the first five years of service, respectively, suggesting an associated retention crisis. To make matters worse, 15.5 percent of current officers are eligible to retire within the next five years.
While the magnitude of the sociocultural and legislative shift is likely to exacerbate the legitimacy and personnel crises, the unprecedented alignment of these trends may result in nationwide de-policing in line with the Ferguson effect as described by conservatives. In a 2017 Pew survey of 8,000 police, 72 percent of respondents said their department was now less willing to stop and question suspicious persons. Moreover, 86 percent of officers believed that the public did not understand the challenges of their jobs. This particular statistic is noteworthy, as research suggests that when employees believe that the public underestimates the nuanced complexities of their jobs, they are less likely to be proactive. These statistics must be reconciled with the fact that some some describe the “Defund the Police” movement as an effort to “reduce contact between the public and police.”
Whether it be targeting small geographic areas, foot patrols, directed patrols, or problem-oriented policing, proactive policing has been demonstrated to reduce crime. A crime surge is not imminent, but it is not implausible given current circumstances. While we as crime researchers recognize the need for police reform, we also advise caution. When entering uncharted territory, subtlety and forethought are required.