Last year, our nation experienced the largest single-year increase in murder in American history and endured some of the worst riots in a generation. It’s no coincidence that this appalling death and destruction surged at the same time as the virulently anti-law-enforcement “Black Lives Matter” movement became more popular, powerful, and pervasive. The consequences of the “BLM Effect” continue today.
The current crime wave has many similarities to the infamous “Ferguson Effect” that gripped our nation after Officer Darren Wilson justifiably shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014. Anti-police agitators at the time started the “hands up, don’t shoot” myth and created the original Black Lives Matter organization soon thereafter. This group, founded on a lie, condemned proactive policing, argued for a radical reduction of the prison population, and championed a “de-militarization” of police departments. Its most enduring contribution to the public debate, however, was the libel that our men and women in blue are racist and target Americans based on the color of their skin.
The media and progressive politicians, including former President Obama, fueled this anti-cop movement. A toxic distrust of the police soon permeated the U.S. Department of Justice and many mayors’ offices across the country. Police suffered withering criticism, widespread civilian resentment, and ever-intensifying scrutiny. Fearing for their jobs and facing demands for leniency, some officers pared back proactive law enforcement, while other officers were actually prohibited from doing their jobs.
Where police withdrew, violent crime surged. After Michael Brown’s death, arrests in St. Louis plummeted by over 30 percent and murder rose 47 percent. St. Louis’s police chief, Sam Dodson, soon labeled this de-policing phenomenon the “Ferguson Effect.” Enforcement plummeted in other major cities as well, with overall arrests dropping by 15 percent in New York City and 33 percent in Baltimore by the fall 2015. Between 2014 and 2016, de-policing and associated policies resulted in the largest two-year increase in murder in half a century — and a 31 percent rise in murder in our major cities.
The BLM Effect caused an even more shocking drop in policing, paired with a stunning rise in murder. From last summer to this winter, police in Chicago made 53 percent fewer arrests compared with the same period in 2019. Murder in the city rose by 65 percent. In New York, police made 38 percent fewer arrests and murder rose by 58 percent. In Louisville, Ky., police made 35 percent fewer arrests and murder rose by 87 percent. In Minneapolis, Minn., police made 42 percent fewer arrests and murder rose by 64 percent.
The BLM Effect shares similarities with the Ferguson Effect, but is distinct in important ways, particularly in severity and extent of damage. Between 2014 and 2016, murder nationwide rose 23 percent. In 2020 alone, murder increased by more than 25 percent. In essence, the BLM Effect unleashed more death in a single year than two years of the Ferguson Effect.
Rioting and looting also surpassed Ferguson Effect numbers. From 2014 to 2016, political violence was largely isolated in a handful of cities and limited in duration. The Ferguson and Baltimore riots of 2014 and 2015, which were the most destructive of that period, generated less than $50 million in property damage combined. In 2020, hundreds of riots broke out nationwide, wounding over 2,000 officers, and inflicting nearly $2 billion worth of property damage. In Portland, Ore., rioters and anarchists took to the streets for more than 100 days in a row. The 2020 BLM riots were the most destructive in U.S. history.
Years of institutional decay and the maturation of a poisonous ideology maximized the destruction of the BLM Effect. The activists and BLM supporters of the Ferguson era are now mayors, district attorneys, and state’s attorneys in cities where the BLM Effect is taking the greatest toll — and they are partnering with new activists who are even more radical than they were.
When the Ferguson crime wave started, most major cities had enduring respect for law and order, with policies dating back to the crime crackdown of the 1990s. Michael Bloomberg had only recently left office in New York City, and Rahm Emanuel reigned in Chicago. For all their faults, these were not virulently anti-law-enforcement leaders. Emanuel worried that the Ferguson Effect rendered his officers “fetal,” while Bloomberg had continued most of the pro-police policies of the Giuliani era. The years of pro-enforcement policies and advocacy before the Ferguson Effect provided an institutional bulwark against violence and deterioration of order.
By 2020, however, years of cynicism, anti-cop reforms, and a new generation of dangerous demagogues had weakened the rule of law. The most anti-NYPD mayor in New York City history, Bill de Blasio, was in his seventh year in office, cop-hater Lori Lightfoot was in power in Chicago, and other progressive mayors took office in towns and cities nationwide. So-called “progressive prosecutors” soon followed and now refuse to charge misdemeanor offenders and avoid serious sentences for career criminals. As city halls abandoned or even opposed their own police forces in 2020, violent rioters and common criminals alike were emboldened.
It wasn’t just municipal leaders who radicalized in the years after the Ferguson crime wave; BLM activists and their allies also became more extreme. Demands for defunding and abolishing entire police departments replaced calls for de-militarization and reform. Last year, BLM activists also worked alongside the domestic-terrorist group Antifa to engage in widespread attacks against police precincts and federal courthouses, an audacity not seen during the Ferguson era.
A vice grip of extremism both from the bottom-up and top-down resulted in 20 major cities defunding their police departments, the removal of police from schools in many municipalities, and even the attempted abolition of the Minneapolis Police Department. New York City alone shifted nearly $1 billion from the NYPD, and Los Angeles cut funding to its police department by $150 million. Both cities also disbanded specialized units focused on combatting violent crime. Several cities also limited the use of non-lethal crowd control tools such as tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets, forcing officers into ever-more-dangerous situations.
Even officers who weathered the Ferguson era have now decided to turn in their badges and hang up their uniforms, and it’s hard to blame them. Between April 2020 and April 2021, nationwide police retirements rose 45 percent while resignations increased by 18 percent. In New York City, home to one of the best police forces in the world, police retirements surged a stunning 72 percent last year. Last month, the entire Portland Rapid Response Team resigned en masse, and more than 10 percent of the Portland Police Bureau left the force in the nine months after the rioting started.
Recruitment of officers has similarly suffered, with 86 percent of police chiefs reporting that they are short-staffed. Between April 2020 and April 2021, as crime and retirements surged, the rate of hiring in mid-sized departments dropped 29 percent and plummeted 36 percent in large departments. The flood of officers out of larger departments, paired with the trickle of recruits, will exacerbate the ongoing crime disaster.
The institutional wreckage wrought by the BLM Effect is a symptom of a deeper ideological cancer. In the days to come, we must work to rebuke the radical anti-cop ideology that emerged in 2014–2016, metastasized from 2017–2019, and became debilitating in 2020. If the ideas that undergird the movement remain unchallenged, the BLM Effect will continue.
Policing is indeed one of the greatest civil-rights issues of our time. Weak policing, weak prosecuting, and weak sentencing hurts black Americans more than any other group of our citizens. African Americans tragically constitute approximately half of all murder victims and regularly suffer the brunt of damage resulting from riots. Their lives matter.
The fair-weather protesters, who so fondly decry systemic racism, fail to see a cruel irony. If, as they claim, racist policy is defined solely by racially disparate outcomes, then their weak-on-crime proposals are in fact breathtakingly racist. When it comes to the morality of the rule of law, we should never take lectures from those who coddle criminals.