Don’t Believe the “Ferguson Effect”

The Wall Street Journal recently had an op-ed that blamed a rising number of violent crimes so far this year in several large cities on a “Ferguson effect.” The idea here is that police have become less proactive (in terms of stopping and frisking people who look suspicious to them) in the wake of attention given to police shootings of young African American men in Ferguson, Missouri, and other cities during the past year or more.

This claim of blame is without merit. Crime rates fluctuate, and it is far too soon to know whether violent crime is really rising; a few cities’ worth of data certainly is not enough to indicate a trend. Even if crime were rising, many factors can affect crime rates, and rigorous research is needed to determine these factors, which often remain elusive even after this sort of research has been done. The WSJ op-ed claim also is made without comparable data. Have all the cities discussed in the WSJ op-ed changed their policing? What about other cities? We do not know enough about any changes in policing in enough cities to reach any conclusions about the so-called Ferguson effect.

So please don’t believe the “Ferguson effect.” Jumping to conclusions about crime rate trends and reasons for them does no one any good, least of all the victims of crime.

Police Killings of Civilians

Today’s Washington Post (http://tinyurl.com/qej2kpk) reports that police killings of civilians so far this year nationwide number at least 385, or more than two a day. This number is more than twice as high as the number counted by the federal government during the past decade. After adjusting for population composition of census tracts, African Americans were three times as likely as whites or members of other racial/ethnic groups to be killed by police this year. While more than 80% of the victims were armed with a gun or other potentially lethal weapon or object, 13% were unarmed. Most of the victims were poor. Shockingly, dozens of the victims died while fleeing from the police. Although police may use force only when their lives or other people’s lives are threatened, only 3 of the 385 police shootings have resulted in criminal charges so far.

The Post article is essential reading for anyone who cares about the fairness of the criminal justice system in the United States.  One of the hallmarks of democracy is that the police serve the public and must themselves obey the law. The Post article provides ostensible evidence of police out of control and all too ready to use deadly force when it is not justified, especially against African Americans. The police do have a dangerous occupation and are always on alert for their safety, as some classic sociological studies document. They have to be able to defend themselves. But the Post article suggests the police too often (and even one example is too often) exceed with impunity what is appropriate and allowable under the law. This situation must not stand.