Monday, November 23, 2015

Ferguson Effect: It’s not real, but urban murder spikes are.

Social science is the least exact of sciences.  And ideological advocacy is particularly worthy of skepticism.  It is a form of self-interested advocacy which, like financially self-interested advocacy, should be viewed with the traditional grain of salt.  In the current debate about police practices the police are of course interested in telling their side of the story.  And those who are police critics are subject to the same inclination to cherry pick data.

That's why we need rigorous databases, though even they are subject to debate.  Whether a policeman shot rather than defuse is not a determination that databases may help with.

For that the big picture may be more helpful.  Last week the London police reacted (overreacted) to what turned out to be just another stolen car.  "Armed police" stopped the vehicle.  Reminds us that the London police are not armed when they go out on ordinary patrol.  Like Ireland, Norway, Iceland, and New Zealand they carry guns only in special circumstances.

In the U.S. 1,000 people have been killed by police this year.  But America is heavily armed, so police may see threats to their lives even when there is none.  So databases only go so far in helping us decide what to do.  - gwc

Ferguson Effect: It’s not real, but urban murder spikes are.

Earlier this week, Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee, at a hearing titled “The War on Police.” Mac Donald offered testimony about the so-called Ferguson Effect, a theory that says intense public scrutiny of law enforcement since the death of Michael Brown has made it harder for police officers to fight crime.

Leon Neyfakh is a Slate staff writer.

The theory, which has been promoted by conservative commentators and was recently endorsed by the director of the FBI, consists of two separate components. First, it notes that the past year has seen a sharp spike in crime in many large American cities. Second, it holds that the reason for this spike is that police officers have started shying away from aggressive police work because they are worried their actions will be caught on film and that they will be targeted by civil rights lawyers and cop-hating activists, regardless of whether their actions are legitimate or not.
Advocates of police reform have roundly dismissed talk of a Ferguson Effect as an attempt to kneecap the Black Lives Matter movement by blaming it for a national crime wave more imaginary than real. They were joined this week by Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who testified in the House that there is “no data” to suggest police are standing down, and Ronald Davis, a former police chief who served as the executive director of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, whosuggested to the Senate committee that the very idea of police officers abdicating their responsibilities out of fear was an insult to the profession.
The pushback against the Ferguson Effect theory should be applauded. While there is no doubt that the tense climate since Brown’s death has had an effect on police officers and how they do their jobs, the notion that protestors opposing police brutality are somehow responsible for rising crime rates is ludicrous. We must be clear, however, about what we’re saying when we argue there is no Ferguson Effect. Because homicide has become dramatically more common in a number of major American cities over the past year. And considering that the overwhelming majority of the people dying in these cities are black and Hispanic, those among us who profess to care about racial equality and the opportunities afforded to people in poor urban neighborhoods need to acknowledge that this is happening.  
The numbers are stark and frightening. In Milwaukee, more than 130 people have been killed so far this year, whereas the total for 2014 was 87. Washington, D.C., has seen 143 murders since January, up from a total of 105 for all of last year. St. Louis had recorded 168 murders as of Nov. 16, up from 121 during the first 10 months of 2014.
Baltimore, meanwhile, recently passed 300 murders for the year—a devastating milestone the city had not reached since 1999. According to the Baltimore Sun, the homicide rate in the city—which seems to have spiked in the immediate aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of police in April—now stands at 48.97 per 100,000, higher than it’s ever been in the history of Baltimore.
It’s important not to misconstrue these numbers. They do not amount to a “national crime wave,” as Mac Donald and Sen. Ted Cruz claimed at this week’s Senate hearing. An authoritative new report from the Brennan Center for Justice confirms as much: Based on data from the 30 most populous U.S. cities, Brennan analysts found that the national crime rate is largely unchanged from last year, and the number of cities in their sample where the murder rate went up (14) is almost as high as the number of cities where it went down (11). “Murder rates vary widely from year to year,” the report cautions. “One year’s increase does not necessarily portend a coming wave of violent crime.” It could well turn out that the sudden jumps in the homicide rate on display in some of the cities analyzed in the Brennan report are the product of nothing more than statistical noise.
That’s little consolation, however, for the people living in the midst of the mounting violence. It’s understandable why partisans in the criminal justice reform movement are eager to point out why the spikes in urban violence are not the result of a Ferguson Effect. But scoring that political point risks minimizing the fact that violent crime really has skyrocketed in some cities and that life for the people who live there has become scarier and more fragile in ways that are unfathomable to most of us.

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