From The Guardian:
Is the ‘Ferguson effect’ real? Researcher has second thoughts
‘Some version’ of theory linking protests over police killings to increase in crime may be best explanation for increase in murders in 2015, St Louis criminologist says after deeper analysis of crime trends
Friday 13 May 2016 16.23 EDT
For nearly a year, Richard Rosenfeld’s research on crime trends has been used to debunk the existence of a “Ferguson effect”, a suggested link between protests over police killings of black Americans and an increase in crime and murder. Now, the St Louis criminologist says, a deeper analysis of the increase in homicides in 2015 has convinced him that “some version” of the Ferguson effect may be real.
Looking at data from 56 large cities across the country, Rosenfeld found a 17% increase in homicide in 2015. Much of that increase came from only 10 cities, which saw an average 33% increase in homicide.
“These aren’t flukes or blips, this is a real increase,” he said. “It was worrisome. We need to figure out why it happened.”
All 10 cities that saw sudden increases in homicide had large African American populations, he said. While it’s not clear what drove the increases, he said, he believes there is some connection between high-profile protests over police killings of unarmed black men, a further breakdown in black citizens’ trust of the police, and an increase in community violence.
“The only explanation that gets the timing right is a version of the Ferguson effect,” Rosenfeld said. Now, he said, that’s his “leading hypothesis”.
Other experts have argued that it’s still hard to know whether 2015’s increase in murders was significant, much less what might have caused the trend. The liberal Brennan Center found that increases in homicide last year were localized in only a few cities, and that “community conditions” were likely to blame, rather than “a national pandemic”.
Even if the increase in homicide is significant, there are many competing theories for what may be responsible. The Brennan Center pointed to economic deterioration of struggling neighborhoods. Columnist Shaun King argued last month that the increase in violence in two cities seemed to be caused by police officers “refusing to fully do their jobs”. Local police officials have blamed court system failures, gang dynamics and the proliferation of illegal guns.
Rosenfeld’s new analysis of homicide trends, which was was funded by the Department of Justice, is currently being reviewed by department officials and has not yet been released to the public. A justice department spokeswoman said the paper is expected to be released in July.
Probably at 4:59 PM on July 3rd, kind of like how LBJ released the Coleman Report in 1966.
The question of whether there is any link between protests over police mistreatment of black Americans and an increase in violence in some black neighborhoods has been a political flashpoint for the past year. Conservative writer Heather Mac Donald warned in May 2015 that protests over police behavior would only backfire on black citizens.
“Unless the demonization of law enforcement ends, the liberating gains in urban safety over the past 20 years will be lost,” she wrote. Her op-ed, titled The New Nationwide Crime Wave, sparked a months-long debate.
The Obama administration repeatedly denied that there is any evidence of a “Ferguson effect”, while FBI director James Comey reiterated his suggestion that violent crime was increasing because of “a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year.” Protesters said the conservative focus on the Ferguson effect is an attempt to undermine the movement to reform American policing. …
Comey reignited the debate on Wednesday, telling reporters that the continued increase in violence was a serious problem that national media outlets were choosing to ignore. He said that private conversations with police officials across the country convinced him that “marginal pullbacks by lots and lots of police officers” afraid of being the subject of the next viral video of police misconduct might be contributing to the increase.
“The people dying are almost entirely black and Latino men,” he said. “It’s a complicated, hard issue, but the stakes couldn’t be higher. A whole lot of people are dying. I don’t want to drive around it.”
The White House clashed with Comey last year over his previous comments on policing and crime increases, and the administration has repeatedly pushed back against the idea of a “Ferguson effect”. Obama himself cautioned against trying to “cherry-pick” crime data last year, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that while the idea of the Ferguson effect had been bolstered by anecdotes, “there’s no data to support it”.
Other than that 17% increase in homicides from 2014 to 2015.
Chicago, Obama’s hometown, has seen more than 1,000 shooting incidents so far this year, compared with about 600 incidents during the same period last year. Murders in Chicago are up 56%, with 70 more people murdered so far this year than last year. …
Some protesters and law enforcement leaders criticized Comey for advancing a theory without national data to back it up. …
Serpas cited a series of influential reports from the liberal Brennan Center that found no change in overall crime in 2015 in the nation’s 30 largest cities, and only a slight increase in violent crime.
The Brennan Center analysis did find that the murder rate had increased 13.2% in the nation’s 30 largest cities, but it downplayed this finding. “While this suggests cause for concern in some cities, murder rates vary widely from year to year, and there is little evidence of a national coming wave in violent crime,” the report noted.
Crimes rate have generally been on a downward trend since perhaps the late 1970s, in part because crime doesn’t pay as well anymore. Property crime is way down due to target hardening and other developments in technology: for example, stealing cars was easy in the 1960s, so manufacturers made it harder to steal cars. So thieves switched to stealing car stereos, which were worth less, so those were made harder to steal. Moreover, information technology, such as the GPS location recording systems that everybody carries around with them now, are making a life of crime ever less plausible of a career track.
In other words, crime should be falling a few percent per year.
The three cities that had seen the biggest increases in murder “all seem to have falling populations, higher poverty rates, and higher unemployment than the national average,” the Brennan Center report concluded. “Economic deterioration of these cities could be a contributor to murder increases.”
Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri St Louis and the chair of a National Academy of Sciences roundtable on crime trends, said the Brennan Center’s focus on the economic roots of violence was not enough to explain “why homicide increased as much as it did in these cities in a one-year period”.
“The conclusion one draws from the Brennan Center’s report is, ‘Not much changed,’ and that is simply not true. In the case of homicide, a lot did change, in a very short period of time,” he said.
While “economic disadvantage is an extraordinarily important predictor of the level of homicide in cities,” he said, “there’s no evidence of a one year substantial economic decline in those cities. There have to be other factors involved.”
The idea of a “Ferguson effect” was coined in 2014 by St Louis police chief Samuel Dotson. The same year that Ferguson saw massive protests over the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown, St Louis saw a 32.5% increase in homicides. “The criminal element is feeling empowered by the environment,” St Louis’s police chief argued, blaming the increase in crime on what he called “the Ferguson effect”, and arguing that the police department needed to hire 180 more officers.
That claim was picked up in May 2015 by Mac Donald, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute which had published a researcher’s 1996 warning about the purported rise of “juvenile super-predators”.
Samuel Sinyangwe, a co-founder of Mapping Police Violence and Campaign Zero, called the conservative focus on the Ferguson effect “a reactionary attempt to undermine the movement”.
“It has been the attempt to put across this narrative that any criticism of the police is dangerous to society,” he said.
That kind of political rhetoric has been used against civil rights advocates in the past. Opponents of the 1964 Civil Rights Act argued that “civil rights would engender a crime wave”, Yale political scientist Vesla Weaver wrote in an article on how arguments about crime were used to attack and undermine African Americans’ fight for equal rights.
Well, of course, civil rights did engender a crime wave, a giant one that did horrific damage to much of urban America, which got going right about 1964. But who can remember such details when we need to spend all our time remembering the really important history like Emmett Till?
A closer look at many of the statistics Mac Donald used to bolster her thesis showed they did not provide sufficient evidence of a nationwide crime wave, criminologist Frank Zimring argued last year.
When Rosenfeld analyzed St Louis’s crime data, he found the increase in homicides there could not have been caused by a “Ferguson effect”, because the greatest increase came early in the year, months before Michael Brown’s death or the protests that followed.
Rosenfeld’s research was widely cited in articles debunking the Ferguson effect.
But that paper only looked at the evidence for the effect in one city. With funding from the National Institute of Justice, the justice department’s research arm, Rosenfeld did a new study early this year that looked that more broadly at homicide trends in the nation’s 56 largest cities and found an overall 17% increase in homicide.
As a result of that broader national analysis he said, he has had “second thoughts” about the Ferguson effect. “My views have been altered.”
Looking at the additional homicides in large cities, he found that two-thirds of the increase was concentrated in 10 cities: Baltimore, Chicago, Houston, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Washington, Nashville, Philadelphia, Kansas City and St Louis.
Those 10 cities had somewhat higher levels of poverty than the other cities he examined. But, he said, the “key difference” was that “their African American population was substantially larger than other large cities”: an average of 41% in those 10 cities, compared with 19.9% in the others.
Separate analyses looked at two of these cities in 2015 and early 2016. A FiveThirtyEight assessment of Chicago crime data concluded that the city’s increase in gun violence was statistically significant, that the spike dated back to the release of the video of the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, and that it was closely correlated with a drop in police arrests. Researchers in Baltimore found a similar correlation between a drop in arrests and an increase in violence in the wake of protests over Freddie Gray’s death, and concluded that while the Ferguson effect played no role in Baltimore’s rising violence, a “Freddie Gray effect” may have been a significant factor.
Violence has many complex causes, and decades of exhaustive research has shed only partial light. Even the dramatic drop in violence and crime since the early 1990s – the most basic fact about crime in America – is not fully understood.
No, the most basic fact about crime in America, which has almost been completely forgotten by the press, is that crime went way up in the 1960s and 1970s when liberals took charge of race in America.
In trying to understand 2015’s murder trends, Rosenfeld looked for reasons why cities that already struggled with high levels of violence might see “a precipitous and very abrupt increase”.
Rosenfeld considered two potential alternative explanations: the US heroin epidemic, and the number of former inmates returning home from prison. Neither of these explanations quite lined up with the increase in violence, he said. For instance, the country has been in the midst of a heroin epidemic since 2011. Why there would be a four to five year lag before the epidemic caused murders to spike?
Another possibility, however, is that the Mexican cartels peddling heroin in America have topped out on their target market of nonviolent white people — nobody much cared about white people quietly offing themselves — and are now expanding their business by finally dealing with black urban gangs, which they had tried to avoid before.
Mexico’s drug gangs have been insanely violent in Mexico but discreet in America. Sam Quinones got in with one Mexican outfit of heroin dealers in flyover America, the Xalisco Boys, for his book Dreamland and reported:
They are decidedly nonviolent — terrified, in fact, of battles for street corners with armed gangs. They don’t carry guns. They also have rules against selling to African-Americans because, as one dealer put it, “they’ll steal from you, and beat you.”
The Boys started out on the fringes of the drug world in West Coast cities. In the late 1990s, they moved east in search of virgin territory. They avoided New York City, the country’s traditional center of heroin, because the market was already run by entrenched gangs. … They also skipped cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore, where black gangs control distribution.
The Xalisco Boys migrated instead to prosperous midsize cities. These cities were predominantly white, but had large Mexican populations where the Boys could blend in. They were the first to open these markets to cheap, potent black-tar heroin in a sustained way. The map of their outposts amounts to a tour through our new heroin hubs: Nashville, Columbus and Charlotte, as well as Salt Lake City, Portland and Denver.
But maybe now the Mexican heroin mobs are dealing with black gangs in places like Baltimore and St. Louis? As we saw with crack a quarter of a century ago or the powder cocaine wars of 1980, when urban black gangs get a hot drug, they tend to shoot each other in large numbers in turf wars.
On the other hand, this heroin idea is mostly pure speculation on my part. It goes back to my 1999 debate with economist Steven “Freakonomics” Levitt in Slate when he asked when I figured murder rates would go back up again. I said: eventually there will be a new drug.
But the government’s strategy has been more sophisticated than I anticipated in 1999. Crack was so apocalyptic that the government seems to have been following a multimodal drug war strategy that has been pretty effective:
- Come down extremely hard with imprisonment on drugs that make people more violent, like cocaine.
- Err on the side of downer drugs that make people more passive, like heroin
- Err on the side of abuse of legal drugs, like prescription painkillers
- Err on the side of a multiplicity of drugs so that we don’t get back to a situation like crack cocaine in 1990 or powder cocaine in 1980.
So in the 21st Century the government eased up on prescription painkillers. But so many people started getting addicted and overdosing that it eventually tightened up, which gave an opening to Mexican heroin dealers. That has turned out to be such a disaster that white life expectancy actually declined in the latest statistics.
Mexican heroin dealers were cautious about staying in flyover country that nobody cares about and avoiding big cities with their violent drug gangs and media presence that made Miami world famous (except to economists) in the Scarface / Miami Vice era. In contrast to the glamorous Miami powder cocaine boom of 1980 and the West Coast / East Coast gangsta rap-fueled crack cocaine boom of 1988-1994, the Mexican / redneck heroin bubble of the 2010s has been pretty dismal and downscale, so almost nobody paid attention to it.
We’ll see what happens next.