Will the “Ferguson Effect” Doom Police Reform?

The murder rate is rising in many large cities, threatening the prospects for big change to urban criminal justice systems.

There were demonstrations and tear gas in Ferguson after the summertime shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer. A grand jury will announce that officer's fate today.

Police in riot gear in Ferguson, 2014.

One big but often overlooked reason that Michael Nutter was elected mayor in 2007 was the tough tone he struck on crime and violence in the midst of a pretty terrifying crime wave.

There were 406 homicides in 2006, and 391 the year Nutter was elected. The violence — so tragically common in many distressed sections of the city — was spilling out into more affluent areas. Days before the November election, a masked man blazed through Center City in an SUV, shot four people (including a cop), crashed his vehicle and then drowned in the Schuylkill River while trying to escape.

People were freaked out. And while then Mayor Street dithered, Nutter offered action. He would declare a crime emergency. He vowed to introduce stop-and-frisk. He’d direct the police to concentrate on high crime areas, where police would have the power “to prohibit outdoor gatherings, limit the movement of vehicles, establish a curfew, and prohibit the possession of all weapons.”

From the vantage point of 2015, that’s pretty extreme stuff. I don’t bring it up to throw dirt on Nutter’s policing policy. He never followed through on a lot of that, actually, and there’s no debating the fact that crime has fallen considerably on his watch.

The point is this: policing and criminal justice policy are acutely — acutely — sensitive to current events.

We’ve seen that nationwide over the last year, as the unrest in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York and elsewhere over police and community relations has spurred some reforms and kicked off what feels like a real conversation about police interactions with low-income, minority communities. Simultaneously, there is now surprising bipartisan momentum to roll back mass incarceration. Both are badly needed, long-overdue developments.

But … they’re fragile developments. And that’s what makes the news this year out of cities like St. Louis, Milwaukee and Baltimore particularly scary. In those and other towns, the murder rate is spiking. As the New York Times reports:

MILWAUKEE — Cities across the nation are seeing a startling rise in murders after years of declines, and few places have witnessed a shift as precipitous as this city. With the summer not yet over, 104 people have been killed this year — after 86 homicides in all of 2014.

More than 30 other cities have also reported increases in violence from a year ago. In New Orleans, 120 people had been killed by late August, compared with 98 during the same period a year earlier. In Baltimore, homicides had hit 215, up from 138 at the same point in 2014. In Washington, the toll was 105, compared with 73 people a year ago. And in St. Louis, 136 people had been killed this year, a 60 percent rise from the 85 murders the city had by the same time last year.

This isn’t happening in Philadelphia. Violent crime remains an enormous problem, but it’s not as huge a scourge as it was in 2007, and the 2015 rate is largely unchanged from 2014’s. But crime is a funny thing. Rates of violence rise and fall, and those trends often defy easy explanation. Academics and criminologists have attributed broad crime trends to everything from generational bulges (an over-abundance of 20-year-olds = more crime), to the unleading of gasoline, to rising and falling use of alcohol and crack, to economic factors, to incarceration rates, to legalized abortion, to policing strategy, and so on. Since we’re talking about human behavior in complex, changing environments, it seems likely no single factor explains huge shifts in crime rates (though I do think policing can make a very big difference, in both directions).

But that doesn’t stop people from trotting out single-bullet theories, such as the so-called Ferguson Effect. As explained by Heather Mac Donald in an influential op-ed for the Wall Street Journal:

The most plausible explanation of the current surge in lawlessness is the intense agitation against American police departments over the past nine months … This incessant drumbeat against the police has resulted in what St. Louis police chief Sam Dotson last November called the “Ferguson effect.” Cops are disengaging from discretionary enforcement activity and the “criminal element is feeling empowered,” Mr. Dotson reported. Arrests in St. Louis city and county by that point had dropped a third since the shooting of Michael Brown in August. Not surprisingly, homicides in the city surged 47% by early November and robberies in the county were up 82%.

Similar “Ferguson effects” are happening across the country as officers scale back on proactive policing under the onslaught of anti-cop rhetoric. Arrests in Baltimore were down 56% in May compared with 2014.

Is Mac Donald on to something? There are plenty of articles out there saying she’s wrong, that she’s drawing overly-broad conclusions from limited data, that crime ebbs and flows for reasons we don’t entirely understand. I agree with her critics.

But voters don’t always respond in reasoned, measured ways to crime: that’s how we ended up with 2.2 million people in prison and mandatory federal sentences of 25 years for selling off your own prescription pain pills.

The historic declines in urban crime over the past 20 years are what’s made it politically possible to even have a conversation about sweeping police and criminal justice reforms. That political window could snap shut, if crime rates bounce.

In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio — a mayor who made criminal justice reform a centerpiece of his election last year — is facing growing public concern about crime, even though New York remains the safest big city in the nation. In combustible St. Louis — where the homicide rate is at its highest in 20 years — pundits are already suggesting the way to challenge Mayor Francis Slay is from the right: “A candidate who made law-and-order the cornerstone and has credentials as a law enforcement person could make some headway,” a local political scientist told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. In roiling Baltimore, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake sacked the police commissioner in July.

Democratic mayoral nominee and likely next mayor Jim Kenney was the prime force behind the city’s decriminalization of marijuana, and he’s widely seen as an ally of criminal justice reform (which is interesting, since he was endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, and was a big time policing hawk earlier in his career). Kenney has big plans for bail reform, and he’s vowed to end stop-and-frisk.

If Philly goes the way of some of these other cities, and violent crime rates start to rise in a big way, those reforms — and others — become harder to do. Perhaps a lot harder.