There are two distinct facets of Law Enforcement, one is reactive; the police wait for a crime to occur and then respond, investigate and try to make a case against the perpetrator. The second is Proactive; the police actively seek out criminal perpetrators in the hope of apprehending them before they victimize someone or, through vigilance and active presence, proactive policing seeks to deter predatory activity. The Ferguson effect, as put forth by Heather MacDonald and refuted by many citing the Brennon Center for Justice report, refers to the unwillingness of police to engage in proactive policing. The implication is that public safety is now in jeopardy, as evidenced by rising rates of violent crime.
This proactive policing activity however, can and does disproportionally impact poor people, specifically disadvantaged African-Americans. It has been criticized as “undemocratic” and extremely inefficient by social justice advocates who would prefer that the police only respond to calls for service. The argument claims that stop and frisk tactics are inefficient because only a very small percentage of stops actually result in an arrest. The obvious deterrent impact of police actively, seeking out and engaging potential criminal perpetrators, is completely ignored. In fairness, one may point to the classic studies of preventative police patrol and cite the lack of proven effectiveness but it is difficult to argue with the apprehension we all feel when a clearly marked police cruiser creeps up on us on the highway or when we encounter a uniformed officer on a street corner. Abandoning the obvious disincentive to crime and socially unacceptable behavior means abandoning our most important order maintenance tools, tools desperately needed in our most disadvantaged areas.
The Ferguson Effect Exists
On August 7th, 2015, a Birmingham, Alabama, Police Detective is brutally assaulted and pistol whipped with his own handgun after stopping a black male driver for erratic driving. During a subsequent interview, the detective was asked why he hesitated to use force in order to defend himself. He is quoted as replying “I hesitated because I didn’t want to be in the media like I am right now.” Heather Mac Donald, a columnist for the National Review would later write an article regarding the incident titled “…Welcome to Post-Ferguson Policing.”
In her article, Mac Donald goes on to pronounce that every crime-fighting tactic used by police, i.e. traffic stops, stop and frisks, minor code violation enforcement, in certain neighborhoods are being vilified as racist by some members of the community and mainstream media. This angst has led to police officers reducing the amount of proactive work they do, which, according to Mac Donald, has led to an uptick in violent crime across the country.
Mac Donald is not alone in her assertion that the Ferguson effect exists. In fact, she has some pretty powerful support, including FBI Director James Comey. Director Comey stirred up a spirited debate late last year when he pronounced that the spike in inner city homicides was the result of police officers being fearful to do the “marginal additional policing that suppresses crime.”
Comey’s not alone in his belief that something has seemingly caused police officers to hesitate when it comes to taking action. The director of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Chuck Rosenberg, was quoted in November of 2015 as saying Comey is “spot on.”
There is no Ferguson Effect
Professor Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, a campus located only blocks from the epicenter of this debate, in his 2015 report for The Sentencing Project, claimed that there was no evidence to support the idea that police were slowing down their activity level. Rosenfeld pointed to the fact that homicide rates in Saint Louis were on the rise before Michael Brown was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson.
Since the publication of his 2015 report, Rosenfeld has changed his stance on the Ferguson effect. In his June 2016 report, commissioned by the Department of Justice, Rosenfeld concludes that there does appear to be some correlation between the crime rate and a police slow down. That change, however, hasn’t stopped President Obama from declaring on a number of occasions that the rise in violent crime is not the result of police “pulling back from their duties.” In fact, President Obama’s Press Secretary, Joshua Earnest, decried FBI Director Comey’s comments as “irresponsible” and “counter-productive.”
The head of the National Chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, one of the largest police unions in the country, has also indicated that there is no evidence to support the notion that police officers are suddenly afraid of policing. In October of 2015 FOP Executive Director James Pasco also condemned Comey’s 2015 statements, indicating that “He (Comey) has to learn that unless he’s got the facts and the perspective to back it up, he should probably avoid the issue.” Pasco offered an alternate theory that suggested that police officers in fact doubled down in their efforts to fight crime when they were placed under the microscope.
Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck concurs with Pasco and President Obama. In a February 2016 op-ed article he penned for the Los Angeles Times, Beck vehemently combats the notion that members of his department have slowed down investigating crimes or making arrests for any reason, citing an increase in arrests for most major crimes. Beck points to the loss of trust between citizens and police stemming from incidents where police used their powers illegitimately as the “real Ferguson effect.”
The media has also weighed-in. A recent Washington Post article claimed that the notion that the increase in the number of homicides is due in part to some national law enforcement crisis is nothing more than a “provocative hypothesis.” Others claim, like Beck, that there is a ‘Ferguson effect,’ but it doesn’t actually have any correlation with the crime rate, as if the actions of the police don’t matter. Instead, the Ferguson Effect is more of a political and social movement towards justice, i.e., social justice.
Dr. Patrick Solar is an Assistant Professor for the online criminal justice master’s degree program at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville with nearly 30 years of service as a police officer. He currently serves on the governing board for the Law Enforcement Accreditation Program (ILEAP), setting the standards for professional law enforcement in Illinois.