Black Lives Matter is causing a major spike in crime across the country, according to some. In May, for example the Wall Street Journal ran a shrieking headline, “The New Nationwide Crime Wave.” Conservative pundit Heather Mac Donald declared “The nation’s two-decades-long crime decline may be over,” and added that “Gun violence in particular is spiraling upward in cities across America.”
She concluded, on the basis of no particular evidence, that “The most plausible explanation of the current surge in lawlessness is the intense agitation against American police departments over the past nine months.”
So has activism against police violence really contributed to rising homicide rates? According to Fordham University professor of law John Pfaff, who researches crime statistics, there’s a simple, direct answer to that question.
No one has any actual idea.
“My general sense is that you can predict who someone voted for for President in 2012 based on what they say on the Ferguson Effect,” Pfaff told me.
Folks like Mac Donald who insist that Black Lives Matter is corroding our civil society are likely to be conservatives who resent the way BLM questions the police. Those who are more liberal, and more in tune with BLM’s goals, seem more likely to dismiss the idea that there’s a link between BLM and a rise in crime (if there is one).
That’s not necessarily to say that both sides are equally right. At the moment, at least, Pfaff said, the evidence for a Ferguson Effect is very shaky. In our conversation he highlighted a whole litany of things we don’t know, and that we’d need to know, in order to draw a connection between Black Lives Matter protests and increases in crime.
WE DON’T KNOW THAT CRIME RATES ARE GOING UP
“It’s clear that there are certain cities that have seen murder go up. But it could just be a one-year blip; it could be the start of a trend,” Pfaff said.
In general, crime rates have been dropping steadily since the early 1990s. Pfaff pointed out that there was an uptick in violent crime in 2005-2006, but then the numbers simply dropped back down again.
It’s possible (not likely, but possible) that we’re at the start of a historical spike in crime, but there’s no way to know that after just eight months or so of data. At the moment, Pfaff says, increases in murder rates in places such as Chicago and Baltimore are a slight increase over 2014, reversing the downward trend and putting the rates about back where they were in 2013, well before Ferguson.
Pfaff noted that some of the Ferguson Effect proponents refer to Milwaukee as an exemplar. That’s because, he says, “It’s got one of the biggest jumps of any city in the country.”
But other cities haven’t experienced that kind of bump. Bruce Frederick at the Marshall Project posted an analysis last week in which he looked at homicide rates in 16 of the 20 most populous cities in the country. Of those 16, only 3 experienced statistically significant increases in crime. That’s shaky ground from which to declare a major nationwide crime trend.
IF CRIME RATES ARE GOING UP, WE DON’T KNOW THAT THE FERGUSON EFFECT IS CAUSING THE INCREASE
Baltimore has been pointed to as one place where there is a clear Ferguson Effect. In May, following protests over the death in police custody of Freddie Gray, the city recorded 43 homicides, the worst month in 40 years. That seems like a clear-cut cause and effect. Protests led to more violence. Right?
Well, not necessarily. Pfaff pointed out that “homicides were already high in Baltimore” before Freddie Grays’ death. Reuben Fischer-Baum at 538 goes some way to corroborate that.
Baltimore seems to have had a significant increase in crime over 2014, coupled with a drop in early 2015. The result is that the crime spike in May looks particularly startling.
Pfaff said that there’s no clear link between the Michael Brown shooting in St. Louis and higher crime rates. Similarly, in New York City, police staged a deliberate slowdown of work following Black Lives Matter protests and the murder of two police officers in December.
“There was no apparent uptick when police started their stand-down,” Pfaff said. “There’s no evidence of crime going up.”
In fact, crime seems to have gone down during the slowdown. It’s true there were fewer arrests for low-level crimes, but as Matt Ford writes at The Atlantic, that may actually be a good thing for citizens because fewer people were harassed for trivial offenses.
IF THERE IS A FERGUSON EFFECT, WE DON’T KNOW HOW IT WORKS
Even in theory, the exact mechanism of the Ferguson Effect isn’t clear. Protests could cause the police to slow down work deliberately, thus causing a crime increase. Or, as Heather Mac Donald suggests, police could be trying to do their jobs and might be hampered by fears of being second-guessed or by low morale.
Pfaff noted that he’s also heard the theory that, with police brutality in the news, “minorities aren’t calling the cops anymore because they decide it’s too dangerous to call the police.”
All of these factors could be in play, of course, or none of them, or some in one place but not in others.
“The United States is a pretty sprawling country with a lot of different things going on,” Pfaff said. “The cities are not all homogenous. Whatever is causing the trends in one city might be different than what’s causing trends in the other.”
One thing is certain though. In the absence of a clear idea of what the Ferguson Effect is, it is extremely difficult to figure out if it exists.
IN GENERAL, WE DON’T ACTUALLY HAVE A VERY GOOD IDEA OF WHAT CAUSES CRIME RATES TO RISE AND FALL
“We know a lot less than we would like to know,” about what causes increases and decreases in crime, Pfaff said. He said that if you looked at all the papers trying to explain the massive drop in crime since 1991, each one might have a plausible explanation on its own. But putting them all together, they would explain 250 percent of the drop in crime.
“The story doesn’t really add up,” he said.
There are some consensus opinions. Pfaff said that researchers believe that the vast increase in prison population has probably caused some reduction in crime, though how much exactly is controversial. And some targeted program interventions have been shown to reduce crime in certain cities at certain times.
But, overall, experts have serious trouble explaining the decades-long drop in crime since the early 1990s, despite years of data and research. Given that context, there’s simply no way that anyone can say, after less than a year, what the Ferguson Effect is, how it works, or whether it exists.
“The Ferguson effect has gotten all this attention less because it’s consistent with the data and more because it’s the one that’s the most noteworthy and grabs the attention the most,” Pfaff said. “It’s dominated this discussion less because of clear statistical merit and more because it’s a story that’s easy to talk about. It’s an upsetting story if it’s true and grabs our attention the way a more mundane story does not.”
We do not know if the Ferguson Effect exists, but we do know that whether it exists or not, it makes a sexy headline.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.