The Ferguson Effect

By Dane Sherrets on June 05, 2015

Murder and violent crime have risen dramatically in several major cities in 2015. In New York, the murder rate has gone up 20% compared to the early months of 2014. In Los Angeles, violent crime is up 27%. In Houston, murders are up nearly 50%. In Baltimore, murders are up 37%.

Some are attributing this spike in murders to a so-called "Ferguson effect." The Ferguson Effect is the theory that the recent protests and public outrage against police brutality have causes police to draw back from everyday enforcement, leaving a 'criminal element' feeling empowered.

Facing the hard challenge head on is part of American culture. It is George Washington at Valley Forge. It's Susan B. Anthony and Women's Suffrage. It's the Civil Rights Movement. It's going to the moon and John Wayne movies. It is grit and determination in the face of considerable odds. It may not be a uniquely American trait, but it is a distinct part of American culture.

Yet there is another culture, birthed out of electoral politics, that says everything boils down to one cause and one effect. It allows candidates to identify a problem, brand its cause, and prescribe a simple solution to win votes. It operates under the assumption that modern Americans are nothing like our predecessors, and we can't be trusted with the hard answer.

This approach is deeply damaging to the American public, and the propagating of the "Ferguson Effect" is representative of that.

It Diminishes the Significance of the Protests

What happened in Ferguson, in Baltimore, and in smaller protests across the country, it matters. You don't have to be black to feel a sense of outrage after being inundated by videos of police officers shooting young black men. How you perceive the causes, and potential solutions, to this problem might differ, but that universally human sense of empathy should be engaged regardless.

And these protests were representative of far more than the deaths of Michael Brown or Freddie Gray. Martin Luther King Jr. said "A riot is the language of the unheard." These protests were an outpouring of frustration from communities that are ignored, an expression of outrage against the inequalities and environment that allow unarmed black men to be killed by police.

The "Ferguson Effect" diminishes these factors by tying potential negative consequences of the protests against police to the recent spike in murders and violent crime. It implies that protests against police brutality have consequences for local communities, and it ignores the greater meaning behind the protests. Propagating the "Ferguson Effect" is almost like saying to anyone who protested over the past year, "you asked for it."

These protests were exactly what the public should have done. When the government is unresponsive to the needs of the people, the protesters took to the streets, and made it impossible America and its leaders to ignore or forget these problems. Looting and violence in the protests cannot be condoned, but the outrage was justified. The implication of a fixation on the "Ferguson Effect" is to discourage future protests, when they should be encouraged.

It Disrespects the Intelligence of the American People

The spike in murders is far more complex than "It is a result of the Ferguson protests." In Baltimore, the police chief has attributed it to the pharmacies looted in the riots, subsequently flooding the streets with drugs. In New York some attribute the spike to the decline in "stop and frisk." Other local factors, such as the size of the city's youth population, the level of social disadvantage, and the city's social disorganization, can have a key role in a spike in crime.

By attributing the rise in crime to the recent protests, the "Ferguson Effect" makes the flawed argument that if one event follows another, the second must have been caused by the first. In so doing, it ignores the multitude of factors that are likely at play.

The "Ferguson Effect" is also founded on the assumption that Americans can only see this issue in black or white. In a Wall Street Journal piece by Heather MacDonald, she stated that "'Ferguson effects' are happening across the country as officers scale back on proactive policing under the onslaught of anti-cop rhetoric." But this entirely mischaracterizes the protests. These protests were not "anti-cop," but anti-police-killing-unarmed-black-men, and the systemic problems which underpinned these events. While anti-cop rhetoric certainly exists, sometimes in these protests, let's not mischaracterize the entire event.

As a people, let's have a little faith in each other and our ability to see shades. If the "Ferguson Effect" does exist, police officers should understand it was not about them doing their job, but rather that certain police officers had unnecessarily killed young men. And protestors should understand that the protests are an indictment of a particular trend in policing, and not policing in general. It feels painfully obvious writing this out, but the "Ferguson Effect" would deny that this is even possible.

It Ignores that Americans Are Willing to Tackle the Hard Problem

The "Ferguson Effect" is indicative of a political system that says "Here is a complex problem, and here is the easy solution." In doing so it disrespects Americans' ability to understand the complex problem, and their willingness to take that head on.

Is it any surprise that -- after years of candidates promising easy solutions only to fall short in office -- we are disillusioned with politics and our government? Americans deserve the hard truth because then we can face it head on, fully prepared, and equipped to tackle it in its entirety.

The dramatic spike in the murder rate in certain cities, and the wider problem of racial inequality spotlighted by the protests, has no single cause, and no easy solution. This is a challenge, caused by a diverse array of problems and requiring a systemic approach. Oversimplifying it to the "Ferguson Effect" diminishes the significance of the protests, disrespects the intelligence of the public, and ignores our willingness to tackle the hard problem. Americans deserve the hard truth, and we deserve leadership that will give it.