Nationwide crime wave confirms the Ferguson effect

Heather Mac Donald, writing in the Wall Street Journal, describes the crime wave that is sweeping the nation, and attributes much of it to the Ferguson effect. She notes that even some who initially denied the Ferguson effect now admit that the phenomenon is real.

Mac Donald points to Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, who was an early and influential critic of the Ferguson effect. Rosenfeld changed his mind after taking a closer look at the worsening crime statistics. “The only explanation that gets the timing right is a version of the Ferguson effect,” Rosenfeld said recently. “These aren’t flukes or blips, this is a real increase.”

Mac Donald also points to a study in the Journal of Criminal Justice. It found that homicides in the 12 months after the Michael Brown shooting rose significantly in cities with large black populations and already high rates of violence. This is precisely what the Ferguson effect would predict.

The experience of Baltimore and Chicago further support the Ferguson effect. Mac Donald writes:

A study of gun violence in Baltimore by crime analyst Jeff Asher showed an inverse correlation with proactive drug arrests: When Baltimore cops virtually stopped making drug arrests last year after the rioting that followed the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, shootings soared.

In Chicago, where pedestrian stops have fallen nearly 90%, homicides this year are up 60% compared with the same period last year. Compared with the first four and half months of 2014, homicides in Chicago are up 95%, according to the police department. Even the liberal website Vox has grudgingly concluded that “the Ferguson effect theory is narrowly correct, at least in some cities.”

The importance of proactive policing, which is what the Ferguson effect deters, is sufficiently obvious that even liberals understand it. Today at an AEI conference on sentencing reform, Steven Teles, a leading proponent of softer sentencing, expressed his concern that the sentencing reform movement, which has carried the day in some states, will be set back if the crime rate continues to rise and/or if those released pursuant to the reforms commit horrific crimes.

Teles therefore stressed the importance of coupling softer (he calls it “smarter”) sentencing with measures to prevent crime, including proactive policing. In other words, sentencing reform, an important agenda item for the left (and for some conservatives), might not be sustainable without the kind of policing the left castigates — and thereby deters.

But the same mindless accusations of racism that the softer sentencing movement relies on also undergird the virulent attacks on the police that produce the Ferguson effect. Thus, we’re quite unlikely to get both a soft sentencing regime and policing that will help society cope with the consequences of having vastly more criminals on the street.

By the way, the AEI conference, at which Mac Donald spoke compellingly, is worth a post of its own. I will write one tomorrow.