Much has been made in recent months of a series of isolated crime increases in a handful of US cities. Breathless accounts of a new crime wave have appeared in both liberal and conservative media. Right-wing pundits and some police leaders have claimed that there is a “Ferguson effect”—a significant crime increase due to the “Black Lives Matter” protests against police violence. This is both junk science and political opportunism.
The New York Times recently reported that a couple dozen US cities have experienced increases in murders, and a few others some increase in other violent crimes. While any uptick in serious crime should be of concern, short-term changes in a few crime categories is thin evidence of a sustained national trend. In fact, in most parts of the country, crime in general, and murder rates in particular, continue to go down. While New York City, one site of ongoing protest, had a spike in homicides in the early part of the year, the city just completed the “safest summer in 25 years” according to Commissioner Bill Bratton. In addition, a new report by the Sentencing Project shows that in St. Louis, the uptick in homicides actually was well underway before the death of Michael Brown.
Even in cities that have experienced some increase in homicides, there has been no increase in other crimes. Why would a reduction in policing (as claimed by proponents of the “Ferguson effect”) result in more homicides but fewer robberies, burglaries, and auto thefts? The fact is that while homicide numbers are considered very accurate, they are such rare occurrences that it is very dangerous to draw any conclusions about broader crime trends from limited periods of time. Six months of homicide data is not enough to predict what year-end numbers will look like, and it’s bad journalism and worse science to do so.
For the last 20 years, police leaders and their supporters have claimed near-total credit for the dramatic drop in crime beginning in the 1990s, even though different police departments have supported very different and at times contradictory methods. Now that there is some evidence of a crime increase in their jurisdiction, their fingers are suddenly pointing elsewhere. The right-wing echo chamber is abuzz with attacks on the movement against police misconduct, from slandering individual activists to blaming a host of social ills on them, while at the same time denying that they have any influence or relevance.
Even a casual glance at the historical record puts the lie to these claims. When past movements for police reform have emerged in the wake of the Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, or Oscar Grant incidents, there was no appreciable change in crime trends in the specific cities involved, or nationally. Whether these protests took the form of riots, nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns, or sustained community-based protests, crime rates were unaffected. As mentioned before, in some cities the change in homicide rates began before last summer’s protests, in others the trend continues downward, and in others the trends are mixed.