What the Data Tell Us About Crime and the ‘Ferguson Effect’

Crime has been declining for 25 years, and 2015 gave no reason to believe the trend is over. There is no crime wave building just over the horizon.

March 7, 2016

Cross-posted at InsideSources

In this contentious election year, Republicans and Democrats have found surprising common ground on criminal justice reform. But that consensus may be in jeopardy, as a handful of critics try to change the narrative by pointing to the specter of a new national crime wave.

On the campaign trail, one former operative faulted Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for speaking out against mass incarceration “even as some of the nation’s largest cities become more violent.” The head of American Crossroads PAC cited the same uptick in violent crime as a reason to scuttle a bipartisan sentencing reform bill, now pending in Congress. And meanwhile, the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald has been warning of a “new nationwide crime wave” since halfway through last year.

Looking at the facts, however, these alarmists are simply wrong. Crime has been declining for 25 years, and 2015 gave no reason to believe the trend is over. There is no crime wave building just over the horizon.

Instead, initial reports on crime in 2015 make the case for cautious optimism. According to the FBI’s preliminary data, covering January through June nationwide, property crime continued its decline in 2015, falling 4.2 percent. (Final data for the entire year won’t be released until the fall.) These results are consistent with a Brennan Center analysis released late last year, which projected a 5.5 percent decline in crime in the 30 largest cities in 2015.

This is good news. What has opponents alarmed is the latest FBI data also show a 1.7 percent increase in violent crime (again consistent with our findings of a 1.5 percent increase). While no rise in violent crime is trivial, a 1.7 percent increase looks less like a “crime wave,” and more like a brief swell.

Indeed, small year-to-year variances in crime rates are to be expected. Violent crime rose at a similar rate between 2004 and 2006, before returning to a decades-long downward trend. Then as now, some sounded a general alarm, while others pointed to highly localized increases in crime.

“It’s a couple of cities with bad luck and with local problems which are very real,” law professor Franklin Zimring told The New York Times in 2006, “but not necessarily part of a national pattern.”

Today, we may well be repeating the trend. While there were 471 more murders in large cities in 2015 than 2014, more than half (260) of that increase occurred in just three cities: Baltimore, Washington and Chicago. Until we have more information, then, warnings of a “new nationwide crime wave” are premature by several years and more than a few percentage points.

Of course, since crime has gone up in some cities, it’s important to ask why, and what it could mean nationally.

On that front, some commentators frame these local crime surges as a grim harbinger. Mac Donald especially has warned that any rise in urban crime justifies her claims about a so-called “Ferguson effect” — a rise in crime linked to a national atmosphere of disrespect for police officers, emanating from community protests of law enforcement in 2014 and 2015. Those protests, she theorizes, caused police to pull back from active patrol across the country, creating a power vacuum that allowed crime to flourish.

This narrative is frightening for everyone involved: police, citizens and reformers alike. But it just doesn’t stand up to the data.

In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Criminal Justice, four researchers — a sociologist and three criminologists — describe how they tried and failed to find evidence of a national crime wave linked to the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri. While crime did increase in some cities, especially those characterized by historically high poverty and violence, “no evidence was found to support a systematic post-Ferguson change” in crime rates. National trends, they concluded, do not respond to such “sudden shocks.”

The “Ferguson effect” doesn’t fare any better in practice, and gives no reason to believe our quarter-century of crime reduction is over. If this theory were true, we would expect to see crime rise when police make fewer arrests, and fall when they make more. On that basis, Mac Donald predicted in 2013 that if New York City ended its controversial stop-and-frisk program, crime would skyrocket back to pre-1990 levels.

Well, stop-and-frisk formally ended in 2014, and the lights still haven’t gone out on Broadway. In fact, as the number of stops by police tapered off, so did the city’s murder rate, hitting a historic low the same year the program ended. Despite a small increase, the murder rate remained low in 2015, while shootings, major crime and arrests all fell in tandem.

Opponents of criminal justice reform like to frame America’s historically low crime rate as a fragile equilibrium, a place of greater safety that we forfeit if we so much as think about how to build a smarter, fairer system. This makes good copy, but it doesn’t rest on good data.

Rather than stoking unfounded fears of a new crime wave, always just beyond the horizon, we should take this opportunity to ask how we can expand on the public safety gains of the past 25 years, and why some communities have been left behind.