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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.