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In Denial About Crime

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In Denial About Crime

The Brennan Center and other liberal groups pretend that murders and shootings aren’t spiking in many cities. Winter 2016
Public safety

Photo by Mark Makela

The campaign to deny the murder and shooting spike in many American cities continues apace. The latest effort is a report by the Brennan Center for Justice, which the press has hailed ecstatically as a refutation of what I and others have dubbed the “Ferguson effect”—the phenomenon of officers backing off of proactive policing and thereby emboldening criminals. In fact, the report confirms the Ferguson effect, while also showing how clueless the media are about crime and policing.

The Brennan Center researchers gathered homicide data from 25 of the nation’s 30 largest cities for the period January 1, 2015, to October 1, 2015. (Not included were San Francisco, Indianapolis, Columbus, El Paso, and Nashville.) The researchers then tried to estimate what 2015’s full-year homicide numbers for those 25 cities would be, based on the extent to which homicides were up from January to October 2015, compared with the similar period in 2014.

The resulting projected increase for homicides in 2015 in those 25 cities is 11 percent. (By point of comparison, the FiveThirtyEight data blog looked at the 60 largest cities and found a 16 percent increase in homicides by September 2015. On Monday, the Brennan Center revised its own estimate of the 2015 murder increase to 14.6 percent.) An 11 percent one-year increase in any crime category is massive; an equivalent decrease in homicides would be greeted with high-fives by politicians and police chiefs. Yet the media have tried to repackage that 11 percent increase as trivial. They employ several strategies for doing so, the most important of which is simply not disclosing the actual figure. An Atlantic article titled “Debunking the Ferguson Effect” reports: “Based on their data, the Brennan Center projects that homicides will rise slightly overall from 2014 to 2015.” A reader could be forgiven for thinking that that “slight” rise in homicides is of the order of, say, 2 to 3 percent. Nothing in the Atlantic write-up disabuses the reader of that error. Vox, declaring the crime increase “bunk,” is similarly discreet about the actual homicide jump, leaving it to the reader’s imagination. Crime & Justice News, published by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, coyly admits that “murder is up moderately in some places” without disclosing what that “moderate” increase may be.

A second strategy for brushing off the homicide surge is to contextualize it over a long period of time. Because homicides haven’t returned to their early 1990s or early 2000s levels, the current crime increase is insignificant, the Brennan Center and its media supporters assert, echoing an argument that arose immediately after I first documented the Ferguson effect nationally. “Today’s murder rates are still at all-time historic lows,” write the Brennan Center researchers. “In 1990 there were 29.3 murders per 100,000 residents in these cities. In 2000, there were 13.8 murders per 100,000. Now, there are 9.9 murders per 100,000 residents. Averaged across the cities, we find that while Americans in urban areas have experienced more murders this year than last year, they are safer than they were five years ago and much safer than they were 25 years ago.” The Atlantic is similarly reassuring: “The relative uptick [which he never specifies] is still small compared to the massive two-decade drop [in homicides] that preceded it.”

It’s unlikely, however, that the nation would give back in one year a 50 percent crime drop that unfurled over two decades. The relevant question is: What is the current trend? If 2015’s homicide and shooting outbreak continues, those 1990s violent-crime levels will return sooner than anyone would have imagined. Violent crime was down nearly 5 percent in the first half of 2014; the post-Ferguson violent-crime spike in the second half of 2014 wiped out that earlier crime success, leaving 2014 a wash. Since then, crime has continued rising.

The most desperate tactic for discounting the homicide increase is to disaggregate the average. Yes, some cities have seen a homicide increase, the Ferguson-effect deniers argue, but others have seen a homicide decrease. “Fears of ‘a new nationwide crime wave’ are premature at best and wildly misleading at worst,” asserts The Atlantic, because the “numbers make clear that violent crime is up in some major U.S. cities and down in others.” But such variance is inherent in any average. If there weren’t variation across the members of a set, no average would be needed. Any national crime increase or decrease will have counterexamples of the dominant trend within it, yet policymakers and analysts rightly find the average meaningful. The existence of a Ferguson effect does not require that every city experience de-policing and a resulting crime increase. Enough cities are, however—in particular, those with significant black populations and where antipolice agitation has been most strident—to demand attention.

Baltimore’s per-capita homicide rate, for example, is now the highest in its history, according to the Baltimore Sun: 54 homicides per 100,000 residents, beating its 1993 rate of 48.8 per 100,000 residents. Shootings in Cincinnati, lethal and otherwise, were up 30 percent by mid-September 2015 compared with the same period in 2014. Homicides in St. Louis were up 60 percent by the end of August. In Los Angeles, the police department reports that violent crime has increased 20 percent as of December 5; there are 16 percent more shooting victims in the city, while arrests are down 9.5 percent. Shooting incidents in Chicago are up 17 percent through December 13.

The Brennan Center takes one more stab at underplaying the homicide increase: looking at crime overall. It projects that in 19 cities, the 2015 average for all seven of the FBI’s index crimes—murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and car theft—will be 1.5 percent less than in 2014. The FBI’s crime index is dominated by property crimes, which outnumber offenses committed against persons. Proponents of the Ferguson effect have argued that it is violent crime, not theft, that is responding to de-policing. Proactive stops and low-level misdemeanor enforcement deter gun-carrying and interrupt retaliatory gang shootings by intervening in suspicious behavior before it ripens into a violent felony. Career burglars are less affected by whether a cop is willing to get out of his car and question someone hitching up his waistband on a known drug corner at 1 AM. That property crimes have not spiked to the same extent in response to de-policing is no refutation of the claim that violent crimes have.

Ferguson-effect deniers would have you believe that the nation’s law-enforcement officials are in the grip of a delusion that prevents them from seeing the halcyon crime picture before their eyes. Since summer 2015, police chiefs have been sounding the alarm about violent crime. In August, the Major Cities Chiefs Association convened an emergency session to discuss the homicide and shooting surge. In early October, Attorney General Loretta Lynch brought together more than 100 mayors, police leaders, and U.S. attorneys to strategize privately over the violent-crime increase. Attendees broke out in applause when mayors attributed the increase to officers’ sinking morale, according to the Washington Post. “Most of America’s 50 largest cities have seen an increase in homicides and shootings this year, and many of them have seen a huge increase,” FBI director James Comey noted at the end of October. Two weeks later, the acting chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Chuck Rosenberg, seconded Comey’s crime analysis as well as Comey’s hypothesis that the backlash against the police was likely responsible for that violent-crime increase.

Yet, according to the long train of Ferguson-effect deniers, all these criminal-justice professionals are imagining a crime problem that they, the deniers, know is both nonexistent and insignificant.

Among the most unqualified of those deniers is President Barack Obama, who accused FBI director Comey of “cherry-picking data” and ignoring “the facts” on crime in pursuit of a “political agenda.” The idea that the president knows more about local crime and policing than the nation’s top law-enforcement official is absurd. Yet after DEA chief Rosenberg threw his weight behind the Ferguson effect, the White House lashed out again, petulantly claiming that he had no evidence.

The deniers whitewash the animosity that the police now face in urban areas, brushing off the rampant resistance to lawful police authority as mere “peaceful protest.” A black police officer in Los Angeles tells me: “Several years ago I could use a reasonable and justified amount of force and not be cursed and jeered at. Now our officers are getting surrounded every time they put handcuffs on someone. The spirit and the rhetoric of this flawed movement is causing more confrontations with police and closing the door on the gains in communication we had made before it began.” St. Louis alderman Jeffrey Boyd, at a news conference in July after his nephew was slain, made a poignant plea: “We march every time the police shoot and kill somebody. But we’re not marching when we’re killing each other in the streets. Let’s march for that.”

The St. Louis area includes Ferguson, the site of the police shooting that was so utterly distorted by protesters and the media. The Justice Department later determined that the officer’s use of force was justified, but the damage to the social fabric had already been done. Now cops making arrests in urban areas are routinely surrounded by bystanders, who swear at them and interfere with the arrests. The media and many politicians decry as racist pedestrian stops and broken-windows policing—the proven method of stopping major crimes by going after minor ones. Under such conditions, it isn’t just understandable that the police would back off; it is also presumably what the activists and the media critics would want. The puzzle is why the activists are now so intent on denying that such de-policing is occurring and that it is affecting crime. (A 2005 study out of the University of Washington previously documented the impact of de-policing on crime in the aftermath of the 2001 antipolice riots in Cincinnati.)

The answer lies in the enduring commitment of the antipolice Left to the “root causes” theory of crime. The Brennan Center study closes by hypothesizing that lower incomes, higher poverty rates, falling populations, and high unemployment are driving the rising murder rates in Baltimore, Detroit, Milwaukee, New Orleans, and St. Louis. But those characteristics have not dramatically worsened over the last year and a half. What has changed is the policing climate. “Proactive policing is what keeps our streets safe,” says Chief William Bryson, chairman of the Delaware Police Chiefs Council. “Officers will not hesitate to go into a situation that is obviously dangerous, but because of recent pronouncements about racism, they are not so likely to make a discretionary stop of a minority when yesterday they would have.”

To acknowledge the Ferguson effect would be tantamount to acknowledging that police matter, especially when the family and other informal social controls break down. Trillions of dollars of welfare spending over the last 50 years failed to protect inner-city residents from rising predation. Only the policing revolution of the 1990s succeeded in calming urban violence. As the data show, that achievement is now in jeopardy.

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