Not getting the attention it needs to get. I’m disappointed, though not surprised, that the Obama administration as well as many on the Left do not want to have a more open discussion. Where is the Reverend Jesse Jackson? Where is Al Sharpton? Where is Eric Holder?
By Heather Mac Donald
Dec. 25, 2015 1:09 p.m. WSJ
Murders and shootings have spiked in many American cities—and so have efforts to ignore or deny the crime increase. The see-no-evil campaign eagerly embraced a report last month by the Brennan Center for Justice called “Crime in 2015: A Preliminary Analysis.” Many progressives and their media allies hailed the report as a refutation of what I and others have dubbed the “Ferguson effect”— cops backing off from proactive policing, demoralized by the ugly vitriol directed at them since a police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., last year. Americans are being asked to disbelieve both the Ferguson effect and its result: violent crime flourishing in the ensuing vacuum.
In fact, the Brennan Center’s report confirms the Ferguson effect, while also showing how clueless the media are about crime and policing.
The Brennan researchers gathered homicide data from 25 of the nation’s 30 largest cities for the period Jan. 1, 2015, to Oct. 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 this year compared with the similar period in 2014.
The resulting projected increase for homicides in 2015 in those 25 cities is 11%. (By point of comparison, the FiveThirtyEight data blog looked at the 60 largest cities and found a 16% increase in homicides by September 2015.) An 11% 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% homicide increase as trivial.
Several strategies are employed to play down the jump in homicides. The simplest is to hide the actual figure. An Atlantic magazine article in November, “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 “slightly” means an increase of, say, 2%. Nothing in the Atlantic write-up disabuses the reader of that mistaken impression. The website Vox, declaring the crime increase “bunk,” is similarly discreet about the actual homicide rate, 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. Because homicides haven’t returned to their appalling early 1990s or early 2000s levels, the current crime increase is insignificant, the Brennan Center and its media supporters suggest, 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 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 about today’s homicide rate: “The relative uptick”—which, again, the magazine never specifies—“is still small compared with the massive two-decade drop that preceded it.” True enough, though irrelevant—good policing over the past two decades produced an extraordinary 50% drop in crime. America isn’t going to give all that back in one year. The relevant question: What is the current trend? If this year’s homicide and shooting outbreak continues, those 1990s violent crime levels will return sooner than anyone could have imagined.
The most desperate tactic for discounting the homicide increase is to disaggregate the average. “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 policy makers and analysts rightly find the average meaningful. The Ferguson effect’s existence does not require that every city experience depolicing and a resulting crime increase. Enough cities—in particular, those with significant black populations and where antipolice agitation has been most strident—are experiencing murder increases that cannot be ignored.
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 not, were up 30% by mid-September 2015 compared with the same period in 2014. Homicides in St. Louis were up 60% by the end of August. In Los Angeles, the police department reports that violent crime has increased 20% as of Dec. 5; there were 16% more shooting victims in the city, while arrests were down 9.5%. Shooting incidents in Chicago are up 17% through Dec. 13.
The Brennan Center report also tries to underplay the homicide increase by folding it into crime overall. The report 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% less than in 2014. The FBI’s crime index is dominated by property crimes, which outnumber offenses committed against persons by a magnitude of nearly 8 to 1. The Ferguson effect is about violent crime, not theft. Proactive police stops and low-level misdemeanor enforcement deter young men from carrying guns, thus heading off violent felonies before they can erupt.
Career burglars are less affected by whether a cop is likely to get out of his car and question someone hitching up his waistband on a known drug corner at 1 a.m. If property crimes haven’t increased as much as homicides, that’s good news for homeowners but no disproof of depolicing’s role in the violent-crime spike.
To the Brennan Center and its cheerleaders, 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. For the past several months, police chiefs have been sounding the alarm about rising violent crime. In August the Major Cities Chiefs Association convened an emergency session to discuss the homicide and shooting surge. “We have not seen what we’re seeing right now in decades,” Washington, D.C., Police Chief Cathy Lanier said after the summit.
In early October U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch brought together more than 100 mayors, police leaders and federal prosecutors to strategize privately over the violent-crime increase. According to the Washington Post, attendees broke out in applause when mayors attributed the increase to officers’ sinking morale.
Later in October FBI Director James Comey said in a speech: “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.” He noted “a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year,” and called it “deeply disturbing.” The next month the acting chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Chuck Rosenberg, seconded Mr. Comey’s crime analysis and his hypothesis that the demonization of the police was likely responsible for the violent-crime increase.
President Obama wasn’t happy with his FBI director. In a speech on Oct. 27 to a gathering of international police chiefs in Chicago, he accused Mr. Comey of “cherry-picking data” and ignoring “the facts” on crime in pursuit of a “political agenda.” When the DEA’s Mr. Rosenberg endorsed Mr. Comey’s views about the Ferguson effect, the White House lashed out again: Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Mr. Rosenberg had “no evidence” for his assertions.
Critics of the Ferguson-effect analysis ignore or deny the animosity that the police now face in urban areas, brushing off 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 law-enforcement tools like 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 these progressives are so intent on denying that such depolicing is occurring and that it is affecting public safety.
The answer lies in the enduring commitment of antipolice progressives 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 aspects of urban life haven’t dramatically worsened over the past year and a half. What has changed is the climate for law enforcement.
‘Proactive policing is what keeps our streets safe,” Chief William Bryson, chairman of the Delaware Police Chiefs Council, tells me. “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 past 50 years failed to protect inner-city residents from rising predation. Only the policing revolution of the 1990s succeeded in curbing urban violence, saving thousands of lives. As the data show, that achievement is now in jeopardy.
Ms. Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute. This op-ed was adapted from the forthcoming winter issue of City Journal, where she is a contributing editor.