October 5, 2016

Image: More protests in Ferguson

(AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Robert Cohen)

Two articles in The New York Times this past week looked at the so-called ‘Ferguson Effect,’ an idea coined in 2014 and popularized by Manhattan Institute scholar Heather Mac Donald in 2015. The ‘Ferguson Effect’ is the theory that police are less likely to enforce the law because anti-police protests make them worried they will be targeted for violence or that their actions will be overly scrutinized. With cops reluctant to do their jobs, crime, especially gun violence and homicide, goes up. This idea has been used to explain rising crime rates in cities like Baltimore and Chicago, but many academics and law enforcement officials

In the Sunday Times, Neil Gross looks at two studies that suggest it could be real. One found that arrests did decrease in Ferguson and Baltimore following protests over the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, suggesting police had scaled back the rate at which they did their jobs. However, only in Baltimore was there a significant rise in violent crime. The second study found that in areas where police departments came under investigation and then had to alter their policies, crime rose. This could make the case that very public scrutiny of their work can lead police to

However, an Op-Ed in the Times also published last weekend argued that the real Ferguson Effect is something else: it’s not that scrutiny of police makes cops more hesitant to enforce the law; rather, publicizing police brutality makes people, especially black people, less trusting of law enforcement and thus less likely to call 911. Research that shows that areas with high levels of mistrust in police have higher crime rates would seem to back this up.