In November 2014, in the midst of the unrest in and around Ferguson, then-St. Louis police Chief Sam Dotson offered reporters an explosive theory for the uptick in some types of local crime, in addition to the violence of the protests. Assaults and robberies were up, yet arrests were down.
“It’s the ‘Ferguson Effect,’” said Dotson, coining a phrase that would start a national debate among law enforcement officials and academicians that continues today.
The phrase generally describes police being less aggressive in their policing out of fear of escalation and adverse publicity of the kind that engulfed Ferguson. The adjacent assumption is that such lack of aggression enables more crime.
By mid-2016, then-FBI Director James Comey — while disavowing a Ferguson Effect — essentially blamed it for national spikes in certain violent crimes. “There’s a perception that police are less likely to do the marginal additional policing that suppresses crime,” Comey told reporters at the time, “the getting out of your car at 2 in the morning and saying to a group of guys, ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’” He theorized that hesitation could stem from a “viral video effect” and fear of public condemnation.
In this, Comey was at odds with his superiors in the Obama administration. Like most supporters of police reforms, they were loathe to blame crime increases on moderation of police aggression — because moderation of police aggression is a stated goal of police reform. Police union officials, too, tended to push back at the phrase, chafing at the implication that cops were suddenly afraid to do their jobs.
Five years later, is the Ferguson Effect real?
One of the largest studies of the issue casts doubt on its existence, or at least suggests that, if it does exist, its real-world impact is marginal.
Sociologist David C. Pyrooz of the University of Colorado Boulder and his colleagues studied monthly crime trends in 81 large U.S. cities for the year before and after Brown’s killing. They found some isolated instances of spikes in certain types of crimes, including homicide spikes in many urban areas. But crime as a whole has continued its historic decline in most areas — not the outcome you’d expect from a full-scale police pullback.
“The national discourse surrounding the ‘Ferguson Effect’ is long on anecdotes and short on data,” concluded the researchers.
A later study by the same authors, this one focusing exclusively on Missouri, did find evidence of post-Ferguson “de-policing,” in that cops were stopping and searching fewer vehicles. “The negative attention and increased scrutiny of law enforcement appears to have had an impact on traffic stops” in Missouri, concluded that study. But, significantly, it also found that “changes in police behavior had no appreciable effect on total, violent, or property crime rates.”
Another study, conducted for the Justice Department by University of Missouri-St. Louis professor Richard Rosenfeld in 2016, confirms what other studies have found: upticks in violent crime after Ferguson, but not in crime as a whole.
Rosenfeld now believes that violence may have been a temporary phenomenon related not to police pulling back from communities, but vice-versa — a sort of reverse-Ferguson Effect.
In the aftermath of controversial police shootings, said Rosenfeld, “The community withdraws from the police, and community members are more likely to take matters into their own hands. There is less reliance on the police for assistance in settling disputes, which can lead to more violence.”
Kevin McDermott is a member of the Post-Dispatch Editorial Board.