ST. LOUIS • Pundits across the country have blamed the “Ferguson effect” for a rise in crime, but one local researcher says there’s not clear proof for the theory.
University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist Richard Rosenfeld published a report for the Sentencing Project earlier this week examining whether various factors in the aftermath of alleged police misconduct and heavily publicized protests are driving crime up. He found contradictory evidence, depending on where one looks.
Some cities haven’t seen a rise in any major crime category, while some have seen a mixed bag and others are seeing crime up across the board. The result is a “cherry picker’s delight” of data, Rosenfeld said. So he looked at St. Louis, close to Ferguson and where homicides, other violent crimes and property crimes were all up in 2014, to see what the timing of the increases could tell him.
Rosenfeld found that the bulk of 2014’s increase in homicides in St. Louis came from crimes before Michael Brown was shot by a Ferguson police officer on Aug. 9. “We can conclude with reasonable certainty that the events in Ferguson were not responsible for the steep rise in homicide in St. Louis,” Rosenfeld wrote.
A rise in other violent crimes in St. Louis began in May 2014, but the rate of increase over the previous year seems to have accelerated somewhat after the Ferguson shooting and subsequent protests, Rosenfeld found. He called that “mixed support, at best” for a Ferguson effect hypothesis.
Nonviolent property crimes, meanwhile, were down 15 percent from 2013 before the shooting of Brown. Then they began to grow over 2013 figures and, by December, exceeded the 2013 numbers by about 27 percent, Rosenfeld said.
That “offers the strongest evidence in support of the hypothesis that the Ferguson events led to crime increases in St. Louis, at least with respect to timing,” Rosenfeld said.
St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson, who Rosenfeld credits with coining the term “Ferguson effect,” has cited various possible factors, from police moved to protests instead of normal duty to an “emboldening” of criminals. Others have theorized that officers feel demoralized and thus aren’t as proactive in fighting crime.
It’s possible those things could play a role in the increase in property crimes, Rosenfeld said.
“People who commit property crimes are sensitive to the presence of the police, so if they notice they’re not around, they are more likely to commit crime,” Rosenfeld said. “Why aren’t they around? Perhaps they have been redeployed to protest activity or because they are demoralized.”
Still, Rosenfeld said, the timing of the increase in property crimes alone can’t prove a link. “In my opinion, it’s an unproven hypothesis,” he said.
But Jeff Roorda,the business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association, said there is no question that the Ferguson effect is to blame for the city’s crime crisis.
“As you’ve got this gravitational pull of anti-police sentiment from demonstrators, politicians and media that is causing a high tide on crime and a low tide on enforcement,” Roorda said, “the two together create a real problem.”
Dotson said he still believes in some aspects of the Ferguson effect, but said no matter the cause the increase in crime is real.
“I’m seeing these increases month over month, as is New York City, Chicago, Milwaukee, as is everybody,” Dotson said. “Regardless of what we call it, this is what we’re experiencing, and I’m challenging the department to come up with new ways to address crime.”