“The Ferguson Effect” Myth and the Reality

In May of this year, Heather MacDonald, a fellow at the right-wing Manhattan Institute, wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece titled, “The Nationwide Crime Wave,” in which she stated “The nation’s two-decades long crime decline may be over.” While introducing the notion of “The Ferguson Effect,” she stated that this alleged increase in crime could be attributed to the protests and rallies following the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Freddy Gray in Baltimore. She was immediately denounced by dozens of writers and activists. MacDonald’s op-ed drew a direct correlation between the alleged increase in crime in big cities and the reluctance of police in these cities to vigorously pursue their duties in controlling crime because of the protests of groups like Black Lives Matter. Accordingly, she reasoned that these policemen are reluctant to pursue criminals and criminal behavior because they do not want to have their actions recorded and going viral on social media such as YouTube and twitter.

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

This mythical reasoning has been adopted as reality by the right-wing media, police chiefs, police unions and politicians throughout the nation. According to Brentin Mock, staff writer at City Lab, “MacDonald has been trying to make the term ‘The Ferguson Effect’ happen by arguing, as she did in May, that an ‘incessant drumbeat against the police’ has resulted in in-creased crime throughout St. Louis County and big cities nationwide.”

Clearly, she did not have any definitive data to support her assertions. Brentin Mock reports further, “The Sentencing Project points to major problems with MacDonald’s analysis; chief among them that no ‘new crime wave’ exists – or that, at least, it’s too early to tell. Crime has risen in recent months, but there’s inadequate evidence that this is related to the recent rallies and riots in Ferguson.”

To make matters even worse, the Director of the F.B.I., James Comey, adopted this notion and used it in a speech that he gave at the University of Chicago on Friday, October 23rd. According to the New York Times, in that speech, he said, “additional scrutiny and criticism of police officers in the wake of highly publicized episodes of police brutality may have led to an increase in violent crime in some cities as officers have become less aggressive.”

In this same speech, he acknowledged, “that there is so far no data to back up his assertion and that it may be just one of many factors that are contributing to the rise in crime, like cheaper drugs and an increase in criminals who are being released from prisons.”

Immediately following Mr. Comey’s speech, the White House Spokesman and Department of Justice officials voiced their disagreement with this form of reasoning and the evoking of the notion “The Ferguson Effect.” As reported by Chicago Defender Senior Staff Writer, Mary Datcher, President Obama strongly disagreed with the F.B.I. Director’s remarks and that he understands the cries of the Black Lives Matter movement as he addressed the International Association of Chiefs of Police or (IACP) this past October 27th.

Perhaps the strongest denunciation of these claims is from New York Daily News Columnist, Shaun King, in his October 28th column. “Have you heard of the Ferguson Effect? It’s a popular theory that is spreading like wildfire in law enforcement circles.” “In essence,” he says, “the theory states that police are now so afraid of being filmed by bystanders that they are no longer policing communities as aggressively as they used to.”

Further, King states, “Except this is a lie. We have every bit of evidence that police are actually more aggressive and lethal than they’ve ever been.”

It is clear that King is correct when he states that “2015 is on pace to have more people killed by police than any year ever measured.”

Mr. Byron Hobbs of Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (S.O.U.L.) would immediately agree that this trend is occurring in Chicago; and their demonstration at McCormick Place, the site of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) conference, was clearly justified. “We have a unique opportunity to take this movement to the next level by directly confronting an organization that is at the forefront of the criminalization and police killings of Black people in this country – the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Hobbs continues, “According to the IACP, one of their main goals is to ‘encourage adherence of all police officers to high professional standards of performance and conduct.’ We say they have failed miserably at this goal when it comes to policing in Black communities.”

The S.O.U.L. demonstration, that they called “I Shocked The Sheriff”, drew nationwide attention to police killings of unarmed Black people and set the mood for the Tuesday speech of President Obama. This demonstration was well attended by hundreds of young people who submitted themselves to arrest in this cause. The groups involved included Black Youth Project 100 (BYP 100), Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Workers Center for Racial Justice, Ella Baker Center For Human Rights, Organization For Black Struggle, International Socialist Organization (ISO), Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and many other groups and individuals.

These demonstrators were determined to register their case after Mayor Rahm Emanuel joined “The Ferguson Effect” chorus in a recent statement in claiming that there is an increase in violent crime in Chicago because cops have become “fetal.” By fetal, he asserts that these cops, “have pulled back from the ability to interdict criminal behavior and criminals who maybe about to engage in crime. They don’t want to be a news story themselves; they don’t want their career ended early, and it’s having an impact.”

This is the Chicago version of “The Ferguson Effect.” This was declared by the mayor in spite of the fact that by all available data, violent crime in Chicago has decreased over the last two years. One may ask the mayor how many policemen have been fired or had “their career ended early” because they have engaged in police brutality and/or killings of unarmed Black citizens. How many policemen have been indicted and/or convicted for killing an unarmed Black citizen? Is the mayor suggesting that in the words of columnist Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald Newspaper, “We Don’t Want to Watch the Police – But We Have To.” Pitts asks “Who watches the watchmen?”

Look” says Pitts, “It is important to be concerned about police morale. But what about the morale of Eric Garner’s family? Or Walter Scott’s? Or Freddie Gray’s? Or Tamir Rice’s? What about the morale of all of the families who daily send sons – and daughters – into unforgiving streets, honestly unsure if the police – their police – will be friends or foes? Is it OK if we spare some concern for them, too?”

The Black Lives Matter leaders and others in the S.O.U.L. demonstration has asked Mayor Emanuel when will he admit that “The Ferguson Effect” is a myth and when will he show the same amount of concern for those victims of police brutality and the families of those victims killed by policemen?

We can now add “The Ferguson Effect” to the hundreds of other racist myths that have been used to describe, criminalize, and oppress Black people throughout this nation’s history. We can salute the numerous individuals and groups that have dedicated themselves to destroying these myths.

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