The Puzzling Rhetoric of the “Ferguson Effect”

FBI Director James Comey has come under fire from The New York Times, the White House, and Ta-Nehisi Coates this week for seemingly endorsing the the theory that increased scrutiny of police practices since August of 2014 has led to an increase in violent crime nationwide. The likelihood of this theory, as well as the veracity of the underlying statistics, have been hotly debated, and positions on the reality of the so-called “Ferguson Effect” have quickly sorted into the familiar left-right framing. What seems to be missing from the conversation, however, is the point that if the Ferguson Effect theory is true, it points to an indictment of law enforcement officers, not Black Lives Matter and other police reform advocates.

Speculation and debate about the Ferguson Effect goes back to at least November, when St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson used to term to describe what he thought were the causes of increased crime rates in his city, and to argue for expanding the number of officers on the street. The foremost defender of the idea in the national press has been Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald, who published an op-ed in the Washington Post in May arguing that a spike in violent crime in a number of cities could be attributed to negative national attention drawn to police in the wake of a number of highly publicized incidents of police violence. Criticisms of the idea have mostly taken either the form of pointing out that there really isn’t a spike in violent crime nationwide, or arguing that there are other explanations. In other words, critics have tried to show that there’s no good reason for thinking that the Ferguson Effect is real. These criticism all seem valid, but let’s put that aside for a minute, because it’s also important to point out that if the Ferguson Effect is real, cops bear much more of the blame for increased crime than police reform advocates do.

Think for a minute about how this explanation is supposed to work. In the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown, which received widespread media coverage, a lot more attention has been focused on police tactics and there has been a push for more video recording of police interactions with citizens. According to Mac Donald and others, this has led police officers to be more hesitant about enforcement, out of fear that their actions will be caught on video, and that this might lead to civil rights complaints or discipline for excessive use of force. Because cops are disengaging in this way, the story goes, they are unable to stop as many crimes from taking place as they would have been using the more aggressive approach they formerly employed.

On its face, that story seems plausible enough. What’s fishy about it is the notion that this somehow would make Black Lives Matter activists responsible for the uptick in crime. Who’s really more to blame if this is actually taking place? A bystander with a cell-phone camera, or a cop who is afraid of being caught on video? Law enforcement officers who neglect to perform their duties out of fear of exposure bear much more responsibility if their actions lead to crime increases than do people who merely made an effort to draw public attention to the way policing is conducted.

I’d be wiling to acknowledge, in fact, that there’s a risk that videos of police activity can sometimes lead to an unjustified backlash against an officer who was using force within reasonable bounds. Video evidence is inflammatory by nature, but it doesn’t always provide the kind of unimpeachable proof of wrongdoing that it appears to. But policing is an inherently risky job. Cops are expected to risk their personal safety and sometimes their lives in order to perform their duties. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to also expect them to risk the possibility that what they do will be caught on camera, especially when the vast majority of excessive force cases don’t even result in indictments, let alone criminal penalties. Any cop who is worried that a video will make them look like a racist should either worry instead about not doing racist things, or should get over the minor risk of being falsely accused, like they’ve managed to live with substantial safety risks of doing their job and get on with policing in what they think is the most effective way. If the Ferguson Effect is real, it implies that either some cops really are engaging in unjustifiable practices that could be publicized by a bystander with an iphone, or some of them are cowards who are letting fear that they might be held to the same legal standards as everyone else lead them into dereliction of duty.

I don’t think either of those is the case, because the Ferguson Effect probably isn’t a real thing. But it’s confusing that asserting that it’s really happening is seen as a pro-police position. If protests and videos are leading cops to reduce engagement and this is leading to increases in crime, it’s the police who bear the majority of the blame for this. It’s their job to try to keep violent crimes down, and the fact that people are watching them is no excuse for not doing that. It takes some real rhetorical gymnastics to suggest that a spike in violent crime because of reduced police activity is not the police’s fault. People who see themselves as law enforcement advocates should maybe stop pushing this position, because if they manage to convince everyone that cops aren’t policing as much when the public is looking at them, I don’t think the public is going to have a lot of sympathy. If police advocates want to argue that law enforcement can’t be done effectively within the boundaries for use of force that we’ve agreed on, then we can have a conversation about that. But if cops are just refusing to do their jobs because people are watching, I don’t see how that’s anyone’s fault but their own.


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