BY: ROBERT HAJIR
Let’s be honest: terms like the “Ferguson effect” and the “ACLU effect” are racially prejudicial against young, African-American men. These terms insinuate that aggressive policing tactics are necessary to subdue this group into lawful obedience. Without enforcement, “Ferguson effect” believers think that young black men would commit violent crimes at a pace unseen since the crack epidemic of the early 1990s. Supposedly, the “Ferguson effect” occurs when local law enforcement agencies stop taking proactive measures to prevent crime; this inaction is allegedly a fear-based response to their fellow officer’s criminal indictments. Specifically, these indictments purportedly result from “overzealous” public reactions to police officers killing African-Americans in the line of duty. Since 2013, several high-profile deaths of black males at the hands of police officers (and often under suspicious circumstances) have catalyzed this public response, including the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement.
If shining a light on the practices of the police outrages the public, it logically follows that the aggressive tactics employed by law enforcement, which are far too often extrajudicial and unconstitutional, might be the cause of the outrage. At times the police have even played the role of executioner when taking a life was wholly unnecessary to defend personal or public safety.
Yet, the inference of the “Ferguson effect” is that such illegal, brute-force tactics are essential to “keeping us safe.” These tactics may not be “pretty,” but they are needed to “solve the problem” (the problem being that young black men perpetrate excessive amounts of violent crime). This argument uses the same reasoning that has been used to condone mass surveillance by the NSA and the torture of prisoners by the CIA; the only difference is that, in this scenario, the “us” being kept safe does not include young African-American men. Instead, they are the ones being vilified and dehumanized.
In St. Louis, the homicide of Michael Brown gained national attention; Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore sparked outrage; footage of a Chicago police officer shooting Laquan McDonald horrified millions. The list of black male victims killed by police is far too long. The list of police officers indicted for these deaths is not long enough.
It would seem that maybe the “Ferguson effect” is real given the following statistics:
- Preemptive stops by the St. Louis Police Department (known as “Self-Initiated Activity”) dropped from 21,000 in March 2014 to 7,000 in December 2014, a 67% reduction. Brown was shot in August 2014. Intentional homicides skyrocketed in St. Louis from 2013 to 2015, with the city having the highest per capita murder rate in the United States for the past two years.
- The Baltimore Police Department arrested 3,801 people in May 2014. In May 2015, a month after Freddie Gray’s death, only 1,177 people were arrested by the department. Last year (2015) went down as the deadliest year on record for Baltimore.
- In November 2015, the Chicago Police Department released the video of a police officer shooting Laquan McDonald. From January 2015 to January 2016, police contacts with citizens fell 79%. Chicago recorded 51 homicides in January 2016. At this pace, 2016 would be the deadliest year in the city since 2002.
- Cleveland, where the police infamously shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in November 2014, experienced a 90% increase in homicides from 2014 to 2015—the largest jump in the country amongst major cities.
This list of statistics, however, ignores the larger, more nuanced picture. Of the 50 most populous U.S. cities, 36 experienced an increase in homicides from 2014 to 2015. Only four of these 36 cities had a high profile killing of a black male by police that received front and center national media attention. One of four, New York City, experienced a statistically insignificant increase in violent crime and murder relative to the past decade. Seventeen cities saw an increase of more than 25% in total homicides and only two of these had a high profile death at the hands of police since 2014. These numbers seem to disprove the notion of a “Ferguson effect” and point to a far deeper and more widespread problem arising in our nation’s urban areas.
Overall, the top 60 cities in the U.S. experienced a 16% increase in homicides in 2015. For the first half of 2015, the latest FBI data reported a 6% increase nationwide. The increase in homicide around the country not evenly distributed, however, and not separable along any regional lines. Some cities are experiencing an increase in homicides while many other areas are experiencing a decrease, oftentimes within the same region and state. As the nation’s experts pour through the data, no clear explanation has emerged.
Are certain police forces disengaging from their work? Are emboldened criminals taking advantage of this lack of oversight by authorities? This scenario seems highly doubtful, but not implausible.
Is gang culture making a resurgence? Is American society, government, and culture failing to provide young black men with viable alternatives to gangs and drugs?
Is a drug turf war tearing some of our cities apart? Is the explosion of heroin finally tearing apart the seams of law enforcement containment?
“All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.” –- Ta-Nehisi Coates
Chris Hayes, St. Louis police chief blames ‘Ferguson Effect’ for drop in self-initiated policing, Fox2Now St. Louis (Feb. 25, 2015, 10:42 PM), http://fox2now.com/2015/02/25/st-louis-police-chief-blames-ferguson-effect-for-drop-in-self-initiated-policing/.
Frank Main, Street cops say ‘ACLU effect’ drives spike in gun violence, Chicago Sun-Times (Jan. 31, 2016, 8:24 PM), http://chicago.suntimes.com/news/7/71/1292856/cops-say-aclu-effect-drives-spike-gun-violence.
 Hereinafter, the “Ferguson effect” will be used as a blanket term for this phenomenon for the sake of simplicity.
 Hayes, supra note 1.
 SLMPD 2016 UCR Homicide Analysis, St. Louis, Missouri Police Department (Feb. 2, 2016), http://www.slmpd.org/images/Homicide_Stats_for_Website.pdf.
 Jamelle Bouie, Criminal Neglect, Slate (Jun. 18, 2015, 5:45 AM), http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2015/06/baltimore_police_are_virtually_on_strike_the_city_deserves_something_better.html.
 Kevin Rector, Deadliest year in Baltimore history ends with 344 homicides, Baltimore Sun (Jan. 1, 2016, 7:00 PM), http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-ci-deadliest-year-20160101-story.html.
 Main, supra note 2.
 Clyde Hughes, Chicago Homicide Rate Soars After 51 Killings Just in January, Newsmax (Feb. 2, 2016, 4:41 PM), http://www.newsmax.com/TheWire/chicago-homicide-rate-january/2016/02/02/id/712300/.
 Max Ehrenfreund; Denise Lu, More people were murdered last year than in 2014, and no one’s sure why, Washington Post (Jan. 27, 2016), https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/2015-homicides/.
 Carl Bialik, Were There 6 Percent More Murders Last Year, Or 16 Percent?, FiveThirtyEight (Jan. 26, 2016, 1:04 PM), http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/were-there-6-percent-more-murders-last-year-or-16-percent/.
 Ehrenfruend, supra note 8.
 Ta-Nehisi Coates, Letter to My Son, The Atlantic (Jul. 4 2015), http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/07/tanehisi-coates-between-the-world-and-me/397619/.