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Does Protesting the Police Lead to More Crime?

We checked the data on the so-called Ferguson Effect.

By Francie Diep


FBI Director James Comey. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation re-invigorated a hot debate in America yesterday, when he speculated to reporters that a recent homicide spike in major American cities can be attributed to police officers’ passivity, the New York Times reports. That passivity, FBI Director James Comey alleges, is caused by fear that their actions will become the next viral video purporting to show police brutality. “There’s a perception that police are less likely to do the marginal additional policing that suppresses crime,” Comey told the Times, “the getting out of your car at two in the morning and saying to a group of guys, ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’”

Comey’s comments harken to what’s called the “Ferguson Effect,” which posits that the fatal 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, ultimately led to an increase in crime. According to the Ferguson Effect, the nationwide protests and public criticism of American police that followed Brown’s death hampered officers, perhaps discouraging them from making necessary stops or patrols. But is there data to support the Ferguson Effect?

There hasn’t been too much research to answer this, maybe because it’s a relatively new idea, though one study, published in February in the Journal of Criminal Justice, found little evidence of a nationwide Ferguson Effect. In the 12 months after the Ferguson protests, researchers reported no significant spike in overall, violent, or property crimes in 81 large American cities. (Robberies, however, did increase.) The findings jibe with many others in criminology, which have found that single events, such as Ferguson, don’t affect crime rates, the study’s authors write.

The evidence suggests that, though fear of criticism might influence police officers’ effectiveness, that isn’t always the case.

At the same time, the research team did find more murders in select cities, particularly those that had historically high homicide rates. And while these upticks in murders are exactly what Ferguson Effect proponents use to bolster their claims, the numbers by themselves can’t prove whether the crimes are related to police scrutiny. To answer that, studies need to test every step of logic in the Ferguson Effect hypothesis: that protests and scrutiny lead to passive policing, and that passive policing leads to crime.

Let’s look at those ideas separately. Reviewshave found that police departments can reduce crime by really focusing on small areas with high crime rates. That suggests relaxing focus could lead to a growth in crime.

But must increased scrutiny result in worse policing? The evidence suggests that, though fear of criticism might influence police officers’ effectiveness, that isn’t always the case. It depends on the department. In 2001, riots erupted in Cincinnati after a police officer shot and killed Timothy Thomas, a 19-year-old unarmed black man. Following the riots—and a federal investigation of the department—Cincinnati police arrested fewer people, and the city’s felony crimes went up, a study found. Yet in a study featuring another highly scrutinized police force, the Los Angeles Police Department, researchers found “no evidence” policing was hampered after the Department of Justice stepped in to oversee reforms.

The bottom line: The Ferguson Effect probably isn’t widespread among large American cities, although it might be at work in certain locales. But really, there’s not a lot of evidence on this either way. Still, police departments don’t have to react to criticism by becoming less effective. Maintaining morale and improving use of force training with officers is no small task, but it is possible—and it’s vitally important.