Some good counters here for the right wing’s race baiting.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, running a hysterical law-and-order campaign, will likely point to a rare fact to bolster his case. Other conservatives, who since last year have blamed urban bloodshed and the murders of police officers on Black Lives Matter, will no doubt claim vindication. But reporters shouldn’t let anyone get away with such quick inferences. The overall murder rate is still way down from the worst years of the early 1990s, and the current spike is being driven by a small number of cities.
A recent New York Times analysis found that the murder rate rose sharply in 25 of the nation’s 100 largest cities, confirming a trend identified in a June report for the National Institute of Justice conducted by criminologist Richard Rosenfeld. Experts estimate that the FBI will report a nationwide increase of between 6 percent and 13 percent, according to Beckett. Numbers, however, don’t speak for themselves.
Many conservatives have been peddling a theory known as the “Ferguson effect,” which posits that Black Lives Matter protests are causing the police to pull back from doing their jobs, leading to increased crime. Such commentators and some credulous reporters will claim that this data proves their case. But the Ferguson effect theory, aimed at delegitimizing the movement against police violence, remains as unsubstantiated and implausible as ever. What follows is a handy guide for fighting politically motivated disinformation in the weeks and months to come.
The Ferguson effect doesn’t make any sense
The Ferguson effect theory, as I wrote in June, doesn’t make sense because it lacks a plausible causal theory as to how so-called de-policing (to the extent that it has taken place) leads to more people shooting one another to death. Much gun violence is the result of personal and intergroup disputes, and purveyors of the theory don’t explain how decreased police enforcement would lead to more shooting. Notably, gun seizures — which criminologist David Kennedy called “the one kind of day-to-day policing that one might expect would have the most direct impact on homicide and gun violence” — have been high in Baltimore and Chicago, two of the bloodiest cities.
In regard to a causal mechanism, Kennedy told me, “none of the people claiming there is a Ferguson effect have any idea” what it might be. “Most of the people behind that have essentially said, ‘Violence is up. People are mad at the police. Therefore people being mad at the police is driving violence up,’ and then left people to challenge them about why that might make sense.”
Kennedy, director of John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s National Network for Safe Communities and a leading gun violence expert, added, “But there isn’t much of a story, and there’s certainly next to nothing in terms of real facts or analysis that says, ‘This is what’s going on in the streets, and these are the ways it’s leading to increased violence.’ It’s really not an analysis. It’s more a position.”
The murder spike is not a nationwide phenomenon
According to the Times, just seven cities— Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Milwaukee, Nashville and Washington — were responsible for half of the murder rate increase. In five cities, murder rates actually decreased significantly. In 70, they were mostly stable. The real story is thus embedded in a series of local circumstances and cannot be explained by easy recourse to the national debate over policing.
In Baltimore, for example, the murder rate is particularly out of control. In fact, it’s horrific: Last year’s was the city’s highest rate on record. But as the Times noted, “Some experts attribute the sudden spike in violence largely to a flood of black-market opiates looted from pharmacies during riots in April 2015.” It’s possible that decreased police enforcement played some role. It could also be that the riots caused a lot of young men already involved in gun violence to encounter one another in the streets, leading to more violence. The correlation that researchers have found between decreased enforcement in Chicago and Baltimore and rising murder, as Iexplained at length in June, does not demonstrate causation.
Three of the cities that drove the upsurge — Baltimore, Chicago and Cleveland — have been centers of widespread protests. Yet all seven have poverty rates above the national average. And cities like Baltimore, Chicago and Cleveland also contain something else: large, geographically contiguous segregated concentrations of black poverty. More reporting and research is necessary to discover why murder is spiking in certain cities—and also why it is dropping or holding steady in others.
Murder rates continued to decline in the nation’s two largest cities, Los Angeles and New York. In New York, crime has continued to fall even after it implemented one of the largest de-policing measures in history under massive public and legal pressure: ending mass stop-and-frisk practices. Contrary to the New York Post, the sky did not fall.
Beware of headlines that blare, “Murder rate increase highest since 1990.” Beckett wrote that “overall murders would have to spike 73 percent, not 6 percent, to actually put the U.S. back at the record-breaking murder totals of the early 1990s.”