Police Effectiveness, Police Accountability, and the “Ferguson Effect”

Kevin Drum does a good job deconstructing Heather Mac Donald’s latest attempt to blame what she calls “anti-police progressives” for this year’s spike in homicide rates in a number of major cities. Inconveniently for Mac Donald, her piece came out just before the New York Times reported that New York City homicides, having been up noticeably early in the year, will come in for the whole year at about last year’s levels, with overall crime still going down.

On the other hand, Mac Donald does a pretty good job of deconstructing the what-me-worry analysis presented by the Brennan Center, which is fairly typical of respectable liberal opinion on the question. With homicide up about 16% on average in the 60 largest cities, it’s just a little bit too glib to report that “reports of rising crime across the country are not supported by the available data.”

Kevin points out that, because homicide is relatively rare, homicide counts – especially for limited geographic areas and time periods – are statistically noisy. But it’s worth noting that the previous big-change years he points to were all with the established trends – big jumps before the 1994 peak, big declines since. The 2015 change was a reversal of trend; the baseline expectation for the year wasn’t the 2014 rate, but 2014 minus the trend (roughly 5% per year). So the count presented by 538.com (again, in an article spun against claims that homicide was increasing) suggests that there were nearly 20% more homicides in those 60 cities through the first nine months of the year than we would have predicted at the beginning of the year. That’s not something to be complacent about.

So what explains the unwillingness of people who proclaim that #BlackLivesMatter to sound the alarm about a substantial rise in the rate at which mostly Black lives are being lost to criminal violence? I think Mac Donald is right that part of the explanation is the fear that the acknowledgement of a real problem will be exploited by … well, by Heather Mac Donald, for example. In a hyperpolarized political/journalistic atmosphere, it has become the case that expressing concern about crime is taken as a justification for ignoring police misconduct. But about 800 people a year are killed by police officers (that’s about 30 times the rate of police killings of civilians in German, for example), and – as a comparison of the recently released video of the Laquan McDonald shooting in Chicago with the reports filed by the sixteen officers on the scene will show – we don’t really have a clue about how many of those killings were justified or necessary, and we have every reason to think that some number of them were criminal acts by police officers that never get adequately investigated from behind the Blue Wall of Silence.

Where Mac Donald is wrong is in imagining that police lawlessness is a good response to civilian lawlessness. In fact, police misconduct is a major contributor to the dynamic that keeps rates of violence high in the neighborhoods where most killings occur, and sophisticated police managers understand that reducing the rate of officer-involved shootings is an essential step toward effective crime control where crime control is most needed.

But she’s not alone in being wrong. The activists who speak as if police-on-civilian violence were the only problem worth solving are doing their part to make things worse. You don’t have to believe in a generalized “Ferguson effect”-driven crime wave to think that a combination of enraged civilians and demoralized police forces is a recipe for disaster. I have no reason to doubt the view of the Baltimore State’s Attorney that a bunch of Baltimore cops conspired to mistreat a prisoner by giving him a “rough ride” – slamming on the brakes of the police car in which we was riding, handcuffed but not seat-belted – and to cover up the facts of the case when the man died as a result. Nor is there reason to doubt that the resulting changes in civilian attitudes and police behavior (amounting more or less to a deliberate refusal to do their jobs) led to an upsurge in murders that has yet to abate.

Yes, as Kevin says, it’s absurd to attribute all of the decrease in homicide and other crime since the 1994 peak to improved policing. But it’s equally absurd to ignore the ways that smart, neighborhood-oriented policing – as opposed to the random heavy-handedness the Mac Donald seems to admire – can help to control crime. That’s the project of the National Network for Safe Communities, which brings together police and other crime-control officials with community activists and academics to work out the hard problems of lawful, accountable, successful policing. It would help, of course, if social-services agencies were better-funded, better-managed, and more aggressive; there’s no reason police should be the first responders when someone suffering from severe mental illness starts to act out.

In crime control, as in education, the project of improving matters by vilifying the people who do the actual work is doomed to failure. At the same time, in crime control as in education, improving performance means insisting that the people drawing public paychecks actually serve the public, rather than re-enacting patterns of failure. We need more police, better trained, and more accountable for doing their vital work not only lawfully but wisely.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.