Claims of “Ferguson Effect” Highlight Policing Data Problems


Call it the Ferguson Effect, call it the YouTube Effect—call it whatever you want, but some notable figures may have gotten a little ahead of themselves in claiming that police have become lax in their enforcement efforts due to public scrutiny, leading to more violent crimes. Not only is there no clear data to support the claim, but the available data suggest just the opposite. More than anything else, public debate over this issue highlights the stark need for more and better data on policing.

That debate was rekindled recently when FBI Director James Comey weighed in. During a forum at the University of Chicago Law School, Comey explained that while there likely are multiple factors behind a recent increase in violence in certain cities, he believes the so-called Ferguson Effect is playing a role: “I don’t know whether this explains it entirely, but I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year, and that wind is surely changing behavior.”

Comey’s remarks echoed recent assertions by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has attributed Chicago’s uptick in violent crime to the nationwide push for police accountability, which is supposedly causing police officers to “get fetal” and avoid confrontation. And Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute, citing violent crime increases in cities such as St. Louis, Baltimore, Washington, DC, New York, and Chicago, among others, asserts that “the most plausible explanation of the current surge in lawlessness is the intense agitation against American police departments over the past nine months.”

The White House, for one, disagrees: Press Secretary Joshua Earnest responded to a question about Comey’s comments by noting, “The evidence we have seen so far doesn’t support the contention that law enforcement officials are shirking their responsibilities.”

Journalists and criminologists alike have responded to the Ferguson Effect narrative by pointing out that it is rooted in anecdotal evidence more than actual data. And the data that do exist seem to support the opposite conclusion. A report from the Sentencing Project, for instance, shows that the backlash following Michael Brown’s death did not cause the increase in St. Louis homicides last year. While homicides increased in St. Louis in 2014, the report finds that homicides occurred most frequently in the first part of the year—before Brown was killed—and, therefore, rejects any causal link between the Ferguson demonstrations and the subsequent homicide increase. Some cities, like Detroit, have attributed their drop in crime to the opposite phenomenon: police gaining the trust of the communities they serve.

What the debate over the Ferguson Effect ought to do is highlight the deplorable state of data collection in this country regarding policing. The data that we have can’t answer the questions that the Ferguson Effect purports to: whether police enforcement has decreased, whether homicide rates have increased, and—if so—whether there’s a causal relationship between the two. For example, the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey doesn’t produce city-level crime data. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports do, but they aren’t recent enough to monitor changes in crime rates over the past several months.

What’s more, to the extent we do have data, its collection is entirely optional, and episodic at best. Many police departments don’t report their data at all. We have nothing approaching comprehensive data on police activity like stops, frisks, low-level arrests, and uses of force, which could provide a more complete picture of what is happening on the street.

There are a variety of paths the government could take to encourage departments across the country to collect much-needed data. One way to attain better data collection is to mandate it: for example, the Death in Custody Reporting Act requires states that receive federal criminal justice grants to report all deaths that occur in custody. Those states that don’t comply lose 10 percent of their grant funding. Another way to encourage departments to collect better data is to incentivize it: the government could provide competitive grant money to states and localities that establish a data collection mechanism that meets certain national standards, modeled on Race to the Top. Ideally, though, federal intervention—whether through a mandate or an incentive—wouldn’t be necessary. What we need is for best practices to emerge from the bottom up.

No one understands these data problems better than Comey. As he said in a powerful speech in February at Georgetown University:

The first step to understanding what is really going on in our communities and in our country is to gather more and better data related to those we arrest, those we confront for breaking the law and jeopardizing public safety, and those who confront us. “Data” seems a dry and boring word but, without it, we cannot understand our world and make it better.

So it was all the more disappointing to see Comey signing on to such a controversial theory despite evidence to the contrary, and supported by nothing but his own “strong sense.”

The bottom line is we simply don’t know what is behind the uptick in violent crime in cities around the country. And that’s why the need for more and better data has never been greater.