Police effectiveness, police accountability, and the “Ferguson Effect”


Heather Mac Donald objects to what are, in her view, mischaracterizations what she said. See comments.


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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

14 thoughts on “Police effectiveness, police accountability, and the “Ferguson Effect””

  1. I think activists have a bad habit of latching themselves to the most sensational eyewitness accounts of police shootings before there has been any investigation, and then refusing to budge as more information comes to light. The quintessential example is the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. If you read the Justice Department's report on that incident, it becomes clear that Darren Wilson was most likely justified in firing, and even if you don't believe that, there was absolutely no way that a successful prosecution of him was possible, given the ways that the eyewitnesses whose testimony would have led to a conviction destroyed their own credibility. Eyewitness testimony simply isn't reliable, and we all need to exercise a good deal of skepticism in the immediate aftermath of a police shooting. Sometimes, it really is as horrible as portrayed (Laquan McDonald, for instance) but sometimes it isn't.

    This is especially a problem, since, while the Ferguson protests might have been triggered by the shooting of Michael Brown, they weren't really about the shooting. They were about the environment in which the authorities of St. Louis County and its constituent municipalities treated the inhabitants not as a public to serve, but as a cash machine to fund their departments, and the abusive way they dealt with the citizens, of which shooting them is only the least common, if most heinous, outrage. Tying the protesters' credibility to the claim that Michael Brown was innocent and had his hands up robs them of effectiveness.

    We're going through the same thing here in Minneapolis, over the shooting of Jamar Clark. Again, the protests have adopted the worst possible interpretation as the facts of the case. When, as I suspect will happen, Mike Freeman doesn't indict anyone and the various videos of which the protesters are demanding the release of, turn out to be inconclusive on the question of justification, it's going to leave them nowhere to go, having based their arguments upon things that can't be proven.

    And that's a pity, because the Minneapolis police are, hands down, the worst cops I've ever had to deal with. They are out of control, and not just on the question of itchy trigger fingers. I've worked two jobs at which we used off duty Minneapolis cops as security and traffic control. At both of them, they turned in fraudulent time sheets and, because they hold a monopoly on traffic control, we didn't really have any alternative but to pay them. As a security guard, I generally didn't call the cop on security detail when there was a problem, because that was a surefire way to escalate the situation rather than calm everyone down. (On the other hand, the Minnesota state troopers I've dealt with have all been extremely professional, and also shared many of my opinions of Minneapolis cops.)

    Don't get me started on the idiocy of thinking that, by keeping people from flying home for Christmas, somehow the interests of BLM would be advanced.

  2. In a way, it's a little strange that defenders of police make the argument that subjecting cops to greater accountability and scrutiny when they kill unarmed suspects makes them less likely to do their jobs well. Police aren't seen as professionals, trained and licensed by the state to use deadly force if absolutely necessary, but delicate flowers who might suffer undue indignity if not given the benefit of the doubt – and then some – when they think they have to kill someone in the line of duty. Surely some officers have been unjustly vilified, and injustice is bad, even if the wrongly vilified officer suffers far less than the family and friends of people they kill. But still, unless one believes that the systems that are supposed to hold officers accountable when they make fatal mistakes are flawless, that police are adequately trained to avoid unnecessary killings and that scrutiny of police killings are some trumped-up scheme to make the police look bad (and hurt the feelings of true delicate flowers like Heather MacDonald), then BLM protesters are generally right;, and absolutely correct in some particulars (Laquan Macdonald, Freddy Gray, Tamir Rice among many others) while being wrong in others (Michael Brown).

    Here's what I'm wondering: why don't cops suffer from a "Laquan McDonald" or "Tamir Rice" effect? Isn't it worse for a police officer to kill someone who should not have been killed than to be subject to bad press and protests? If we assume that the officers who killed them thought in the moment, in a rush of adrenaline, that they had a good reason to shoot, I'd think it would trouble them greatly when the smoke clears and they find out they were in error. Unless they're monsters, it has to be a source of misery for the rest of their lives. It's not uncommon for soldiers who kill in combat, entirely in accordance with the rules of engagement, in true life-or-death situations, to suffer from PTSD. Surely police officers who kill in the line of duty, particularly when the person they killed turns out not to be a threat, or even guilty of a crime, suffer from PTSD too.

    If we truly have sympathy for cops, let's help them by training them better and by punishing the bad cops who sully the reputations of all the good cops, rather than arguing that they are justified in shirking their duties for fear of being held accountable.

    1. I don't think the argument is that the police shouldn't be subject to accountablity and scrutiny when unarmed suspects are killed. More like, they shouldn't have their heads on a platter demanded by mobs before the investigation is complete, and basically regardless of the facts afterwards.

      And, speaking of mobs, the next time Black Lives Matter organizes a riot and looting, I want to see prosecutions, including under RICO.

      1. And of course you're demanding the same for the Bundy Ranch mob that threatened federal law enforcement officers with firearms. Right?

        1. Oh, did they riot and loot? Bust in windows of stores and make off with merchandise?

          I must have missed that.

          Malum in se vs malum prohibitum, Mark. Rioting and looting are the former, not doing what the government tells you to the latter. Rioting and looting automatically wrong, defying the government only conditionally so.

          1. No, they pointed weapons at federal law enforcement officials, threatening them with violence for doing their jobs. That was in order to protect someone who was stealing public property in defiance of a court order. The technical term is "assault with a deadly weapon."
            Don't you regard someone threatening you with a firearm as malum in se? Or do you make a special exception when the victim of the armed assault is a federal law enforcement officer?

          2. That would depend on what I was doing at the time; Sometimes threatening people with violence, even or especially for "doing their jobs" is perfectly appropriate. I don't automatically assume the government is in the right, or entitled to be obeyed.

            I do, however, assume that stores shouldn't be looted, outside of rather extraordinary circumstances, like starving people during a natural disaster.

          3. It's amazing how the government is always in the right when the examples used are black people getting shot, while it is obviously in the wrong when it's white people pointing guns at law enforcement. I mean, what are the odds?

          4. mr. bellmore is definitely not a racist in any form, after all he keeps telling anyone who will read his comments that he isn't one. the fact that any time he comments about an issue that breaks over race his position goes for whites and against blacks is totally a coincidence. after all the times we've read his comments over the years you should have realized that by now.

      2. "And, speaking of mobs, the next time Black Lives Matter organizes a riot and looting …"

        That's like me saying to you, "and the next time you beat your wife…" Where's your evidence that the Black Lives Matter movement has ever organized a riot (notwithstanding the point that "organized riot" is an oxymoron)?

  3. Mark Kleiman’s description of my positions on policing is unrecognizable to me. I have never stated or even implied that “police lawlessness is a good response to civilian lawlessness.” To the contrary, I have routinely stressed the need for constant training in the use of force, and in officers’ obligation to treat civilians with courtesy and respect. Nor have I expressed "admiration" for “random heavy-handedness.” Officers must always have reasonable suspicion that someone is planning or engaging in criminal activity before stopping him. I have, however, rejected the charge that a police department is engaged in discriminatory enforcement when that charge rests on a benchmark for police activity that ignores crime rates and community demands for assistance.

    1. The phrase "reasonable suspicion" is where the rubber meets the road. The way that it has been defined leaves its exercise often indistinguishable from "random heavy-handedness." So saying that you believe that police must have it does not necessarily mean that Mark's characterization is in any way inaccurate.

Comments are closed.