Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

A 'Ferguson Effect' -- or Its Opposite?

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

A 'Ferguson Effect' -- or Its Opposite?

Article excerpt

In November 2014, in the midst of the unrest in and around Ferguson, then-St. Louis police Chief Sam Dotson offered reporters an explosive theory for the uptick in some types of local crime, in addition to the violence of the protests. Assaults and robberies were up, yet arrests were down.

"It's the 'Ferguson Effect,'" said Dotson, coining a phrase that would start a national debate among law enforcement officials and academicians that continues today.

The phrase generally describes police being less aggressive in their policing out of fear of escalation and adverse publicity of the kind that engulfed Ferguson. The adjacent assumption is that such lack of aggression enables more crime.

By mid-2016, then-FBI Director James Comey -- while disavowing a Ferguson Effect -- essentially blamed it for national spikes in certain violent crimes. "There's a perception that police are less likely to do the marginal additional policing that suppresses crime," Comey told reporters at the time, "the getting out of your car at 2 in the morning and saying to a group of guys, 'Hey, what are you doing here?'" He theorized that hesitation could stem from a "viral video effect" and fear of public condemnation.

In this, Comey was at odds with his superiors in the Obama administration. Like most supporters of police reforms, they were loathe to blame crime increases on moderation of police aggression -- because moderation of police aggression is a stated goal of police reform. Police union officials, too, tended to push back at the phrase, chafing at the implication that cops were suddenly afraid to do their jobs.

Five years later, is the Ferguson Effect real?

One of the largest studies of the issue casts doubt on its existence, or at least suggests that, if it does exist, its real-world impact is marginal.

Sociologist David C. Pyrooz of the University of Colorado Boulder and his colleagues studied monthly crime trends in 81 large U. …

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