The “Ferguson Effect”

The Black Lives Matter movement has provoked blowback from conservatives and milquetoast reforms from liberals.

Demonstrators protest police brutality in downtown Seattle in January. Scott Lum / Flickr

The blowback has begun. After the Black Power and urban revolts of the 1960s, policy wonks and politicians gave us law and order, super-predators, and mass incarceration in response. Now, after major and ongoing protests after the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and others, the powers that be have launched a new counteroffensive centered on the “Ferguson Effect.”

The “Ferguson Effect” is the charge that a new, violent crime wave is emerging and is directly traceable to protests against police brutality. Writing recently in the Wall Street Journal, Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute rose the specter of a rising tide of criminality and homicide across the nation.

“The most plausible explanation of the current surge in lawlessness,” she argued, “is the intense agitation against American police departments. Since last summer the airwaves have been dominated by suggestions that the police are the biggest threat facing young black males today.” The result, she said, is the purported “Ferguson Effect,” as cops disengage from “discretionary” and “proactive” policing under “the onslaught of anti-cop rhetoric.”

Right-wing media outlets like Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post have taken up the fearmongering cause with relish, sporting headlines like, “You’re 45% More Likely to Be Murdered in De Blasio’s Manhattan” and “We Need Stop and Frisk: 4 more murders in one night.” The drumbeat to instill more fear of crime and loathing of young black and brown men is reverberating across the country.

We have heard this before, with chilling effect. In the 1960s Lyndon Johnson launched the “war on crime” and in the 1970s, Nixon gave us the “war on drugs.” In the early 1990s these efforts ran red hot as the media sensationalized youth crime, instilling widespread hysteria — most notably around the beating and rape of a jogger in New York City’s Central Park, and the subsequent conviction and imprisonment of five black and Latino youth (who were released and finally exonerated in 2002 due to DNA evidence).

Amid the uproar surrounding the Central Park jogger case, conservative academics quickly gave scholarly blessing to the media’s assertions, with fellows at the Manhattan Institute propagating “super-predator” theories. We faced, they bombastically declared, a “demographic crime bomb” of black youth “with no respect for human life,” who would spread from inner-city neighborhoods into “upscale central-city districts, inner-ring suburbs, and even the rural heartland.” They predicted that by 2010 there would be 270,000 additional juvenile super-predators roaming the streets.

By the end of the 1990s, nearly every state had increased youth incarceration, and lowered the age at which minors could be tried and sentenced as adults and serve lengthy sentences in the country’s prisons — of which over 1,100 were built between 1970 and 2000. The hysterical predictions never materialized, though. Despite criminalizing ever more activity by black and poor men, youth and adult crime rates fell in the 1990s and into the new century.

Similarly, today’s mainstream criminologists challenge the emergent “Ferguson Effect” school, pointing out that MacDonald and her cohort have simply cherry-picked places and short-term effects to construct an imaginary “new crime wave.”

Crime rates, with only a few exceptions, have continued their several-decades-long decline, and those places where they have increased are still near all-time lows. Pivoting crime rates and increases around Ferguson and Black Lives Matter protests is simply not borne out empirically. This is certainly the case for St. Louis, the supposed epicenter of the “Ferguson Effect,” where crime rates began to rise, and homicides were higher, before Michael Brown was killed.

New York City, the national showcase for “broken windows” policing, stop-and-frisk, racial profiling, and harsh sentencing provides an even stronger example. Burglary, robbery, and larceny have steadily declined in 2015 from the ultra-lows of 2014. Homicides, it is true, are up — but are still below the rate of recent years and are likely to be the third or fourth lowest count in modern history.

This has been achieved despite a decline in “proactive policing” long before urban revolts in Ferguson, the Bay Area, and Baltimore: stop-and-frisk numbers in New York City fell from almost seven hundred thousand per year in 2011 to less than fifty thousand today. At the same time, the number of people imprisoned in the world’s largest penal colony, New York City’s Rikers Island jail, has been cut in half since its 1992 high, while the number of persons incarcerated in the state’s prisons has dropped over 25 percent since peaking in 2009.

In New York, as in other key states, the downward momentum is largely due to changes in drug laws, sentencing practices, and the reform of conditions for parole and probation. If there is a lesson here, it might well be that less proactive policing and imprisonment lead to lower crime levels.

Neoliberal reformers from both the Democratic and Republican parties have celebrated these policies and numbers, predicting a new era of rational policing, sentencing, and incarceration. And certainly we should celebrate the release of tens of thousands from New York’s prison archipelago, and the millions fewer stop-and-frisk interrogations. These outcomes follow mobilization and protest over several decades against racial profiling, racially targeted sentencing practices, and mass incarceration.

Widespread popular support for these struggles to reform the criminal justice system has triggered a second, broader ramification of the “Ferguson Effect”: a new search by political and economic elites, fearful of mass, disruptive protest and the growing illegitimacy of police, for reforms capable of reestablishing social order and control over unruly and poor urban inhabitants.

Recent polls show that the unending flow of video footage documenting police brutality is paralleled by declining levels of support for the police — and that this drop in favorability is spreading from poor communities to wealthier and whiter ones. This is a conundrum that pure repression cannot easily resolve. The tension between meeting popular demands for justice and continuing brutal policing has become palpable.

In New York City this became apparent in the 2014 mayoral election, in which Bill de Blasio was widely acknowledged to have won by appealing to those who wanted an end to the harsh policing regimes of the Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg years. Following New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s closing of state prisons and Bloomberg’s ending of the practice of sending youth to upstate juvenile prisons, de Blasio hoped to map the political imperative to respond to popular demands for just policing onto economic demands for continued fiscal austerity through controlling carceral and enforcement costs.

De Blasio has hustled to manage these competing objectives, which depend on the maintenance of public order and peace in the streets. This often leads to contradictory effects. As promised, stop-and-frisk numbers have fallen. Yet one of de Blasio’s first acts in office was to appoint a police chief who personifies intensive, harsh policing: Bill Bratton, the founding father of “broken windows.”

The New York Police Department (NYPD) leadership and many of its officers have in turn protested against de Blasio, with police turning their backs on him at police officers’ funerals, booing during his speeches to police audiences, and, more substantively, refusing to make arrests and issue summonses and write tickets; in some cases numbers have fallen by as much as 90 percent.

As a result of this pressure, de Blasio has reconfirmed his support for the NYPD and has agreed to hire 1,300 more police officers while promising to expand “community policing” by having officers in key precincts walk the streets and engage residents. The aim is to improve community-police relations, as officers gain, in the words of an NYPD assistant chief, no less than “ownership of the neighborhood.” Lacking any community oversight and control, such initiatives mark a deeper insertion of the police and state into poor and primarily black and Latino communities.

Related reforms promise much of the same. Considerable public attention has been given to new measures designed to reassure communities through more “professional” police practices. The adoption of body, police car, and public surveillance cameras stands out.

Yet as anyone who sits in a courtroom in cases reliant upon such evidence knows, cameras all too easily and conveniently “malfunction,” photo files “disappear,” or access is restricted by the police forces that control the camera data. Removing surplus military equipment from city police forces is even less of a reform: such equipment is rarely used, and highlighting it diverts attention from the expanding, day-to-day police operations that weigh so heavily upon the young women and men of poor neighborhoods.

Core professionalization efforts are more hidden and insidious, and run the gamut from New York’s creation of the largest police/intelligence network in the country, through the actuarial accounting and risk profiling of adults and youth, to devolving police incarceration functions to nonprofit and community based organizations.

As Brendan McQuade has shown in the case of Camden, where Obama recently visited to tout his policing reforms, the merger of police and intelligence agencies into “fusion centers” has created a new institution that shares information and resources in minute detail on rebellious individuals and neighborhoods.

There are now 268 fusion centers across the country. New York State has its own complementary network that provides new modes of surveilling and managing unruly and poor populations. New York City has the largest operation of all — as befits a city where half the population lives at or near the poverty level and where the Great Recession has meant that less than one in four young black men has a job.

Decarceration has generated similar “professional” reforms. Software purchased at considerable expense from private firms now produces actuarial and risk assessments on all men and women being released from state prisons, while post-prison reentry and social services are being farmed out to private nonprofits and, increasingly, community-based organizations.

As in other cities like Chicago, this lower-cost “devolution” demands formerly incarcerated people undergo continual programming and observation, and work with community-based institutions reporting to the state. The result is a ramping up of the state’s presence in already over-policed communities.

These demands on formerly incarcerated people are strikingly egregious, given there are so few jobs available in poor communities, particularly for formerly incarcerated men and women. Repetitive, mandatory training in “employability” under these conditions only serves to further surveil and depress those already marked for social death, marginalized and stigmatized by the denial — due to their formerly incarcerated status — of basic rights like housing, education, health care, and the vote.

Proposals by de Blasio, Hillary Clinton, President Obama, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch for more friendly, community policing should thus be recognized for what they are: the professionalization and devolution of policing and imprisonment functions — a formative response to protest that is designed to impose greater state control within and by the very communities that suffer the most from police brutality and have the greatest need for peace and security.

Congressional hearings will soon expand these calls and offer us the fateful vision of a safe, nonviolent future. The same will be declaimed by politicians running for office in the coming electoral season, particularly those reliant upon the black and Latino vote — most notably Hillary Clinton, who fully and publicly supported her husband’s punitive crime bills in the mid-1990s that propelled mass incarceration.

When we hear the words “demilitarization,” “community policing,” or “professional policing,” we should not be relieved. We should run for cover, turn on our own cameras, and continue to mobilize against brutal policing and incarceration regimes.

There are alternatives, echoing back to the black protest wave of the 1960s and 1970s. Points seven and eight of the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program were, as a student in a class in a maximum security prison recently reminded me, “We Want An Immediate End To Police Brutality And Murder Of Black People” and “We Want Freedom For All Black Men Held In Federal, State, County And City Prisons And Jails.” Alongside these were the Panthers’ neighborhood programs and demands for community control over housing, jobs, education, and the means to secure peace in ravaged communities.

One can hear the reverberations of these attempts to implement alternative and community-controlled forms of assuring public safety in the concrete demands emanating from the Ferguson, Bay Area, and New York City wings of the Black Lives Matter mobilizations.

In their varied formulations, they all raise the prospect of asserting democratic control over the criminal justice system in the short run, while working in the long run for a wholesale transformation of the super-predatory carceral system that has destroyed so many lives and neighborhoods over the last half-century.