Monday, June 8, 2015

P&S Scholars in the News: The "Ferguson Effect" on Crime

Punishment giants Franklin Zimring and Bernard Harcourt have both recently responded to claims that we are approaching another crime wave---caused by Ferguson and an emboldened "criminal element," according to an article in the Wall Street Journal.

Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised by this latest WSJ claim. A 2011 WSJ article about the persistent crime decline (despite the Great Recession), by James Q. Wilson, included the lovely statement that, "Blacks still constitute the core of America's crime problem." It also attributed the crime decline to, among other things, the higher incarceration rate ("greater incarceration can explain about one-quarter or more of the crime decline"), responsibilization on the part of potential victims, and "more disciplined" policing. Four years later, Heather Mac Donald has written, "Gun violence in particular is spiraling upward in cities across America."

If the Great Recession couldn't upset the crime decline, what is doing it this time? The "Ferguson Effect":
Almost any police shooting of a black person, no matter how threatening the behavior that provoked the shooting, now provokes angry protests, like those that followed the death of Vonderrit Myersin St. Louis last October. The 18-year-old Myers, awaiting trial on gun and resisting-arrest charges, had fired three shots at an officer at close range. Arrests in black communities are even more fraught than usual, with hostile, jeering crowds pressing in on officers and spreading lies about the encounter.

Acquittals of police officers for the use of deadly force against black suspects are now automatically presented as a miscarriage of justice. Proposals aimed at producing more cop convictions abound, but New York state seems especially enthusiastic about the idea.
The idea of racially biased policing, Mac Donald says, is a mere "conceit."

Enter Zimring and Harcourt. On Saturday, Bernard Harcourt follows up an article in the NY Times by Tracey Meares and Jeff Fagan (themselves well known in our community) undermining the statistical evidence, by providing useful context. Harcourt uses Katherine Beckett's Making Crime Pay, highlighting the 1960s political strategy behind racializing crime trends. As Harcourt summarizes,
Linking crime to race as a way to undermine a civil rights movement is an approach that was woven into the fabric of the law-and-order movement from that period til now. 
(Because when protests are riots, and protesters are part of a mob, why listen? Similarly, protests of police misconduct are overreactions.)
With no reliable evidence to go on other than an assortment of anecdotes and hunches, the “Ferguson effect” follows in a long line of conservative efforts to undermine racial equality.
Over at the NY Daily Press, Frank Zimring (author of The City that Became Safe, about NYC's very dramatic crime decline) offered his own take on the statistics.
Let's start with the uptick in violence in New York City. The most recent official crime statistics indicate that so far in 2015, the city has experienced significant declines from 2014's ultra-low levels in burglary, robbery and larceny. At the same time, total homicides for the first five months of the year at 135 are higher than in 2014 — but quite close to the pace of 2013 and around 30% lower than in 2010. 
At their current rate, killings in New York City would end 2015 as either the third or fourth lowest year in the city's modern history.
One of Zimring's most important but understated points is, "To a student of crime data, this sounds much more like white noise than a blaring siren." Comparing crime trends year to year is a misguided game that might provide useful soundbites---murders are up/down this year 12%! Real crime statistics should be examined in a greater trajectory: even long-term inclines or declines in the crime rate can see short term ups or downs. If one really wanted to look for a Ferguson effect, one should look at careful regression discontinuities and take into account secular trends, at the very least. One should also remember that crime data itself is socially constructed and reported---as we know, victim data and police data do not always agree (sometimes, even counts of how many police officers are employed conflict across sources).

Zimring closes with another piece of context, noting
The same Manhattan Institute that employs her [Mac Donald, the author of the WSJ article] also published a warning by John DiIulio in 1996 that the United States would produce approximately 270,000 more juvenile super-predators by 2010. It's title: "How to stop the coming crime wave." 
That famously predicted crime wave never happened. But last week's revival of dire predictions suggests that the Manhattan Institute has a long-standing tendency to view crime trends with alarm for political effect.

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