Experts Continue To Debunk Right-Wing Media's "Ferguson Effect" Myth
Research ››› ››› CRISTINA LóPEZ G. & BRENNAN SUEN
Experts continue to debunk "the Ferguson effect," the right-wing media's zombie myth that uses flawed or cherry-picked data to link supposed increases in crime rates to the increased scrutiny of police following episodes of police brutality.
Fox Misuses FBI Director Jim Comey's Comments To Revive Debunked "Ferguson Effect" Myth That Increased Scrutiny Of Police Is Increasing Crime
Eric Bolling: "The FBI Came Out And Said That All The Anti-Cops Sentiment Lately Is Increasing The Violence Towards Cops." On the October 26 edition of Fox News' The Five, co-host Eric Bolling falsely claimed that the "FBI came out and said all the anti-cops sentiment lately is increasing the violence towards cops":
GREG GUTFELD: [Sheriff David Clarke] calls them [Black Lives Matter] subhuman creeps.
ERIC BOLLING: Sheriff Clarke nails it, and there was a back and forth with Wheeler that -- it's worth watching -- but Sheriff Clarke stayed on it. Couple of quick stats: The FBI came out and said that all the anti-cops sentiment lately is increasing the violence towards cops, so blood on your hands, Quentin Tarantino and the others. And also, of the 800 people who were killed by cops last year, 725 of them had guns. So these -- this isn't just random cop finding a guy, and wanting to shake him down and kill him, they're actually feeling a threat and they're responding to the threat. So know the facts, know your numbers before you go and protest cops. [Fox News, The Five, 10/26/15]
Hasselbeck Made Up Findings By FBI Director To Claim Officers Are "Afraid To Engage" Because Of White House Investigations. On the October 27 edition of Fox & Friends, co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck falsely implied that Comey found that officers are "afraid to engage because 20 places across the United States are being investigated right now by the United States, by the White House":
ELISABETH HASSELBECK: So when you have this increase [in crime] in a time period of 365 days, everyone's asking, "what is happening?" And everyone's asking the director of the FBI to get in there and examine what's going on. And when he does, and what he finds out, is that officers right now are stepping back. They're afraid to engage because 20 places across the United States are being investigated right now by the United States, by the White House. They say, "hey, we're afraid to do our job." And the White House doesn't want to hear it. They have people being murdered at increased rates and Josh Earnest at the White House wants to just play deaf.
STEVE DOOCY: Well, you know what? This is the second time I believe in -- let me see -- one week where the White House has defended the actions of Black Lives Matter and not the cops. Mr. Comey, when he did make that address on Friday at the University of Chicago law school, where outside the law school, as we just saw, the crime statistics are raging, he said, "Why is this happening?" Well, he said it could be cheaper heroin, guns, turf battles with gangs, and things like that. But what it comes down to is so many people are taunting the police. You know they call the police, they see the police, the police are right there, they just turn on their iPhone, they just wait for them to do something that can go viral. Because when something goes viral then that police officer is absolutely toast in many situations. When something bad has happened, and one of the things they worry about is if the cop winds up -- and the police department -- winds up the object of a Department of Justice investigation. How do you think that's going to turn out?
HASSELBECK: Well the director, James Comey said this in the FBI, "In communities of color especially, young men are dying at a rate that dwarfs what we've seen in recent history." And why the White House won't hear him on what he's saying here. He's trying to actually save lives.
BRIAN KILMEADE: Right.
HASSELBECK: They don't want to hear it. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 10/27/15]
Sean Hannity Claimed "It Seems Like A War On Cops," While Citing FBI Director's Statements On Police Feeling "Under Siege." On the October 26 edition of Hannity, host Sean Hannity claimed, "It seems like a war on cops. It seems like it's open season on them," and cited Comey's comment that police "told me we feel like we're under siege and we don't feel much like getting out of our cars":
SEAN HANNITY: So, we almost -- it seems like a war on cops. It seems like it's open season on them -- people are now -- the Black Lives Matter movement literally chanting, "pigs in a blanket, fry 'em like bacon." The Democrats are going to do a forum with this group. What are your thoughts?
RAY KELLY: Well, certainly there's a rhetorical war on cops. There's a lot of verbiage out there. We saw Quentin Tarantino, that was absolutely disgraceful. And clearly, cops feel at greater risk because of it, because of the rhetoric that's floating around. It's a dangerous job to begin with, we don't need that sort of talk out there. Doesn't help anything.
HANNITY: Yeah. Let me put up, in a closed-door speech, FBI Director James Comey actually indicated police are now scared to do their jobs. Here's what he said, he said, you know, "they told me we feel like we're under siege and we don't feel much like getting out of our cars." You still talk to the rank and file. You are so well respected in new York. Is that what you're hearing?
KELLY: Yes, I think Jim Comey is telling it like it is. Clearly police officers are hesitating. They're not engaging in the way they engaged for the last two decades, quite frankly. That's why crime is down significantly throughout the country. But yeah, police are backing off now, and anybody who denies that I think is just not facing reality. [Fox News, Hannity, 10/26/15]
Fox Personalities Are Mischaracterizing Comey's Comments
FBI Director Comey Did Not Say That "Anti-Cops Sentiment Lately Is Increasing The Violence Towards Cops." In an October 23 speech, FBI Director James Comey admitted he does not know what is "driving an increase in murder in some cities across all regions of the country," but claimed he thinks it may be connected to "changing police behavior" due to increased public scrutiny "in the age of viral videos." His speech did not claim that this increased scrutiny was responsible for a supposed increase of violence against law enforcement as Fox's hosts suggested. [Media Matters, 10/27/15]
Right-Wing Media Constantly Connect "Hysteria Against Cops" With Increased Crime, Without Empirical Support
Fox's Guilfoyle: Scrutiny On The Police "Undermines The Ability Of Law Enforcement" To Keep Communities Safe. On the June 1 edition of Fox & Friends, during an interview with author Kevin Jackson, co-host Kimberly Guilfoyle argued that "police are more concerned about their own well-being. They don't want to be arrested or persecuted for just putting on the blue every morning." She added that "when you have individuals like [Baltimore City State's Attorney] Marilyn Mosby going aggressively against the police," this "undermines the ability of law enforcement to keep people in the community safe." [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 6/1/15]
In WSJ, Heather Mac Donald Tied "Incessant Drumbeat" Against The Police With The Empowerment Of The Criminal Element. In a May 29 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, conservative commentator Heather Mac Donald faulted the "mainstream media, the university presidents talking about assaults on blacks and of course the president and former attorney general" while arguing that the "the intense agitation against American police departments" was "the most plausible explanation" for what she termed the "current surge in lawlessness" in certain cities around the country:
The most plausible explanation of the current surge in lawlessness is the intense agitation against American police departments over the past nine months.
Since last summer, the airwaves have been dominated by suggestions that the police are the biggest threat facing young black males today. A handful of highly publicized deaths of unarmed black men, often following a resisted arrest--including Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., in July 2014, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014 and Freddie Gray in Baltimore last month--have led to riots, violent protests and attacks on the police. Murders of officers jumped 89% in 2014, to 51 from 27.
President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, before he stepped down last month, embraced the conceit that law enforcement in black communities is infected by bias. The news media pump out a seemingly constant stream of stories about alleged police mistreatment of blacks, with the reports often buttressed by cellphone videos that rarely capture the behavior that caused an officer to use force.
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 Myers in 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.
This incessant drumbeat against the police has resulted in what St. Louis police chief Sam Dotson last November called the "Ferguson effect." Cops are disengaging from discretionary enforcement activity and the "criminal element is feeling empowered," Mr. Dotson reported. Arrests in St. Louis city and county by that point had dropped a third since the shooting of Michael Brown in August. Not surprisingly, homicides in the city surged 47% by early November and robberies in the county were up 82%. [Wall Street Journal, 5/31/15]
Mac Donald On Fox & Friends Sunday: "Hysteria Against Cops" Has Made Officers "Back Off" From Enforcing The Law. During a guest appearance on the May 31 edition of Fox's Fox & Friends Sunday, Mac Donald claimed the U.S. is in the grips of "a hysteria against cops" and that it made law enforcement "back off of policing." [Fox News, Fox & Friends Sunday, 5/31/15]
Experts: The "Ferguson Effect" Is A Myth, Not Enough Evidence To Support Idea Of Any National Crime Increase
WaPo's Radley Balko Debunks Claim That Crime Is Surging Nationally, Calls Mac Donald's Piece "Incredibly Cynical." On a June 8 post for The Washington Post's blog The Watch, criminal justice reporter Radley Balko debunked Mac Donald's claims that a "nationwide crime wave" is connected to increasing scrutiny of police departments after events of police brutality, explaining that the Ferguson protests were "about much more than Michael Brown" and that 'Ferguson effect' arguments are meant to "shame people who dare to speak up about police abuse":
It is true that we're seeing an awful surge in murders in St. Louis and Baltimore right now. Mac Donald blames this on police reform activists by claiming their rhetoric both emboldens criminals and makes cops either afraid or unwilling to do their jobs. On the first point, the implication seems to be that people should just keep quiet in the face of what they perceive to be brutality and injustice, lest it embolden violence against the police. As I and others have documented, the protests in St. Louis were about much, much more than Michael Brown. That's true in Baltimore too, but there the instigating incident also appears to have been much more egregious and unjustifiable than the one in St. Louis. In any case, even assuming this were true, it's basically an instruction to the residents of these cities to live with one of two evils: Either live with harassment and abuse from the police, or live in fear of crime. (Or there is no choice at all -- you live with both.) Surely we can do better than that.
The second point is more alarming. If police in Baltimore and St. Louis are letting protesters and critics make them too afraid or spiteful to do their jobs, essentially turning their backs to allow people to be robbed and killed, that isn't a problem with protester or social justice culture, it's a problem with police culture. One would hope that a conscientious cop would be encouraged by the indictment of a bunch of cops for giving allegedly giving a man an illegal, extra-judicial punishment that resulted in his death. Getting bad cops, law-breaking cops off the street is after all a boon to law and order, not to mention to the reputation of cops who do it right. Instead, we're told by law enforcement groups and their advocates that your average, well-intentioned cop is so outraged by these indictments that he's refusing to do his job. Or, more ridiculous still, that even the good cops are hesitating to protect people out of some fear that they'll be publicly criticized by racial justice groups. For a profession that takes such pride in its bravery, police advocates make cops seem remarkably thin-skinned.
Ultimately, arguments like Mac Donald's are aimed at exploiting fear of crime to shame people who dare to speak up about police abuse -- or at least to shunt them to the fringe of the public discourse. But as Zimring points out, stoking up fears about crime based on questionable data has in the past had some devastating consequences. [The Washington Post, 6/8/15]
CNN.com: "Not Enough Data" To Back Up "New Crime Wave" Claims Or The Factors Behind It. In a June 4 report, CNN highlighted that statisticians haven't found evidence of a national surge in crime, or that protests against police brutality might be having an impact in crime rate surges:
The bottom line, statisticians say, is that there is not enough data to conclude if a new crime wave is upon us, or if there is, what factors are behind it. [CNN.com, 6/4/15]
NBCNews.com: Experts Caution Against Blanket Correlations In "Violence Spikes." On June 2, NBCNews.com reported that criminologist Richard Rosenfeld "cautioned against making blanket correlations," while criminal justice scholar Andrew Karmen pointed out that some cities experience increases in violent crime without corresponding opposition to the police, while others have not seen a crime increase:
Figuring out why it's happening is difficult. Crime is subject to a complex combination of factors, many of which have little to do with how police do their jobs. Studies have pointed to the effects of the economy, the aging population, even the amount of lead in people's bodies.
But Rosenfeld, who is leading a multi-year research project to better understand crime trends, cautioned against making blanket correlations. "It may also have to do with local factors specific to a particular city," he said.
Andrew Karmen, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of "New York Murder Mystery: The True Story Behind the Crime Crash of the 1990s," said it was much too early to say whether the "Ferguson effect" was real.
He pointed out that some cities have seen upticks in violence without having any large scale anti-police unrest. There are also many cities that haven't seen crime increases at all this year.
But the "Ferguson effect" argument is troubling, Karmen said.
"If you accept it at face value that they're above criticism and that if we do criticize them we're going to pay a terrible price, that's not a healthy attitude in a democracy," he said. [NBCNews.com, 6/2/15]
NY Times Editorial Board: "There Is No Data Suggesting" That "Heightened Scrutiny Of Police Behavior ... May Have Contributed To An Increase In Crime." An October 27 editorial by The New York Times editorial board criticized FBI Director James Comey's statement that "heightened scrutiny of police behavior ... may have contributed to an increase in crime." The board argued that "there is no evidence suggesting such an effect, and certainly Mr. Comey has none," and that "his formulation implies that for the police to do their jobs, they need to have free rein to be abusive":
In a speech at the University of Chicago Law School on Friday, Mr. Comey said that heightened scrutiny of police behavior -- and fear of appearing in "viral videos" -- was leading officers to avoid confrontations with suspects. This, he said, may have contributed to an increase in crime.
There is no data suggesting such an effect, and certainly Mr. Comey has none. But his suggestion plays into the right-wing view that holding the police to constitutional standards endangers the public. Justice Department officials who have made a top priority of prosecuting police departments for civil rights violations -- and who dispute that heightened scrutiny of the police drives up crime -- were understandably angry at Mr. Comey's speculations.
His formulation implies that for the police to do their jobs, they need to have free rein to be abusive. It also implies that the public would be safer if Americans with cellphones never started circulating videos of officers battering suspects in the first place. [New York Times, 10/27/15]
Vox: The "Ferguson Effect" Is The "Least Supported, Among The Criminologists [Interviewed] Explanation For The Murder Spike In Some Cities." Vox's German Lopez spoke to several criminologists for an October 26 report that concluded "there's no solid evidence behind the Ferguson effect, and there are some theories to the contrary." Lopez found that the so-called "Ferguson effect" was the "least supported" explanation for the homicide spike in some cities among the experts he consulted. Criminologists, he reported, call these claims "highly questionable -- both empirically and logically," noting that "St. Louis's murder spike began before Michael Brown died." Lopez also questioned the origins of the "Ferguson effect," cited by police who have "self-interest to fault something like the Ferguson effect for a crime increase":
In interview after interview, criminologists cautioned me not to make too much of the year-to-date figures for violent crime and homicides: They could be statistical blips, and other cities aren't seeing the kind of spikes that Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Baltimore reported. And if there is an increase, the theories the Times reported -- too many guns and the "Ferguson effect" -- most likely aren't the full or right explanations.
The most controversial -- and least supported, among the criminologists I talked to -- explanation for the murder spike in some cities is that homicides are up because of the "Ferguson effect": The criticisms of police use of force since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, have made cops nervous about doing their jobs, because they can now be criticized for what they think of as routine police work. At the same time, the criticisms have emboldened criminals, who now know that police are acting cautiously to avoid triggering another Black Lives Matter protest in their cities.
But some criminologists say these claims are highly questionable -- both empirically and logically.
For one, a report by the Sentencing Project found that St. Louis's murder spike began before Michael Brown died in August 2014, which is what gave rise to nationwide protests in the first place. And statistics from Baltimore show that arrests were down and homicides and shootings were up this year before Freddie Gray died.
"The people who point to the Ferguson effect as the reason for the increase haven't been consulting calendars very carefully," Franklin Zimring, a criminologist at the University of California Berkeley, said.
Claims of the Ferguson effect also originated from a questionable source: police. It was St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson who originally labeled the phenomenon, leading Mac Donald to give it wider publicity through an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. But there are reasons to doubt Dotson's -- and other cops' -- claims that this is a cause.
Media reports often treat police as impartial subject experts on crime, but it's in cops' self-interest to fault something like the Ferguson effect for a crime increase. It suggests cops aren't to blame -- they want to do their jobs, but critics of police use of force are making it very difficult. It also justifies ignoring or disavowing the criticisms police have faced over the past year -- if Black Lives Matter rhetoric is causing a spike in crime and murders, then maybe it's better to not criticize police and just let cops do their jobs. And it's in the interest of police to play up any increases in murders and crime to argue they need more resources and greater leeway in pursuing tougher tactics.
But criminologists repeatedly told me there's no solid evidence behind the Ferguson effect, and there are some theories to the contrary. [Vox, 10/26/15]
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- Race & Ethnicity, Racial Justice, Crime, Inclusion Matters, Criminal Justice
- Fox News Channel, The Washington Post, The New York Times, NBC News, Vox.com
- Sean Hannity, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, Eric Bolling, Kimberly Guilfoyle, Radley Balko, Heather Mac Donald
- CNN.com, The Five
- Hispanic Media Project