USA Today's Editorial Board: There Is No “Firm Data” To Back Up Debunked “Ferguson Effect”

The USA Today editorial board debunked the conservative “Ferguson Effect” myth, arguing that it is “way too early, and probably wrong” to blame scrutiny of police for a rise in violence in some cities, noting it “shouldn't be done without firm data to back it up.”

Right-wing media have latched onto the “Ferguson effect” myth that supposed increases in crime rates are linked to increased scrutiny of police following episodes of police brutality, despite the fact that it has been debunked by experts and media outlets as baseless.

The USA Today editorial board condemned the spurious link between police critics and rising crime in an November 2 editorial, writing it “is way too early, and probably wrong” to make such a connection. The board continued that “without firm data to back it up” it is “unwarranted” to make this assumption, noting that the data “do[es] not support [the] claim now”:

[N]ow that preliminary data show an increase in violent crime in certain large cities this year, one man says he already knows why. FBI Director James Comey says the spike is at least in part the result of what is being called the “Ferguson effect” -- the increased scrutiny of officers in the wake of several highly publicized police brutality cases, including the shooting of an unarmed man in Ferguson, Mo., last year. This scrutiny, Comey says, is causing police to be more cautious and criminals to be more emboldened.

It is possible, of course, that Comey is on to something and will be proved right over time. Surely, no officer wants to be the next YouTube sensation. But given the history of crime theories, confidence in a gut-sense explanation is unwarranted. Blaming the crime rise on police criticism is provocative and shouldn't be done without firm data to back it up.

The data, as Comey readily admits, do not support his claim now, and they may never. The increase might be short-lived, like the one of 2005-06. It might be the result of some other factors, such as persistent economic woes, or a recent drop in the prison population, or the spread of synthetic drugs. The one thing we do know is that the data are very uneven. Some cities report substantial increases in crime and some do not. Some report increases in certain types of violent crime but not others.


The move to blame criticism of police for rising crime has a familiar ring to it. In the late 1960s, segregationists argued that an increase in race riots and other urban crimes was the result of the civil rights movement, which was calling for policing reforms.