2015 was an interesting year – the coverage and pushback against officer-involved shootings continue to draw national attention as cases like Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland and Laquan McDonald dominated the headlines, along with fallout from the Tamir Rice and Michael Brown incidents.
There was also a counter push, mainly from the right, arguing that the Ferguson effect caused police to back down, leading to explosive murder rates in cities like Baltimore.
Thomas Abt, who has worked in the US Department of Justice and, more recently, as Deputy Secretary for Public Safety for the State of New York before working as a Senior Research Fellow with the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where he teaches and studies evidence-informed violence reduction strategies, writes an op-ed this morning for the Marshall Project, arguing that both the left and right got it wrong this year.
In May, Heather MacDonald wrote a controversial piece for the conservative Manhattan Institute where she argued that “recent upticks in violence might signal a new national crime wave.” Like others, she argued that Ferguson and other protests, and the national discourse challenging officer-involved shootings, caused police to take less aggressive approaches to law enforcement. The abandonment of an aggressive “broken windows” or stop and frisk strategy led to an increase in crime as criminals became emboldened. This is the heart of the so-called Ferguson effect.
Mr. Abt argues that Ms. MacDonald was wrong on a number of fronts. First, he said that “she initially linked gun violence and homicide to crime overall, without offering evidence for doing so.” Second, “[A]ny criminologist will tell you that policing is only one factor of many in determining rates of violence.” And third, he said that “the best and most thorough examination of ‘broken windows’ policing recently revealed that when narrowly focused on solving problems in partnership with the community, broken windows is successful – when it isn’t, then not so much.”
Progressives, he said, did not take this lying down and pushed back, “asserting there was simply no evidence of a spike in violent crime. One widely cited report by the progressive Brennan Center for Justice admitted that homicide in 25 of the nation’s largest cities jumped 14.6% in 2015, but argued that the current rate is near historic lows, that rates vary widely and that any increases are localized and not part of a national trend. Moreover, they asserted that any increase was due to ‘root causes,’ i.e. poverty, unemployment, and other structural factors, not policing.”
He argues, “The Brennan Center was also mistaken in a number of ways.” While “it is true that violence remains historically low,” Mr. Abt argues that “a 14.6% national spike in murder would be the largest single-year increase since at least 1960.” He adds that “while local rates of violence often fluctuate, national rates are more stable, and the Brennan Center’s own data shows that murder is up in 18 of 25 of the nation’s largest cities. As for ‘root causes,’ there is little evidence of a direct connection between violence and structural factors like poverty and unemployment. And none of those factors changed significantly last year, so they can hardly explain the surge of violence.”
Bottom line, he argues, is “the increase in homicides appears real, but there is no broader national crime wave.”
Mr. Abt adds, “It is unclear what is driving the problem, but my own hunch – and it is still just a hunch at this point – involves a criminological phenomenon called legal cynicism.” He writes, “Multiple studies have demonstrated that, controlling for other factors, when communities view the police and criminal justice system as illegitimate, they become more violent. When people believe the system is unwilling or unable to help them, they are more likely to take the law into their own hands, creating the cycles of violent retribution that were chronicled so vividly last year in Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside.”
He continues, “Cynicism about the law might also explain why the biggest homicide spikes in 2015 occurred in places like St. Louis, Baltimore, and Milwaukee, where there was unrest after controversial uses of police force, and why Boston, with its recent history of positive police and community collaboration, had the largest single decrease in homicide of any large city.”
In order to address cynicism, he said that “we have to address cynicism in our public conversation about guns, crime, and punishment. Violence can fracture a community, but so can violent, partisan, absolutist rhetoric on television, in print, and on social media.”
Mr. Abt commends President Obama for attempting to do “something, anything, on gun control.” However, he criticizes him for neglecting “a number of non-ideological solutions to violence that can be implemented now without a lot of new money or new laws.”
He writes, “Focused deterrence programs like the original Operation Ceasefire in Boston have successfully brought law enforcement and communities together to fight gun violence. Cognitive behavioral therapy approaches like Becoming a Man in Chicago have a record of preventing violence among at-risk youth. And, as Leovy writes, devoting more attention and resources to the investigation and prosecution of homicide would send a clear signal, alongside police and criminal justice reforms, that black lives truly do matter.”
“Why don’t these successful approaches get more support?” he asks. “Unfortunately, we tend to look past practical solutions when they lie between the political fault lines and don’t provide fodder for our next partisan debate. In the coming year, let’s move past our pre-approved talking points and get down to the business of saving lives, because peace in our streets has no political affiliation.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting