There Is No Ferguson Effect

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The Times has a story today on the rise in homicide in some American cities. It’s an important story—one which is hurt by the utterly baseless suggestion that those who protested against Ferguson may well have blood on their hands:

Among some experts and rank-and-file officers, the notion that less aggressive policing has emboldened criminals — known as the “Ferguson effect” in some circles — is a popular theory for the uptick in violence.

“The equilibrium has changed between police and offenders,” said Alfred Blumstein, a professor and a criminologist at Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon University.

Others doubt the theory or say data has not emerged to prove it. Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said homicides in St. Louis, for instance, had already begun an arc upward in 2014 before a white police officer killed an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, in nearby Ferguson. That data, he said, suggests that other factors may be in play.

One might defend these paragraphs on the grounds of objectivity. But the writing here is not so much objective as it is vague. Note the deployment of qualifiers and weasel words—“some experts,” “some circles,” “other factors.” Note the juxtaposing of one expert opinion unhampered by facts (“the equilibrium has changed”) with another expert opinion directly rooted in one crucial fact (the rise in homicides in St. Louis precedes the Ferguson protests.)

As my colleague Brentin Mock points out, to observe that homicides began increasing in St. Louis before the protests is not to make a subjective interpretation, but to offer a knowable and verifiable fact. If the “Ferguson Effect” is real, how can it be that it started before the Ferguson protests?

Neglecting this question is neither dispassionate nor high-minded. It is the sort of insidious “false equivalence” that so rightly irks my colleague James Fallows.  “False equivalence” runs contrary to the mission to journalism—it obscures where journalists are charged with clarifying. A reasonable person could read the Times’ story and conclude that there is as much proof for the idea that protests against police brutality caused crime to rise, as there is against it. That is the path away from journalism and toward noncommittal stenography: Some people think climate change is real, some do not. Some people believe in UFOs, others doubt their existence. Some think brain cancer can be cured with roots and berries, but others say proof has yet to emerge.