The Brennan Center for Justice released a report on Thursday that explores crime trends in 30 cities in 2015. In it, the report’s authors sought to test a hypothesis put forth by some scholars and journalists about a purported crime wave this year.
First, some brief background. In a widely shared May 29 op-ed titled “The New Nationwide Crime Wave” in The Wall Street Journal, the Manhattan Institute scholar Heather Mac Donald wrote about an apparent rise in homicides and other major crimes in some American cities in recent months. She called this rise the Ferguson effect, a term she borrowed from St. Louis police chief Sam Dotson, and described it as a “current surge in lawlessness” caused by “the intense agitation against American police departments over the past nine months.” In other words, the heightened scrutiny of American law enforcement led them to hesitate more on the job, thereby driving up crime.
Mac Donald’s thesis provoked a significant amount of debate, both in defense of and in opposition to it. My colleague David Graham described the Ferguson effect as “the Bigfoot of American criminal justice: Fervently believed to be real by some, doubted by many others, reportedly glimpsed here and there, but never yet attested to by any hard evidence.” My other colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates called it an “utterly baseless suggestion.” But a number of major news outlets, including The New York Times, explored the idea and thereby gave it some legitimacy; FBI Director James Comey and DEA chief Chuck Rosenberg also cited it.