Over the past week, both the Director of the FBI and the acting head of the DEA have publicly stated that they think there might be some validity to the “Ferguson Effect.”

The “Ferguson Effect” is an attempt to explain why there has been a spike in homicides in some major U.S. cities, including Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Atlanta. It states that police officers are now so afraid of ending up on YouTube, that they are reluctant to do their jobs. Or as Trevor Noah puts it, police officers now live in fear of “someone whipping out their phone and brutally filming them.”

Who started it? Sam Dotson, the police chief of St. Louis, Missouri. Last year, after the protests in Ferguson, he said that police were moving away from frontline work and the “criminal element is feeling empowered.” The phrase “Ferguson Effect” has been popping up here and there for months, gaining momentum, but now that it’s been endorsed by FBI and DEA leadership, it’s getting a lot more press.

Unsurprisingly, the White House calls bullshit on this theory, pointing out that it’s based on blatant data cherry-picking.

What the “Ferguson Effect” gets wrong

1. There are obvious correlation vs. causation issues.

If you take a look at Ferguson, MO, the epicenter of the “Ferguson Effect”, you can see that the homicide rate started to rise months before Michael Brown’s death.

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According to The Sentencing Project, crime data is a “cherry-picker’s delight.” Why? Because our leading comprehensive data sources are slow. The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey comes out twice a year, but it doesn’t include city-level crime data. If you want city-level crime data, you have to wait for the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, which are only published annually. So, on a month-to-month basis, everybody’s data is anecdotal. In other words: “If you want to tell a story of crime increases, you can. If not, just pick from a different tree.”

2. Even if we had the data, nobody really knows what affects the crime rate.

The big-picture story is that violent crime has been on a steady decrease for about 20 years now (around the world) and nobody has been able to pinpoint why. The end of the crack cocaine epidemic? Less lead paint? More access to abortion? Hot spot policing? We just don’t know. When Time published an article last year titled “Violent Crime Drops to Lowest Level Since 1978” it stated one possible reason for the decrease is “an increased use of security cameras and cell phone videos capturing incidents.” LOLZ. 

3. It’s offensive to police officers who are doing their jobs.

The “Ferguson Effect” states that the murder rate is rising – people are losing their lives – specifically because police officers are not doing their jobs. This falsely plants the idea that the responsibility for crime prevention lies entirely on police shoulders, and they’re dropping the ball. 

The rhetoric around police hesitation also insinuates that it’s easy to inadvertently commit acts of police violence. It’s eerily similar to messaging around rape that makes it sound like it’s just really easy to “make a mistake.” But the videos that have gone viral do not reveal gray areas. In other words, “Unless you are choking an unarmed man to death who is not resisting, shooting an unarmed man in the back as he is running away or body slamming a calm teenage girl to the floor in front of her classmates, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.”

4. It’s fear-mongering.

To accept the Ferguson Effect you have to assume there is a “criminal element” out there and the only thing holding them back from total murderous chaos is aggressive policing (clear racist undertones here).

What the “Ferguson Effect” gets right

The “Ferguson Effect” is old-school, emotional, conservative messaging. It combines fear and the “strong father” framework (aka people are naturally evil and need disciplining) with something that appeals to “common sense.” Total power combo.

As Melissa Harris-Perry’s panel explained earlier this month, the “Ferguson Effect” is the kind of conservative myth-creation that happens whenever social movements start making progress. And this one’s a doozy in terms of emotional power, since conversations around crime evoke both corporal fear (someone will hurt me personally) and political fear (the status quo, benefiting those in power, is threatened).

The Executive Director of the Sentencing Project, Marc Mauer, states that the “Ferguson Effect” harkens “back the era of the 1980s when police had crime policy developed by soundbites and anecdotes. We had the ‘war on drugs’ and ‘three strikes, you’re out’” and focus was constantly drawn away from systemic issues, to individual sensationalized crimes.

Even though it’s 2015 and there’s more data available than ever, the conservative emotional messaging game is still on point to cloud the discussion. The “Ferguson Effect” is just the latest in a long history of catchy, loaded phrases like Death Panels, Anchor Babies, Tax Relief, and Welfare Queens.

It’s frustrating that progressives are always two steps behind, weakly shouting “but the data! the data!” Has anyone seen a progressive attempt to reframe the “Ferguson Effect” or change the story around it, as opposed to just saying “no, this isn’t true and here are the facts that explain why”? It’s all very defensive. There’s some great research out there about how to reframe how we talk about the criminal justice system, but so far I haven’t really seen it out in the wild.

If you want to get deeper into how conservative and progressive political messaging strategies work, check out The Political Brain by Drew Westen, and Don’t Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff. It’s fascinating and great context for following the 2016 presidential campaigns.  

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