I am gratified that Thomas Abt confirms the importance of the 2015 violence spike. He has failed, however, to show that I was “wrong on several counts” in my original warning about what I and others have called the “Ferguson effect”: the drop-off in proactive policing and resulting rise in violent crime.
Abt alleges that I “initially linked gun violence and homicide to crime overall, without offering evidence for doing so.” In fact, from my first Wall Street Journal article onwards, I explicitly targeted my discussion at gun violence, documenting the homicide and shooting surge in cities across the country.
Abt’s other counts are even more strained. He claims that I am wrong to attribute the increase in violent crime to depolicing because “any criminologist will tell you that policing is only one factor of many in determining rates of violence.” This is a non-sequitur. The fact that other factors may also help determine violence does not mean that I was wrong to single out depolicing as the most likely explanation of the current violence increase. None of the traditional liberal or conservative “root causes” of crime—poverty, the availability of illegal guns, or fatherless homes, among other conventional explanations—have noticeably worsened since August 2014, and they have certainly not worsened enough to trigger a 14.6% to 16% surge in homicides across such a wide span of cities. What has changed is the appearance of a virulent anti-cop discourse that charges that racist cops are the biggest threat facing young black men today. The resulting drop in proactive enforcement has been documented in summons, arrest, and stop data. Officers routinely describe their reluctance to undertake discretionary actions in the face of the hostility they are now encountering on the streets. Officers in one big city precinct told FBI Director James Comey of being surrounded and taunted “the moment they get out of their cars,” Comey recounted in an October 2015 speech. “’We feel like we’re under siege,’” the officers confided. Such testimony persuaded Comey that the Ferguson effect was likely real.
Finally, Abt states that broken windows policing is successful when it is “narrowly focused on solving problems in partnership with the community. . . when it isn’t, then not so much.” This anodyne observation has nothing to do with my thesis that depolicing is behind the violent crime increase. The only imaginable connection is Abt’s specious characterization of my argument as promoting “aggressive” broken windows strategies, with an attendant implication that somehow I favor unfocused, non-problem-solving policing. I have never promoted “aggressive” policing, much less policing detached from community needs. My original article on the Ferguson effect noted that the demand for broken windows policing comes from the community: “Opponents of broken-windows policing somehow fail to notice that law-abiding residents of poor communities are among the strongest advocates for enforcing laws against public drinking, trespassing, drug sales and drug use, among other public-order laws.” Before and since then, I have repeatedly stressed the community basis for public order maintenance.
Abt’s speculation that “legal cynicism” is driving the crime increase, however, is compatible with an acknowledgement of the Ferguson effect. With increasing frequency over the last year and a half, President Barack Obama has impugned the criminal justice system by falsely charging that the disproportionate representation of blacks in prison is due to discriminatory treatment rather than to blacks’ greatly elevated crime rates. The Black Lives Matter movement has labelled cops murderers and bigots, a message enthusiastically amplified by the media. I agree that such messages may somehow subtly influence the propensity of young, fatherless males to shoot each other, by delegitimating law and order generally and by reinforcing a racial victimology. But I don’t think that the kids who are gunning each other down are doing so out of a belief that they cannot otherwise get justice from a legal system that is “unwilling . . . to help them,” in Abt’s words. If gangbangers wanted to put away their rivals through legal means, rather than by shooting them, there isn’t a single big-city prosecutor who would not greet their proffer of evidence with a loud hosanna and a rush to put the case at the top of his docket. Any detective will tell you that he could solve virtually every gang shooting if the victims and witnesses cooperated. Cops and prosecutors work their hearts out trying to bring urban killers to justice; it is not for lack of effort and resources that they sometimes fail.
Heather Mac Donald
Mac Donald is a John M. Olin fellow at the Manhattan Institute.