Yesterday, in a letter to the editor, Heather Mac Donald took issue with my recent commentary concerning the Ferguson Effect – a spike in crime allegedly caused by reduced police activity due to increased public criticism.
Mac Donald claimed that I mischaracterized her position and that her focus has always been on violent crime, not crime generally. While Mac Donald may have clarified later that her focus was on violence exclusively, that nuance was missing from her original missive, the one that provoked an outcry among progressives. Entitled “The Nationwide Crime Wave,” the piece begins and ends with descriptions of crime generally, not violence specifically. Moreover, the piece cites recent reductions in violent and property crime, saying both were unlikely to continue. While Mac Donald may have intended a more specific argument, her critics can’t be faulted for responding to what was on the page.
Mac Donald insists that “depolicing” is the single most likely explanation of the disturbing spike in homicides last year. We agree that “root causes” such as poverty and unemployment are not the answer, but Mac Donald does not and cannot rule out other non-police explanations for the increase. In addition, less police activity doesn’t always lead to more crime, violent or otherwise. In New York City, where “broken windows policing” originated and was implemented with gusto, declines in all leading measures of police activity – arrests, stops, and summonses – have coincided over the past few years with reductions in crime. This finding is reinforced by numerous rigorous studies indicating that proactivity in policing should be tempered by a narrow focus on the small number of “hot spots” and “impact offenders” that drive the majority of violence in urban communities. The bottom line here is that the argument for the Ferguson Effect, while plausible in some respects, is both overstated and under-supported.
Mac Donald agrees with me that violence may be connected to the perceived legitimacy of police and the criminal justice system, but argues that activists and the media have delegitimized the law in the eyes of many. As a former prosecutor, I believe in the men and women who protect and serve our communities every day. The overwhelming majority of them are professionals who perform their duties bravely and selflessly. That said, our respect for police and the justice system should not shield them from criticism or excuse them from misconduct. No police officer I know would want or ask for that.
As I said in my original commentary, neither conservatives nor progressives have all the answers when it comes to violence in our streets. Instead, what we owe those living in our most dangerous neighborhoods is an honest conversation about solutions, free from political rhetoric.
Thomas Abt served as Deputy Secretary for Public Safety for the State of New York from 2013-2014, Chief of Staff to the U.S Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs from 2009-2013, and is currently a Senior Research Fellow with the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where he teaches and studies evidence-informed violence reduction strategies.