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The Ferguson Effect never made it to Fresno. Jerry Dyer is why.

Byline1

There is the Ferguson Effect.

Now we’re getting the Kaepernick Effect.

And for the time being Fresno has the Dyer Effect.

We’re talking about debate over the role of police in America. The issue is tackled in a recent report from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Keep in mind the nature of an “effect.” It can spread.

Let’s begin with the report, released in June. “Documenting and Explaining the 2015 Homicide Rise” was written by Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

A footnote says the report was funded by the DOJ, but Rosenfeld’s conclusions do not necessarily reflect those of the feds.

Last year’s homicide spike in large U.S. cities “was real and nearly unprecedented,” Rosenfeld writes. “It was also heavily concentrated in a few cities with large African-American populations.”

Rosenfeld studied homicide rates in 56 large cities. He then examined “three plausible explanations of the homicide rise: an expansion of urban drug markets fueled by the heroin epidemic, reductions in incarceration resulting in a growing number of released prisoners in the nation’s cities, and a ‘Ferguson effect’ resulting from widely publicized incidents of police use of deadly force against minority citizens.”

Rosenfeld begins with a review of our national state of mind as 2015 progressed from spring to summer and into early fall.

The press in several big cities reported early in 2015 that the local homicide rate was spiking, signaling a reverse of a decades-long decline in crime. The national media picked up the theme. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch met with big-city mayors and police chiefs to discuss the disturbing trend.

It was at this meeting, Rosenfeld writes, that “FBI Director James Comey first publicly speculated that the increase may have been driven by widely publicized reports of police use of force that resulted in de-policing. Director Comey repeated the claim a few days later in a speech at the University of Chicago, where he called attention to a ‘chill wind’ blowing through the nation’s police departments.”

Rosenfeld doesn’t go into detail about the death of Michael Brown, apparently assuming the reader knows all about the officer-involved shooting on Aug. 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. If so, it’s a smart decision by the author because the incident was complex and an in-depth review would have bogged down the narrative. It’s enough here to note that the 18-year-old Brown (an African-American) was shot and killed during a fight with Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson (white).

The shooting led to large and sometimes violent protests by people who viewed the killing as racially motivated. The DOJ in March 2015 announced that there was insufficient evidence to charge Wilson. President Obama said, “We may never know exactly what happened.” A wrongful death lawsuit filed by the Brown family is expected to go to trial in spring 2017.

Lethal street battles over drug-selling turf and cyclical trends in prison policy are age-old explanations for jumps in homicide rates, Rosenfeld writes. The third scenario is new.

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There are “at least two ways in which the Ferguson effect may have unfolded,” Rosenfeld writes. “The dominant interpretation is that the publicity surrounding controversial police killings resulted in de-policing. A second equally plausible explanation is that, regardless of their effect on police behavior, the police killings in Ferguson and elsewhere activated longstanding grievances in minority communities concerning the police and the criminal justice system as a whole, resulting in a ‘legitimacy crisis’ that spurred crime increases. Researchers have also attributed homicide increases to declining institutional legitimacy.”

Rosenfeld in his introduction warns the reader that he didn’t have access to all of the needed crime data because it’s not yet publicly available. He also notes that the three explanations – drug turf fights, too many ex-cons on the street, the Ferguson effect – could also lead to bumps in other violent crimes.

Those caveats out of the way, Rosenfeld gets to work.

Rosenfeld documents the jump in mayhem. The homicide rate among the 56 big cities (almost all of them with populations of 250,000-plus) rose 10.5% in the first six months of 2015 compared to the same period in 2014.

Rosenfeld gets technical to determine whether it’s fair to judge the increase as significant when compared to other time periods.

Rosenfeld writes: “Homicides in 18 of the cities increased by more than 25 percent; the increase exceeded 50 percent in 12 cities. The skewed distribution of the homicide changes indicates that a relatively small number of cities accounted for most of the increase in the sample. In fact, just 10 cities accounted for two-thirds of the total homicide increase between 2014 and 2015, ….”

Those 10 cities are Baltimore, Chicago, Houston, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., Nashville, Philadelphia, Kansas City and St. Louis.

Sixteen of the 56 cities showed no change in homicides or a decline. Fresno was one of those showing a decline. Only five cities – El Paso, Austin, Boston, Salt Lake City, Arlington – had a more dramatic drop in homicides than Fresno.

“In summary,” Rosenfeld writes, “the homicide rise in 2015 in the nation’s large cities was real and, while not unprecedented, comparatively large.”

As a group, the top 10 cities suffered through a 33.3% jump in homicide.

“These cities have considerably larger black populations and smaller Hispanic populations than other cities in the sample,” Rosenfeld writes.

Rosenfeld then explores the three possible reasons for the spike in homicides. First up – lethal wars over heroin-selling turf.

Rosenfeld doesn’t buy it.

“Urban drug markets are, or at least were, violent locales,” he writes. “As more buyers and sellers come into contact in these ‘stateless’ locations, homicide rates should be expected to rise. But some evidence suggest that changes in illicit drug market transactions, such as the use of cell phones to connect with customers and effective law enforcement initiatives to shut down open air street markets, have reduced drug violence.”

Rosenfeld follows this with the clincher.

“But the major reason to be skeptical of the view that the expansion of the heroin markets led to the homicide increase of 2015 is that the heroin epidemic took off several years before the homicide rise,” he writes.

Next up on Rosenfeld’s dissecting table: The nationwide push to empty U.S. prisons and jails of all but the most violent criminals.

The theory: Statistics show that two-thirds of ex-prisoners will be arrested within three years of release. With more ex-cons on the streets, it’s not unreasonable to assume a spike in violent crime. That includes homicide.

Rosenfeld doesn’t dismiss the theory. But he doesn’t embrace it, either.

“The large net increase in ex-prisoners in 2012 may have contributed to the homicide rise three years later, but the time lag requires additional explanation,” he writes.

In other words, give the experts more data and time for study.

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

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