Sunday, June 19, 2016

Beyond (narrow, politicized) explanations for the 2015 homicide spike

Debates over crime-stat interpretation continue, with the publication last week of this NIJ-funded analysis from an academic, Richard Rosenfeld, "Documenting and Explaining the 2015 Homicide Rise," suggesting "Research Directions." For the record, the author only succeeded at the first half of the title. The paper documents the 2015 homicide rise, but scarcely explains it.

(See a good analysis of the document from CityLab. On Twitter, John Pfaff provided this helpful historical national murder data. For those who want more detail, use this tool to analyze crime rates for all types of offenses over time.)

Like the Brennan Center before him, Rosenfeld finds that the homicide rise is real, but confined to a handful of cities (Houston made the list of ten cities with significant homicide increases last year) and within those cities mainly among black folk.

But he then does something Grits found odd, postulating three "plausible explanations" for the 2015 homicide rise. Those were 1) expansion of the heroin market, 2) the growing number of released prisoners thanks to recent reductions in state prison populations, and 3) the Ferguson Effect (of all things). Why just those three? Aren't there more "plausible" explanations?

Not increased gun sales after every mass shooting? Not family violence related to economic distress? Not gang violence related to cartel turf wars or changes in marijuana markets? We're sure it's not that heightened border enforcement makes trafficking in persons and drugs more dangerous and expensive? Or that the real reasons might relate to specific crime patterns in the handful of cities driving the statistical spike? Not that murder rates are at 50 year lows and some cities are regressing to a mean? I'd favor any of those suggestions over Rosenfeld's second and third hypotheses!

As far as correlation-mistaken-for-causation goes, you could just as spuriously easily blame the homicide spike on anger-mongering in the GOP primary and rise of the Donald Trump campaign as postulate a "Ferguson effect"!

Of Rosenfeld's three suggestions, the heroin-market explanation is plausible. But a lot of that conflates with prescription opiod abuse and the delivery vehicles have taken on different vectors from, say, crack cocaine in the '80s. Besides, as Rosenfeld himself notes, the heroin trade began expansion long before this recent homicide spike.

Meanwhile, recent incarceration reductions so far have been quite modest and focused almost entirely on diverting low-level, nonviolent offenders from prison on the front end. So releasing more prisoners seems like an odd thing to blame. As a practical matter, mass incarceration requires mass prisoner releases for reasons which have nothing to do with do-gooder reform agendas.

Consider: Texas releases more than 70,000 inmates per year these days, while in 1990 Texas incarcerated around 40,000 state inmates en toto. TDCJ must release that many every year or the system would become overcrowded and overrun. The Legislature has made clear it doesn't want to pay more to expand a system which already gobbles up nearly $7 billion of the biennial budget.

A system where people go to prison and remain locked up forever is a punitive fantasy, not a realistic expectation of government's capacity nor even, really, an expression of justice. Texas releases five or six thousand of prisoners every month and the crime rate is as low as it's been since the '60s.

Finally, though apparently there's some evidence of police malingering/blue flu as a union tactic in Chicago, Grits has always found Heather MacDonald's Ferguson Effect hypothesis strained and a bit odd. I am surprised to see it portrayed as one of three "plausible" hypotheses, even though Rosenfeld concluded there's no way to confirm it based on currently available evidence. In fact, the point of the document was to suggest research stratagems to determine whether or not the Ferguson-effect explanation is viable.

To me, it's insulting to police officers and their professionalism to suggest that they're all layabouts and laggards who would fail to do their jobs because some protester insulted them or somebody said something mean about cops in the newspaper or comment section. Grits considers the way MacDonald and the police unions have parlayed such a low assessment of police officers' characters into a supposedly pro-police platform to be a quite-amazing parlor trick. It acknowledges and embraces the most cynical assessment of police critics and reframes true, legitimate criticisms as a badge of honor. Well played. Hard to believe that worked. The problem is, as a fundamentally untrue assessment, the frame cannot ultimately hold. Still, it's an impressive public relations ploy.

11 comments:

David Craig said...

The Ferguson Effect is real. My son is a police officer and his comment to me was “When I go out on patrol, I have a lot to lose and very little to gain”.

Previously if officers saw a group of young men late at night wandering the streets they would have stopped to at least question and maybe even search them. That action would have been encouraged and supported by their superiors and the community leaders. Thanks to the activist that support is now gone and even the idea of “law enforcement” is tainted as racist. Even if you do everything perfect and it goes wrong, you will be vilified for months before you are vindicated. Understandably the response from the officer on patrol is “why risk it”. Why risk an encounter that might escalate into a confrontation. Wait for the “call” before you respond. Make sure your actions are covered and you are not going to be the next Darren Wilson or Edward Nero. That drop in proactivity was probably felt immediately on the streets--the “Ferguson Effect”. It explains not only the increase in homicides (more thugs walking around with drugs and guns to protect themselves from other intoxicated thugs carrying guns) and why fewer police officers being killed and injured.

Anonymous said...

Stop and search? With what probable cause? There's no law against being in a group of folks after dark. Sounds like your son is one of the scumbag police who get their jollies harassing people for giggles

Gritsforbreakfast said...

See, David, if I were your son (or a police officer generally) I'd be embarrassed to tell anyone that. It's basically an admission of cowardice. (I'm also, like 4:39, a little dubious of the basis by which in your example he'd be performing these stops/searches of random folks without cause.) Perhaps your son needs to leave the profession and find a job he's willing to perform.

"A protester might say something mean" is hardly a reason not to do the job you signed up for and draw a paycheck to perform.

Anonymous said...

David, you're correct. The Ferguson effect is real and more officers seem less proactive than in years past. Law enforcement officers are under more scrutiny now than ever and while accountability is a good thing, judgement is often passed on them well before the dust settles.

Officers have a lot to lose and little to gain and with that I can agree. While bad enforcement actions do occur, the overwhelming majority of use of force incidents could have been avoided by general compliance from those encountered by officers.

Grits - instead of an admission of cowardice, I'd go with the term self-preservation. You stated "a protestor might say something mean" is hardly a reason not to do your job... While a protestor might say something mean to an officer, most officers have the restraint to not let it bother them is different than proactive work like conducting traffic enforcement and looking beyond that traffic stop for a kidnapped kid in that car or late night burglary patrols of business locations and encountering individuals in those burglary prone areas.

Pilots generally will not fly through a severe thunderstorm and electricians generally turn off the juice before they start working on a line...is not as admission of cowardice, but for self preservation. While my examples are very generic in nature, I can understand David's assertion.

I see both points of view and tend to believe the increase in crime is partly attributable to a series of events (more justified than not) of which the events in Ferguson and afterwards gave a name to it...the Ferguson Effect.

Anonymous said...

"Even if you do everything perfect and it goes wrong, you will be vilified for months before you are vindicated."

These guys did nothing wrong. And it's been 13 months. Not indicted. Not brought before the grand jury. Do you have the same level of concerns about civilians falsely accused?

http://www.wacotrib.com/news/twin-peaks-biker-shooting/more-bikers-file-civil-rights-lawsuits-over-twin-peaks-shootout/article_d1c7f026-3ab6-5bc4-b82c-47b06d7f4c5a.html

The "Ferguson effect" is a misnomer to try to define/attribute distrust of out of control law enforcement into a racial thing. There are plenty of white folks tired of it as well.

Anonymous said...

I recall the FBI director suggesting that less-aggressive policing may be contributing to troubling spikes in violent crime in some parts of the country — a position that has put him at odds with his boss, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and even the White House.

texasyankee said...

Grits, Thank you for telling the truth about the Ferguson effect. For too long police officers and their supporters have been telling us what heroes they are. Now that they are criticized, they are showing their true selves: whinny children who throw a tantrum when they don't get their way.

Anonymous said...


12:25PM Some segments of society can go on strike when they're not happy with certain aspects of their job. I wouldn't call that a tantrum, but it is a mechanism available to them (be it postal workers, nurses, teachers, pilots, etc.). I don't think officers can go on strike, so those that believe like David's son CAN opt to be less proactive.

The Ferguson Effect has several meanings depending on the perspective from which it is viewed (be it from a minority or majority view, elected official, citizen, community activitist, law enforcement, etc.). I try and keep an open mind as there are many shoes that I haven't walked in.

Anonymous said...

I keep seeing the numbers thrown around that Texas releases 70,000 prisoners per year, this out of an average population of just south of 150,000 people incarcerated. Based on these figures of which I have yet to see anything to validate or confirm that they are accurate, every two plus years, the entire population in the TDCJ system should be turning over, however we all know that isn't happening. I would like to see them publish the list in it's entirety to back up those claims, yet that will not likely ever happen. If one is to believe that they are only taking in less than 50,000 new prisoners per year and at the same time releasing 70,000 per year, (their numbers, not mine) why do we need so many prisons being kept open? Why haven't they shuttered some of the more hard to staff units or those whose cost to maintain has long ago exceeded common sense to keep open.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@11:15, here's the link to the most recent 2014 TDCJ annual statistical report (2015 due out soon). Go to page 12 of the pdf for the total released that year. That's down from >77,000 in 2012.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@11:15, your questions: "why do we need so many prisons being kept open? Why haven't they shuttered some of the more hard to staff units or those whose cost to maintain has long ago exceeded common sense to keep open"? ... are very good ones.

The answer is that, even though crime had radically declined, Texas continued to fill up those beds with a like number every year. As crime declined, prosecutors sought convictions on more cases-per-arrest (see here and here). Thus we experienced increased incarceration growth despite falling crime. You're right it makes little sense from a public safety perspective, but from a government-bureaucrat-justifying-their-paycheck perspective, it makes a tad more sense.