Coming to a neighborhood near you

Heather Mac Donald, author of The War on Cops, has what should be a sobering message:

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey has again drawn the wrath of the White House for calling attention to the rising violence in urban areas. Homicides increased 9% in the largest 63 cities in the first quarter of 2016; nonfatal shootings were up 21%, according to a Major Cities Chiefs Association survey. Those increases come on top of last year’s 17% rise in homicides in the 56 biggest U.S. cities, with 10 heavily black cities showing murder spikes above 60%.

“I was very worried about it last fall,” Mr. Comey told a May 11 news conference. “And I am in many ways more worried” now, he said, because the violent-crime rate is going up even faster this year.

Mr. Comey’s sin, according to the White House, was to posit that this climbing urban violence was the result of a falloff in proactive policing, a hypothesis I first put forward in these pages last year, dubbing it the “Ferguson effect.” The FBI director used the term “viral video effect,” but it is a distinction without a difference. “There’s a perception,” Mr. Comey said during his news conference, “that police are less likely to do the marginal additional policing that suppresses crime—the getting out of your car at 2 in the morning and saying to a group of guys, ‘What are you doing here?’”

The reaction to Mr. Comey’s heresy was swift. White House spokesman Josh Earnest immediately accused the FBI director of being “irresponsible and ultimately counterproductive” by drawing “conclusions based on anecdotal evidence.”

Mr. Comey’s dressing-down was the second time he has been rebuked by his bosses for connecting the crime increase to a drop in proactive policing. Last November, President Obama accused Mr. Comey of trying to “cherry-pick data” and pursuing a “political agenda” after the FBI chief spoke of the “chill wind” blowing through American law enforcement since the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014.

But the evidence is not looking good for those who dismiss the Ferguson effect, from the president on down. That group once included Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, who was an early and influential critic. Mr. Rosenfeld has changed his mind after taking a closer look at the worsening crime statistics. “The only explanation that gets the timing right is a version of the Ferguson effect,” he told the Guardian recently. “These aren’t flukes or blips, this is a real increase.”

A study published this year in the Journal of Criminal Justice found that homicides in the 12 months after the Michael Brown shooting rose significantly in cities with large black populations and already high rates of violence, which is precisely what the Ferguson effect would predict.

A study of gun violence in Baltimore by crime analyst Jeff Asher showed an inverse correlation with proactive drug arrests: When Baltimore cops virtually stopped making drug arrests last year after the rioting that followed the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, shootings soared. In Chicago, where pedestrian stops have fallen nearly 90%, homicides this year are up 60% compared with the same period last year. Compared with the first four and half months of 2014, homicides in Chicago are up 95%, according to the police department. Even the liberal website Vox has grudgingly concluded that “the Ferguson effect theory is narrowly correct, at least in some cities.”

Despite this mounting evidence, the Ferguson effect continues to be distorted by its critics and even by its recent converts. The standard line is that it represents a peevish reaction from officers to “public scrutiny” and expectations of increased accountability. This ignores the virulent nature of the Black Lives Matter movement that was touched off by a spate of highly publicized deaths of young black men during encounters with police. As I know from interviewing police officers in urban areas across the country, they now encounter racially charged animus on the streets as never before.

Accountability is not the problem; officers in most departments are accustomed to multiple layers of review and public oversight. The problem is the activist-stoked hostility toward the police on the streets and ungrounded criticism of law enforcement that has flowed from the Obama administration and has been amplified by the media.

“In my 19 years in law enforcement, I haven’t seen this kind of hatred towards the police,” a Chicago cop who works on the tough South Side tells me. “People want to fight you. ‘F— the police. We don’t have to listen,’ they say.” A police officer in Los Angeles reports: “Several years ago I could use a reasonable and justified amount of force and not be cursed and jeered at. Now our officers are getting surrounded every time they put handcuffs on someone.” Resistance to arrest is up, cops across the country say, and officers are getting injured.

The country’s political and media elites have relentlessly accused cops of bias when they police inner-city neighborhoods. Pedestrian stops and broken-windows policing (which targets low-level public-order offenses) are denounced as racist oppression. That officers would reduce their discretionary engagement under this barrage of criticism is understandable and inevitable.

Policing is political. If a powerful segment of society sends the message that proactive policing is bigoted, the cops will eventually do less of it. This is not unprofessional; police take their cues, as they should, from the messages society sends about expected behavior. The only puzzle is why many Black Lives Matter activists, and their allies in the media and in Washington, now criticize police for backing off of proactive policing. Isn’t that what they demanded?

Ultimately, denial of the Ferguson effect is driven by a refusal to acknowledge the connection between proactive policing and public safety. Until the urban family is reconstituted, law-abiding residents of high-crime neighborhoods will need the police to maintain public order in the midst of profound social breakdown.

Last week in Chicago, a man on the South Side who works in a bakery told me that he now sees “a lot of people disrespect the police, cussing and fussing.” He added: “There’s so much killing going on now in Chicago, it’s ridiculous. The problem is not the cops, it’s the people, especially this younger crowd with the guns.”

That message needs to be heard by the activists, politicians and media who have spent the past two years demonizing American law enforcement. Officers must of course treat everyone they encounter with courtesy and respect within the confines of the law. But unless the ignorant caricaturing of cops ends, there will be good reason for FBI Director Comey and the rest of us to worry about what the rising tide of bloodshed holds in store for U.S. cities this summer.

That would include Milwaukee, where the mayor and police chief don’t want to be bothered with people shooting each other and innocent people getting in the way, and Madison, where a gang war appears to be under way.

 

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