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What’s driving up homicides in the U.S.? UMSL’s Rick Rosenfeld revisits the ‘Ferguson Effect’

Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
UMSL Criminology professor Rick Rosenfeld.

The use of the term “Ferguson Effect,” first came into play in November of 2014, when city police Chief Sam Dotson said that police officers had reduced arrests following Michael Brown’s death and “the criminal element is feeling more empowered by the environment.” He used these ideas as reasoning for why the homicide rate in St. Louis was going up.

In the years since, UMSL criminology professor Rick Rosenfeld has studied the so-called “Ferguson Effect” and, over time, has drawn different conclusions about whether it is actually occurring. Now, he has found reason to believe that the “Ferguson Effect” may be coming into play — but not in the way we’re used to hearing about it.

As the homicide rate continues to rise — in the country's 56 biggest cities, homicides jumped 17 percent in 2015 — the Department of Justice on Wednesday released a paper, authored by Rosenfeld, about what avenues of research the DOJ should pursue in order to understand the spike.

St. Louis is part of that 56 cities metric, and St. Louis’ increase in homicides in 2015 was part of Rosenfeld’s “Top Ten.” There was an 18 percent increase in homicide in 2015 on top of a 32 percent increase in 2014. St. Louis is actually at the bottom of that top ten list, after Baltimore, Chicago, Houston, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Washington, Nashville, Philadelphia and Kansas City.

See the full list here.

Rosenfeld joined St. Louis on the Air on Wednesday to discuss the increase in homicides, revisit the “Ferguson Effect” as well as discuss his new research on racial profiling in police stops.

Rosenfeld told host Don Marsh that he offered three possible explanations for the increase in homicides. These hypotheses are merely starting points for future research by the DOJ, Rosenfeld said. He proposed:

1) Declining numbers of those imprisoned

The number of those imprisoned in the United States is slowly declining. Further research is necessary, but Rosenfeld asks if falling imprisonment rates trigger crime increases. It is not clear why this would register increases specifically in 2015.

2) Opioid Epidemic

The U.S. is in the middle of an opioid/heroin epidemic and Rosenfeld asks if rising drug use and disputes over drugs is related to an increase in homicide rates. It is not clear why this would register increases specifically in 2015.

3) The “Ferguson Effect”

Rosenfeld laid out two versions of explanation regarding the “Ferguson Effect.” In the first, because of criticism associated with controversial police use-of-force incidents, police have withdrawn from full engagement in duties, resulting in a rise in homicide. In the second, Rosenfeld describes long-standing grievances in disadvantaged/minority communities all over the United States bubbling up.

“It is possible that under conditions like those, that latent discontent, which predates Ferguson, gets activated,” Rosenfeld said. “If people really do lose faith in the police, they may take matters into their own hands and you can see violence as a result of that.”

Rosenfeld had prior argued that there could be no such thing as a “Ferguson Effect,” when he looked at St. Louis data. Now, he said, after comparing the data of 56 cities, it is clear that something triggered a homicide increase very suddenly after August 2014.

“Something like the events surrounding controversial police use of force incidents seems to me has to be part of the discussion now,” Rosenfeld said.

Rosenfeld hopes that public dialogue over these explanations presses the FBI to release data that will allow researchers to evaluate the three explanations for the crime rise in 2015.

“We won’t get year-end 2015 data until this coming fall,” Rosenfeld said. “We could have been getting it much sooner on a month-by-month basis. During the 1930s, the FBI did produce monthly crime reports. I’m only asking it to go back there.”

Rosenfeld has also been analyzing data for the state of Missouri in racial profiling in police stops since the year 2000. With almost sixteen years of data under his belt, Rosenfeld said he was awe-struck at the persistence by which African American motorists are stopped over white or Hispanic motorists, how often Hispanic and African American motorists are searched over whites and how contraband is more likely to be found on white motorists when searched.

“Those major patterns remain worrisomely persistent in these data,” Rosenfeld said.

Listen to Rosenfeld discuss more about his research in racial profiling in police stops, the “Ferguson Effect,” and the DOJ report here:

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.
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