Over the past several months, two competing theories have emerged regarding what effect a year of deteriorating race relations has had on law enforcement’s approach to policing America’s cities.
One theory, dubbed the “Ferguson effect”, suggests that police are now less engaged because they fear public scrutiny, prosecution, and, in the worst case scenario, being blamed for inciting the type of social upheaval that led to the riots which left parts of Baltimore in ashes less than two months ago.
A second theory says that if anything, police have become more aggressive, especially as it relates to the use of lethal force. A Washington Post investigation found that police are killing suspects at twice the previous rate in 2015 and The Guardian has now embarked on an ambitious, crowdsourced effort to put a face and a name to every person killed by police in America over the course of this year.
Assessing which theory is correct is difficult, although we would be remiss if we didn’t mention that the so-called ‘Ferguson effect’ relies on anecdotal evidence while the idea that police are killing more people than ever before is simply a matter of statistics. Having said that, The New York Times is out with a new piece which appears to support the notion that, at least in Baltimore, police are scaling back patrols and avoiding high crime areas. Here’s more:
A month and a half after six officers were charged in Mr. Gray’s death, policing has dwindled in some of Baltimore’s most dangerous neighborhoods, and murders have risen to levels not seen in four decades. The totals include a 29-year-old man fatally shot on this drug corner last month. Police union officials say that officers are still coming to work, but that some feel a newfound reluctance and are stepping back, questioning whether they will be prosecuted for actions they take on the job..
At least 55 people, the highest pace since the early 1970s, have been murdered in Baltimore since May 1, when the state’s attorney for the city, Marilyn J. Mosby, announced the criminal charges against the officers. Victims of shootings have included people involved in criminal activity and young children who were simply in the wrong place..
At the time of her announcement, Ms. Mosby’s charges were seen as calming the city. But they enraged the police rank and file, who pulled back. The number of arrests plunged, and the murder rate doubled. The reduced police presence gave criminals space to operate, according to community leaders and some law enforcement officials.
The soaring violence has made Baltimore a battleground for political arguments about whether a backlash against police tactics has led to more killings in big cities like New York, St. Louis and Chicago, and whether “de-policing,” as academics call it, can cause crime to rise..
Still, the speed and severity of the police pullback here appear unlike anything that has happened in other major cities. And rather than a clear test case, Baltimore is a reminder of how complicated policing issues are and how hard it can be to draw solid conclusions from a month or two of crime and police response.
The Times does go on to note that, at least in the case of Baltimore, it's difficult to determine whether the dramatic increase in violence is attributable to less policing or stems from the fact that thanks to the looting that took place during the riots, there are now nearly 160,000 doses of perscription opiates available for sale on the street which could very well be contributing to a spike in violent crime.
For example, police commanders here attribute the spike in violence in large part to a unique factor: a flood of black-market opiates stolen from 27 pharmacies during looting in April, enough for 175,000 doses now illegally available for sale.
They say drug gangs are now oversupplied with inventory from the looting, resulting in a violent battle for market share from a finite base of potential customers. Gangs sell a single OxyContin dose for $30, twice what they get for a dose of heroin, said Gary Tuggle, a former Baltimore police officer who was the head of the city’s Drug Enforcement Administration office until this month.
For better or worse, one is certainly inclined to believe that law enforcement in America has entered a new era in which every traffic stop, arrest, and detention will be scrutinized and picked apart for evidence of racial profiling, excessive force, or any other perceived betrayal of the public trust.
What that means for public safety remains to be seen. If advocates of the 'Ferguson effect' are correct, crime rates could rise as police disengage and scale back their disretionary use of force. On the other hand, some suggest that hightened scrutiny will save innocent lives, increase accountability, and ultimately lead to better policing which will not only decrease crime rates, but help to establish trust between authorities and the public.
In the final analysis, it could be that the entire debate misses the point. As long as the social conditions that plague high crime communities are not addressed, no amount of 'good' or 'bad' policing can save the country.