A Ferguson Effect? Not So Much

Last week, Heather MacDonald of the conservative Manhattan Institute argued that there was a ‘Ferguson Effect’ on crime: police officers are reluctant to arrest criminals because they are afraid they’ll be accused of police brutality. Members of the Manhattan Institute has had a long history of interesting pronouncements on crime over the years, including a 1995 article that predicted there would be 150,000 “young male predatory street criminals who will make even the leaders of the Bloods and Crips — known as O.G.s, for “original gangsters” — look tame by comparison?” (this would be followed by a book, which revised the number to 250,000 predators)*.

This pronouncement was followed by a long, sustained drop in crime rates. So consider the source.

Back to MacDonald. As Jason Linkins notes, she cherry picks statistics to make things look worse than they are (boldface mine):

So, there’s no denying that there are a number of urban police departments that have themselves some problems. But does all of this add up to a “new nationwide crime wave”? I’m afraid not. Further examination tells a story of cherry-picking.

For instance, as you go through that three-paragraph flurry of frightening statistics slowly, you become aware that there’s a lot of mixing and matching happening. Homicides are compared to shootings. Robberies are broken out in one instance, while in another instance, the whole of one city’s violent crimes are bundled together under the banner of “other violent felonies.”

New York City’s scary stat, to MacDonald, is the murder rate. I can see why: according to CompStat, homicides thus far this year are up in comparison to the rate over a comparable period of time last year. And yet, if you just glance over to right of the spreadsheet, you’ll also learn that the homicide rate in New York City is down 32 percent when compared to five years ago, and down 83 percent compared to 22 years ago. All of which indicates that New York City’s darkest days are well in the past, regardless of this year’s slight spike. Speaking of, the overall rate of violent crime in New York City is actually down by nearly 7 percent this year.

When Mac Donald talks about Los Angeles, however, suddenly she’s not worried about the homicide rate. Instead, the frightening data point becomes “shootings and other violent felonies.” When you look at CompStat, you see why: although incidents of rape, robbery and aggravated assaults are up, the homicide rate isn’t.

What tells the more accurate story about a crime wave, homicide rates or total violent crime? For MacDonald, it’s whatever statistic looks more alarming.

Yes, but the O.G.s! A former New York City police captain lends some much-needed perspective (boldface mine):

Should people be concerned when crime, especially violent crime, goes up at all? Of course. Should police officials vigorously react, analyzing trends via CompStat and efficiently utilizing resources to minimize and reverse any increases? Of course.

Should we all sell our homes and move to some really boring place far away from the best food and entertainment in the world, or declare our mayor and police commissioner failures? Of course not. Was Rudy Giuliani a failure when murder jumped twice from the previous year on his watch? Was Mike Bloomberg a failure when it happened four times on his?

Cops, especially retired cops, are the greatest in administering bitter reality pills. So here goes: The “very high” percentage increases in murders and shooting victims, nearly 20% and 9% respectively year to date, actually represent in real numbers 22 more murder victims and 36 more shootings. Over five months, in a city of nearly eight and a half millions people. And, these current-year murder stats are still 32% lower than just five years ago.

Here’s some real ancient history for you. We’re down 83% from 1993, when dinosaurs still walked the earth. Yet, you would think there’s a body on every corner based on the run-for-the-hills rhetoric.

If you believe, wrongly, that we are being overrun by a predatory black underclass, then MacDonald’s argument makes ‘sense.’ Meanwhile, in reality, crime rates are still incredibly low in historical terms.

*The author argued that the only thing that would save us from the super-predators would be religion. He later became the head of Bush’s ‘faith-based’ initiatives (that is, funneling money to religious groups that supported the administration regardless of efficacy)

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2 Responses to A Ferguson Effect? Not So Much

  1. anthrosciguy says:

    20 years ago there were 1500 murders in NYC, and that was a downturn from the 2000 plus from each of the four years before it. This year’s rate would have to increase drastically to get near those numbers. And one thing about percentages, as the number of murders drops, the effect of a small number of additional murders makes the percentage climb faster. Victoria, BC had an extreme example of this a few years back, when the murder rate quadrupled… all because a restaurant owner murdered three members of his family.

    The NYC stats I see online up to 5/31/2015 show an additional 23 murders for 2015 YTD compared to 2014. 23, or extrapolating to a full year at 50 more, would be big compared to 2014, but would still be well under 2013’s rate, or the rate of any other year other than 2014. Compared to 25 years ago in 1990, it would be an additional 2%.

  2. anthrosciguy says:

    I see that the linked article has an example of this size effect too, from Mahantan’s 28th precinct, where the scaremonger used an additional five murders to tout a 500% increase. This is an excellent example of how to lie with statistics.

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