'Ferguson effect' did not impact crime in Baltimore – but 'Gray effect' may have

New study finds Michael Brown’s death in Missouri did not cause increase in crime in Baltimore, but there was a dramatic rise following Freddie Gray’s death

In Baltimore, a so-called “Ferguson effect” did not affect the crime rate after Michael Brown’s death in Missouri, according to a new study from Johns Hopkins University researchers. There may, however, have been a “Gray effect” after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, researchers found.

The “Ferguson effect” was a term first coined by St Louis police chief Sam Dotson and picked up by conservative groups to suggest a causal link between crime spikes and increased attention to police misconduct after Brown was shot dead by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson.

Some, such as FBI director James Comey, who did not use the phrase but called it “a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement”, attributed spikes in crime in cities around the country to this effect, which causes officers to be “reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime” because they may be “surrounded by young people with mobile phone cameras held high, taunting them the moment they get out of their cars”.

The Hopkins study, by Stephen L Morgan and Joel A Pally, found that in the period following the death of Brown there was a decrease in discretionary arrests in Baltimore, but there was no correlating increase in crime.

“Overall, evidence for a crime response in the form of Ferguson effect in Baltimore is very weak during this post-Ferguson, pre-Gray period,” the study concludes, noting that “many categories of crime decreased slightly, such as homicide (down 3%), automobile theft (down 7%), common assault (down 13%), and larceny (down 12%). Other categories of crime were unchanged, such as street robbery and burglary”.

They also found, however, that dramatic increases in violent crimes including shootings and homicides occurred after unrest in the city over the death of Freddie Gray from a spinal injury in the back of a police van.

Morgan, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins, recalls the project’s beginning. “After the Freddie Gray arrest and his tragic death, a group of faculty sat down almost immediately to start talking about how we could contribute to understanding what had unfolded and how the future of Baltimore might be affected by the changes and also what might be done to help shape that future.”

Morgan describes himself as a “social scientist who has expertise in analyzing quantitatively oriented data”, so he began looking at Baltimore’s open data portal.

Then he heard Comey’s speech about the “chill wind blowing through law enforcement”.

“Once I saw that [speech] it was clear this was going to become a topic that many people needed to look carefully at,” he said. “And since he mentioned Baltimore in that speech, it was something that I felt we should take our existing project and start to more carefully look at these distinct time intervals,” separating out the period between the death of Brown and the death of Gray, from the period that followed Gray’s death. He also isolated the period of unrest itself, when “the crimes of arson, burglary, and carjacking increased by 653%, 188%, and 397%, respectively”. Conversely, they found that “during that same week, shootings, street robbery, and automobile theft were lower by 39%, 34% and 52%, respectively, relative to the overall Gray period.”

The study recognizes the complex relationship between the national dialogue on policing and local Baltimore circumstances, taking into consideration many possible reasons for the crime surge after Gray’s death.

“One reasonable interpretation of these entangled effects is that the crime spike in the Gray period could be a Ferguson effect that would have remained dormant had it not been ignited by a localized Gray effect,” the report states. “However, the size and duration of the crime spike is almost certainly attributable to particular features of the unrest, possibly including an increase in gang-related conflict over drug distribution as well as a police pullback in protest of the city’s leadership.

“These accelerants have little or no connection to the core narrative of the conjectured Ferguson effect, and as a result at least some portion of the crime spike is probably a genuine Gray effect that cannot be attributed to the Ferguson effect narrative championed by some commentators.”

The study found a decrease in crime in the period after the new police commissioner, Kevin Davis took office, which they dub the “Davis effect”. Davis replaced then-commissioner Anthony Batts, who was fired just after a Fraternal Order of Police report criticized his handling of the riot.

“The commissioner had a vision and he implemented some strategies immediately to focus on violent crime and violent repeat offenders,” said TJ Smith, a department spokesperson.

“I’m happy to see Baltimore has begun the healing process, after decades of pain to that precious community,” Batts said of the study via email.

The raw data was released along with the study and Morgan hopes others will also analyze it and that researchers will undertake similar studies in other cities to understand how events like the death of Brown or Gray can can be sparks or “accelerants” to crime.

The Brennan Center for Justice released a report late last year that also debunked the idea that the “Ferguson effect” meant a national crime wave.

“Rather than a national pandemic, it appears that the increases in murder rates are localized, suggesting that community conditions are a major factor,” the report said.

Rather than attribute these shifts to police brutality incidents, the Brennan report found that Baltimore and four other cities with considerable spikes in violent crime were all in profound economic decline. “The relationship between economics and crime is hotly debated, but it is possible that the weak economies of these cities are a contributing factor to their high murder rates,” the report found.

The Sentencing Project published its own analysis indicating that a rise in homicides in the St Louis area predated the death in Ferguson of Michael Brown and the ensuing protests.

Morgan plans to follow up on his research again next year. “We’ve set the whole thing up so that we can produce one of these things once a year,” he said. “I think everyone is going to be watching what happens this spring and summer for, at least in Baltimore, the uptick for both crime and arrests begins in March.”


Baynard Woods in Baltimore

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