Why Is the Murder Rate Increasing?

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Over at Vox, Dara Lind has a longish piece about the “Ferguson Effect,” the notion that homicides are up because police are afraid to do their jobs in an era of viral videos and public backlash against police violence:

Just like there’s been a certain reluctance to admit homicide is rising at all among people who don’t want to blame Black Lives Matter protesters for it, there’s been reluctance to attribute any rise in homicides to changes in policing….But the reality is that changes in policing do affect crime rates. Indeed, “proactive” policing — in forms that have officers walking around neighborhoods and building relationships with their residents — is one of the most effective things a city can do to prevent crime. You just have to look at the correct scale: Police departments are local institutions, and they affect things on a local scale.

“Gun violence is very local,” says crime analyst Jeff Asher. “And changes in gun violence patterns probably have local explanations.” So he doesn’t give much credence to Comey’s version of the Ferguson effect theory — that the hypothetical fear of being the subject of a viral video somewhere is changing how cops around the country do their jobs. “There’s little evidence in the places we can measure it,” he says, “that proactivity in, say, Louisville, went down because of events in St. Louis or Baltimore.”

The problem, of course, is that this kind of thing is difficult to measure, which means the Ferguson Effect is all but impossible to verify. Personally I’m skeptical: homicide rates appear to be up a lot more than overall violent crime rates, and that’s hard to square with any kind of policing theory. And it’s important to get this right: If we choose the wrong theory about why murder rates are up, we have almost no chance of getting them back down. Liberals and conservatives alike need to be willing to go wherever the data leads them.

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