Gentle reader, you may be forgiven if you’ve come to think I write about nothing but the “Ferguson effect,” i.e., the current tendency among many police officers to refrain from proactive police work or else risk a life-altering confrontation while trying to make an arrest. My previous four columns (find them here) have covered this topic, and now here I am again, banging on that same tired drum. I don’t do this for lack of desire to write about other things. Rather, this phenomenon is simply the most important development in police work since the advent of data-driven police work some 25 years ago. In 1990 there were 2,245 murders in New York City; in 2014 there were 328. In Los Angeles, there were 1,092 murders in 1992; in 2014 there were 260.
More than any other factor, it was data-driven police work, carried out by well-trained, well-informed, and well-motivated cops that brought these grim numbers to their currently more tolerable levels. But now it’s all being undone, and in city after city the trend is once again pointing toward higher crime. America’s police officers are today just as well trained and informed, but they are less motivated to do the proactive police work that keeps criminals in check.
And, as I’ve written before, over and over again, the Ferguson effect and the Black Lives Matter movement that gave rise to it are based on the poisonous lie that the greatest peril to young black men in America is that posed by racist, trigger-happy cops. Put aside for the moment the fact that for every black man killed by a police officer there are dozens killed by other black men. There is now evidence that police officers are less likely to shoot a black suspect than a white one.
Call it a corollary to the Ferguson effect. The Washington Post reported last month on research conducted at Washington State University that attempted to measure racial bias in a group of police officers and how that bias affected the officers’ actions in simulated encounters. The researchers used training simulators in which officers carry weapons that fire an infrared beam onto a screen, on which are projected various scenarios in which an officer may find himself. The officers, 80 volunteers from the Spokane Police Department, were each put through six scenarios in which they encountered armed and unarmed suspects, some of them black, others white. More than 1,500 scenarios were recorded and measured.
The tests were conducted between August 2012 and November 2013, well before the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo., that launched the Black Lives Matter movement and gave the Ferguson effect its name. The officers were nearly all male and all white, reflecting the makeup of the Spokane police force. In addition to the scenarios, the officers were given a series of tests, including the Harvard Implicit Association Test, which seeks to detect racial bias by linking pictures of black and white faces with pictures of weapons. “Perhaps stunningly,” reports the Post, “96 percent of the nearly all white officers demonstrated implicit racial bias, with 78 percent strongly or moderately associating blacks with weapons, and zero percent associating whites with weapons. So that’s the baseline test group for the study.” (Italics in the original.)
Despite this, the study showed that “officers took significantly longer to shoot armed black suspects than armed white suspects.” On average, the officers took 0.23 seconds longer to shoot an armed black suspect than an armed white suspect. Of the unarmed suspects, whites were shot 54 times but blacks only twice. Adjusting for the actual ratio of blacks to whites among the suspects, the researchers found that “officers were slightly more than three times less likely to shoot unarmed black suspects than unarmed white suspects.” One of the researchers, Lois James, summed it up nicely. “These findings,” she said, “call into question the validity of the widespread assumption that implicit racial bias is the cause of the disproportionate number of racial minorities in officer-involved shootings.”
James believes the difference detected can be traced to officers’ fears of the “consequences of shooting a member of a historically oppressed racial group…paired with the awareness of media backlash that follows an officer shooting a minority suspect.”
One doubts that the officers use terms like “historically oppressed racial group,” but so be it. Remember, the study was conducted before the uproar that followed the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, which was not a singular event marking a sea change in police work, but was rather a highly charged and highly publicized example of a trend that began years ago. Indeed, back in 2001 I concluded a column at National Review Online with a little prayer that summed up the police officer’s lot, then as now: “God, if I have to hurt someone today, please let it be a white guy.”
To this point, James cited an interview conducted by my friend David Klinger, a former LAPD officer now working as a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. Klinger has done extensive research on police shootings, some of which can be found in his book, Into the Kill Zone: A Cop’s Eye View of Deadly Force. Klinger interviewed an officer who recounted an incident in which a black suspect was menacing people with a rifle. “The whole time I was telling him I was going to shoot him,” he told Klinger. “I was thinking, ‘They’ll crucify me on the news tomorrow if I shoot this black guy in the back.’”
Just so. That interview took place in 2004, and based on recent events one can speculate that the typical police officer is today even more circumspect when it comes to using force on black suspects. But here’s the rub: as officers retreat from the proactive police work that makes crime go down, the increase in crime will result in more radio calls, some of which will lead to confrontations with suspects who have not yet made their escape. And some of those suspects, now emboldened by the police retreat, will be more likely to resist efforts to arrest them.
Perhaps some sense of sanity will be restored before New York sees 2,000 murder in a year or Los Angeles sees 1,000. But with the current state of political leadership in those two cities and elsewhere, I don’t see the trend going anywhere but up.