Ferguson effect

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The Ferguson effect says that cops are afraid of doing their job because they might be filmed doing so and having their actions judged — an alleged "slowing down" of enforcement due to, and in fear of, public scrutiny.

The basic argument behind this could be likened to judges claiming they're unable to sentence fairly if trials can't be held secretly, or generals claiming they're unable to fight even a just war effectively as long as the Geneva convention is being uphheld.

Outside of this basic fallacy, however, the matter of the complex relationship between law enforcement and communities in the US is still very much a topic of research and discussion.


The term was first coined by Sam Dotson, chief of the St.Louis Police Department, in a column for the St. Louis Post-DispatchWikipedia in 2014.[1] It then gained popularity after an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal by Heather MacDonald.[2]

In the article, MacDonald states that "unless the demonisation of law enforcement ends, the liberating gains in urban safety will be lost." MacDonald would then go on to quote several police officers, saying that police morale was at an all time low.

The term has also been used by James Comey, director of the FBI, and Chuck Rosenberg, director of the DEA. Chuck Rosenberg said he’s been told by police chiefs across the country that -- with cops now under intense scrutiny and videos of their interactions often posted online -- officers are concerned “rightly or wrongly that [they] become the next viral video.”[3]

Reports and studies[edit]

Law enforcement and politicians alike immediately criticized the concept of a "Ferguson effect". William Bratton, police commissioner of New York City, said he had seen no evidence of the "Ferguson effect" in his city.[4] Lorretta Lynch testified before Congress saying that there was "no data" of any "Ferguson effect".[5] Barack Obama also spoke out against it.[6]

So while the idea of "Ferguson effect" as initially and flatly presented — the idea that the disclosing of racial corruption in the police force would somehow prevent it from functioning — is absurd, the effects of the disharmonious collaboration between the police force and the general public were still being felt and researched.

  • A June 2015 report by the Sentencing Project on the Ferguson effect found that "there is no credible and comprehensive evidence about any [Ferguson] effect."[7]
  • A November 2015 report by the Brennan Center for Justice found that although killings and overall lawlessness were increasing in some U.S. cities, nationwide crime rates were still decreasing, and predicted that crime rates would decrease by 1.5% from 2014 to 2015.[8]
  • In October 2015, the chief of the FBI linked a purported crime spike to the Ferguson effect.[9]
  • A February 2016 study looked at a possible "Ferguson effect" not on crime, but on police willingness to partner with communities. The study found that officers who felt their agency was fair or were confident of their own authority were more likely to partner with their communities, "regardless of the effects of negative publicity".[10]
  • In March 2016, the New York Times reported 84% more murders in Chicago since the previous year (though no conclusions on the Ferguson effect can be drawn directly from the data).[11]
  • In May 2016, the New York Times reported a nationwide rise in homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault and non-fatal shootings and sharp increase in crime of some cities (with the same data limitations as the above rise in murders).[12]
  • Also in May 2016, The Guardian reported on new evidence having led Richard Rosenfeld, a researcher who intially argued the data debunked the Ferguson effect, to change his mind (slightly):

For nearly a year, Richard Rosenfeld's research on crime trends has been used to debunk the existence of a "Ferguson effect", a suggested link between protests over police killings of black Americans and an increase in crime and murder. Now, the St Louis criminologist says, a deeper analysis of the increase in homicides in 2015 has convinced him that "some version" of the Ferguson effect may be real.[13]

The jury is still out on how to read these effects, with an incredible amount of variables, and an already very complex and changing relationship between police, government, communities, and crime throughout the US. What is completely unproven, however, is the suggestion that the very act of encouraging closer scrutiny of bigoted and criminal elements operating inside law enforcement would somehow impede or damage the very ability of said organizations to function properly — unless, of course, part of that function is in part to perpetuate said elements.

See also[edit]