Homicide rates are up in dozens of cities across the U.S. Milwaukee, St. Louis and Baltimore are seeing increases of more than 50 percent compared to this time last year. Yet there is reason to be skeptical as to whether these numbers reflect sustained trends. They span a very short amount of time and may simply reflect normal fluctuations.
Although it is too soon to make definitive conclusions about these trends, already speculations abound. The one which seems to have gotten the most traction is the so-called "Ferguson effect," which suggests that police are less willing to be proactive after highly publicized cases such as Michael Brown's and Freddie Gray's, and in response to the "Black Lives Matter" movement. Under this explanation, homicide rates have increased because of police disengagement, emboldening criminals to commit crimes unhindered.
Decades of criminological research suggest there is indeed reason to be concerned about the potential influence on crime rates of Ferguson and Baltimore and other highly publicized cases. But not in the manner suggested by the Ferguson Effect. Research finds that law is most effective when it is perceived as having high levels of legitimacy. According to studies, when people have trust and confidence in the criminal justice system, they are more likely to act in accordance with the law. When citizens question whether police and other criminal justice officials act in a fair and impartial manner, when they fear that interactions with the police will result in unwarranted levels of bodily harm, and when they doubt that police will thoroughly investigate questionable actions by fellow officers, legal cynicism, in which people perceive the law as illegitimate, unresponsive, and ill equipped to ensure public safety, is likely to result.
When individuals lose trust in the police they are also more likely to take matters into their own hands when conflicts arise. Studies find that retaliatory violence is more common in impoverished neighborhoods that also suffer from tense police-community relations. Thus recent highly publicized events in Ferguson, New York City and Baltimore may pose a "legitimacy challenge" to the criminal justice system, creating a legitimacy deficit that increases legal cynicism and encourages individuals to take the law into their own hands. This — rather than the Ferguson Effect — may account for the rising death rates in cities throughout the U.S.
The issue of police legitimacy is not just about the number of deaths in police custody. It's also about the role race played in New York's decades long stop-and-frisk policy (which was subsequently found to be implemented in a racially discriminatory manner and declared unconstitutional in the courts). It's that the U.S. Department of Justice investigation discovered clear systematic discrimination against African Americans by police in Ferguson in traffic stops, searches and use of force, and that these practices were motivated in part by discriminatory intent. It's fueled by the daily injustices and indignities suffered by many minorities across the nation.
The tragic deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Walter Scott are merely the flash points by which all these issues ignite.
One implication of the so-called "Ferguson Effect" is that protesters must suppress their concerns and make police feel supported, lest homicide rates continue to rise. But this mentality is dangerous and self-defeating if it does not address the challenge to legitimacy posed by these cases. It also implies that our criminal justice system is too fragile to withstand scrutiny.
A central tenet of legitimacy theory is that people should feel their viewpoint has been heard, whether or not a decision is made in their favor. Yet many police departments (as well as pundits and newscasters) have been all too willing to dismiss community concerns as unwarranted without fully examining the complaints. Few departments have made any move to allow external investigations into shootings by their police officers, and there has not been reassurance that police departments are tracking their data to ensure neutrality in police interactions.
When criminal justice leaders step forward to acknowledge concerns and create concrete plans of action to ensure fairness it is likely to increase legitimacy in the system, making the nation a safer place for everyone — including the police themselves. To reclaim legitimacy, it is necessary to explicitly recognize the wounds and the concerns behind the protests and to publicly work for effective solutions, or at the very least greater transparency.
Tracy Sohoni (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a visiting assistant professor at the College of William and Mary. Charis Kubrin (email@example.com) is a professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine.