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Evidence of a ‘Ferguson Effect’ on Baltimore Arrests Before Unrest

March 15, 2016
CONTACT: Jill Rosen
Office: 443-997-9906
Cell: 443-547-8805

A “Ferguson effect” likely decelerated arrests in Baltimore well before the April 2015 unrest related to the arrest and death of Freddie Gray, but there is little evidence to suggest it influenced the city’s crime rate, a new report concludes.

Sociologist Stephen L. Morgan analyzed crime incident and arrest data to determine if national controversy over the 2014 shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, had caused Baltimore police to shy away from making arrests. He also sought to determine if crime subsequently rose in Baltimore as a result.

While arrests in the city did drop after 2014’s highly publicized protests in Ferguson,  Morgan, a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor at the Johns Hopkins University, found no related crime spike.

“People looking for a Ferguson effect tend to look in the wrong place,” Morgan said. “They look at crime rates, but if there is a Ferguson effect, it should be observed in the behavior of the police. People should have been looking at arrests all along.”

Morgan’s study was one part of Johns Hopkins’ “rapid response” effort to examine last April’s Baltimore unrest, its root causes and its consequences for the city.

Morgan and Joel A. Pally, a researcher in the Sociology Department, studied 292,721 recorded crime incidents from 2010 through 2015 and 110,755 arrests from 2013 through 2015. They found evidence of any Ferguson effect on crime rates to be “very weak” for the eight months between the Missouri protests and Freddie Gray’s arrest on April 12, 2015, and his subsequent death from injuries suffered in custody. Many types of crime were actually down during the period, including homicide, assault, automobile theft and larceny.

During the same time, however, they found changes in arrest rates consistent with a Ferguson effect on police conduct. Total arrests during the period fell by 19 percent, compared to the same period in the previous year. The declines in arrests were most substantial for less serious crimes like property destruction, driving violations, prostitution and disorderly conduct. Violent crime arrests did not decrease. According to the researchers, this suggests police had moved away from making arrests for types of crime for which they had discretion to use other tactics.

Other key findings include:

  • In the three months following the arrest of Freddie Gray, in addition to a spike in Baltimore shootings and homicides already reported by the news media, there were large increases in other types of crime, including street robbery, commercial robbery, carjacking and automobile theft.
  • Between April 20 and July 12, after the unrest in Baltimore, arrests continued to decline. Total arrests dropped an additional 30 percent during this time, in particular the minor crime arrests already in decline before the Gray protests.
  • It is unclear if the crime spike after April 20 is evidence of a Ferguson effect, the researchers say. More likely, they say, the crime wave can be attributed to a localized “Gray effect.”

Arrests increased and crime declined after the appointment of new Baltimore police commissioner Kevin Davis in July.

Increased public scrutiny of police action nationwide in the wake of the Ferguson protests likely caused Baltimore police – in a city five states east of Missouri – to think twice about certain arrests, the report suggests. But that operational change did not immediately lead to more crime, it says.

“It can be good for the community when police officers use discretionary alternatives to arrests,” Morgan said. “Our report suggests an increase in crime does not always follow.”

This work was supported by the 21st Century Cities Initiative of Johns Hopkins.


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