On Wednesday morning's Fox and Friends, legal analyst Peter Johnson, Jr. claimed that crime rates are on the rise due to the "Ferguson effect"—police's hesitation to go after criminals in fear that they'll be punished in the wake of protests against racial profiling. "They are afraid of being arrested themselves for enforcing the law," Johnson said. "They are afraid of stopping people. They are afraid of frisking people ... There is taunting on the street ... Police say, 'I'm going to be sued for a civil rights violation.'"
The show—and FBI director James Comey, who called the phenomenon the "viral video effect"—cited a Major Cities Chiefs Association survey that shows homicide rates in the U.S. have increased by nine percent in the country's largest cities and 33 percent in predominantly black cities over the past year. Proponents of the "Ferguson effect" also sometimes cite a Brennan Center report showing that the murder rate in the country's largest cities increased by 13.2 percent in 2015.
Ironic, huh? The actions of #BLM & the other Cop haters have actually gotten more blacks killed. It's called the "Ferguson Effect."— Joe Walsh (@WalshFreedom) May 22, 2016
Do these numbers actually prove the "Ferguson effect" the way conservatives claim they do?
Karsonya Wise Whitehead, Ph.D. and professor of African and African-American Studies at Loyola University, told Complex that this data has been misinterpreted, as there is no proven causal link between crime rates and protests against police brutality. "Any researcher would understand that two years' worth of data can't prove a correlation," she said. "Is it unemployment? Is it the schools? Is it the national increase in violence? We need to get more numbers."
A report by the Sentencing Project looked at the numbers more carefully and found that in Ferguson, rates of homicide and other violent crimes began increasing before Michael Brown was killed. The property crime rate increased slightly after the shooting, but Whitehead explained that this "didn't hold steady once it was applied across the board and then outside of Ferguson."
"Whatever their cause, double-digit homicide increases in St. Louis and other cities during the past several months should not be discounted as unimportant or as mere 'random fluctuations' in crime statistics—not when so many lives are at stake," the report reads. "But neither should the recent increases be read as a new crime wave, at least not yet."
The Brennan Center released a statement in March regarding the use of its data to bolster arguments about the "Ferguson effect." Overall, it said, crime rates are on the decline. "Crime has been declining for 25 years, and 2015 gave no reason to believe the trend is over. There is no crime wave building just over the horizon," the statement reads. Citing preliminary FBI data, the Brennan Center reported that property crime rates decreased during the first half of 2016, and while there has be a 1.7 percent increase in violent crime nationwide, this "looks less like a 'crime wave,' and more like a brief swell."
Darrel W. Stephens, Executive Director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, told Complex of the organization's survey, "I don't think the data we collected supports the so called Ferguson effect at all."
So why does the myth of the "Ferguson effect" persist?
Rather than having any basis in fact, Whitehead said, claims about the Ferguson effect are part of "a concentrated effort to attack and delegitimize the Black Lives Matter movement."
"The danger of calling this the Ferguson effect is this notion that the cops are refusing to do their job just because the public is standing up and saying 'you can't treat us like this,'" she said. "It's pretty uncomfortable to think that because we don't want to be treated like animals, because we want to be respected in our own communities, we don't have the right to speak up."
The myth of the "Ferguson effect" is a concentrated effort to attack and delegitimize the Black Lives Matter movement.
Kim Wilson, Ph.D., whose research focuses on urban affairs, public policy, and mass incarceration, told Complex that the perception that Black Lives Matter protesters are increasing crime reflects "tacit agreement among large swaths of the American public that the police should always get the benefit of the doubt and that the police are always acting in the best interest of the public. In this context, it is very telling that the term 'the Ferguson effect' was coined by the chief of the St. Louis police department."
"There is no evidence to support this assertion," she added. "The logical response to injustice is protest, and to suggest that protesters are behaving criminally because they want the police to be held accountable for extra-legal killings is to grossly misunderstand what is happening right now." If police were actually more cautious due to these protests, she explained, that would mean "the balance of power has shifted to the extent that protests have nurtured systemic changes"—but it hasn't. In fact, Wilson pointed out that police have killed more than 1,000 people since the Ferguson shooting. Over the course of this year and last year, police killed 88 unarmed black people, according to The Counted.
The myth of the Ferguson effect not only demonizes non-violent protests, but also mischaracterizes race relations in this country, Wilson said. "We are far from living in a place where police officers take the concerns of black people seriously and where they worry about their actions."
UPDATED 10:20 p.m. ET: This story was updated to include comment from Darrel W. Stephens.