Ferguson and police use of deadly force.

Author:Rosenfeld, Richard
Position:Policing, Protesting and Perceptions: A Critical Examination of the Events in Ferguson

    The killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked widespread protests in the St. Louis area and across the nation. (1) Protests and civil unrest resumed after a St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict the police officer. (2) Protesters and commentators raised several issues related to the Ferguson incident and police use of deadly force. This Article addresses four of those issues: (1) Why Ferguson? (2) Did the Ferguson killing and ensuing civil unrest increase crime rates in St. Louis? (3) What is known about police use of deadly force? (4) What additional information is needed to understand and respond effectively to police use of deadly force? These are certainly not the only issues provoked by the Ferguson events, but they have both research and policy significance, and they have also been raised in response to other controversial police use-of-force incidents in Cleveland, New York City, Baltimore, and elsewhere.

    The report by the U.S. Department of Justice ("DOJ") on the Ferguson Police Department ("FPD") offers several reasons why Ferguson was ripe for protests and civil unrest over police practices in the city's African-American community, including aggressive enforcement of municipal ordinances to generate revenue, inadequate training and supervision related to police use of force, and a pattern of racial bias in policing that eroded trust in the police by African Americans. (3) Yet, such practices are clearly not unique to this small suburban community, (4) and the DOJ report also notes that many Ferguson residents, both black and white, take pride in their city, particularly its racial diversity: "Pride in this aspect of Ferguson is well founded; Ferguson is more diverse than most of the United States, and than many of its surrounding cities. It is clear that many Ferguson residents of different races genuinely embrace that diversity." (5)

    Shortly after rioting erupted in response to Michael Brown's killing, a reporter wrote: "It's still unclear why ... tensions boiled over. But to many people, it had little to do with this town." (6) This Article documents similarities and differences between Ferguson and its surrounding communities, including the City of St. Louis, that may help to explain why a controversial police killing took place there.

    The second issue addressed here concerns the putative connection drawn by police and public officials between the police killing in Ferguson and increasing crime rates in St. Louis. Drawing on the experience of Cincinnati, Ohio, where crime rates rose after rioting broke out in response to a fatal police shooting in 2001, police and other public officials attributed the crime increase in St. Louis to a "Ferguson effect" that emboldened criminals while diverting police from normal patrols to address civil unrest in the city. (7) This Article analyzes month-by-month changes in crime between 2013 and 2014 to determine whether the Ferguson events may have spurred crime increases in St. Louis.

    The third issue this Article considers is the state of empirical research on police use of deadly force. The research literature focuses on the social conditions in states and, to a lesser degree, cities that are associated with police killings of citizens. (8) This Article maintains that neighborhoods constitute a better unit of analysis in such research and reports the results of a recent neighborhood-level study of police use of deadly force in St. Louis. (9) The study recommends major improvements in the information systems used to monitor and explain police use of force in the United States.

    That is the fourth issue taken up in this Article: the woefully inadequate state of the evidence on police use of force in the United States. Public and scholarly debate regarding the use of force by the police is not limited to the recent incident in Ferguson. It has emerged periodically over the past several decades, typically after highly publicized incidents in which the police injure or kill an unarmed suspect. The debates surrounding these incidents have produced calls to reform police practices. But both the debates and recommendations lack a strong research foundation. From a scientific standpoint, it is not an overstatement to concede that very little is known about the conditions under which the police decide to use force and the consequences of these decisions for specific incidents and for the communities in which police use of force occurs with some frequency. (10) This Article concludes with several recommendations for improving the evidence base regarding the police use of force in ways that can enhance scientific inquiry, inform public debate, and promote more effective policy responses.


    Ferguson, Missouri, is a St. Louis suburb with a current population of just over 21,000 residents." It is located in the northern part of St. Louis County, a few miles from the St. Louis City border, as shown in Figure 1. (12) Like most other American cities, St. Louis has a long history of residential racial segregation that has persisted to the present. (13) Figure 1 shades census tracts in the city and county by racial composition: the darker the shading, the higher the proportion of African Americans in the census tract. The figure reveals that African-American residents are concentrated in the northern sections of the city and county. The southern areas are largely white. Ferguson is something of an outlier in this respect, with census tracts that are largely white, largely black, and mixed-race. Michael Brown lived and was killed in a predominantly black neighborhood in the southeast section of Ferguson. (14)


    The racial composition of Ferguson has undergone a reversal in just the past two decades. In 1990, the city's population was 74% white and 25% black; by 2010, the black population had risen to 67% and the white population had fallen to 29%. (16) The growth of the black population has been accompanied by rising rates of poverty and unemployment. Table 1 compares Ferguson's current poverty rate and unemployment rate with those of St. Louis County and St. Louis City. (17) On both indicators, Ferguson is more similar to the city than the county, with high rates of poverty and unemployment that far exceed those in St. Louis County as a whole.

    High levels of economic disadvantage are generally accompanied by correspondingly high rates of crime. (19) That is not the case in Ferguson, at least with respect to violent crimes. As shown in Table 1, homicide and total violent crime (20) rates in Ferguson in 2013, the year before Michael Brown was killed, were much closer to those in the remainder of St. Louis County than to those in St. Louis City. Ferguson's property crime (21) rates were somewhat closer to those in the city. To be clear, Ferguson is hardly free of criminal violence; its homicide rate in 2013 was just over twice the national rate of 4.5 per 100,000 inhabitants. (22) But Ferguson residents are 75% less likely to become the victim of a homicide than their St. Louis counterparts with whom they share demographic risk factors. (23) That is one reason why people, including those of modest means, left the city for the safer confines of suburban communities like Ferguson. (24)

    Ferguson's violent crime rate is not only well below that in St. Louis, it is also lower than those of several of its suburban neighbors. For example, the City of Jennings (population 14,752), located to the southeast of Ferguson, had a violent crime rate of 10.8 per 1000 residents in 2013, over twice the Ferguson rate of 4.8 per 1000 residents. (25) The City of Berkeley (population 9099), to the west, had a violent crime rate of 6.4 per 1000. (26) The rate in Dellwood (population 5004), to the east, was 6.8 per 1000, and the rate in Normandy (population 4987), to the south, was equal to Ferguson's at 4.8 per 1000. (27) Among Ferguson's nearest neighbors, only Florissant (population 52,363), to the north, had a lower violent crime rate than Ferguson's in 2013. (28) At 1.6 violent crimes per 1000 residents, Florissant's rate was also lower than that of St. Louis County as a whole. (29)

    What light might these comparisons shed on why Ferguson experienced a controversial police shooting? Of course, explaining a single occurrence of a rare event is inherently difficult. Other things equal, however, we might have expected that such an incident would have been more likely to occur in one of Ferguson's neighbors with a higher rate of violent crime. Yet, as explained below, some evidence suggests that police shootings may be less frequent in the most violent communities than in those with mid-levels of violent crime--places like Ferguson. Before reviewing research on police shootings, the claim that the events in Ferguson spurred a crime rise in St. Louis is evaluated.


    Does widespread and heavily publicized protest activity directed at alleged police misconduct result in higher crime rates? At first glance, that appeared to be true in St. Louis after Michael Brown was killed. After declining or holding steady for several years, the number of violent crimes in St. Louis rose by 5.3% in 2014 over the previous year. (30) The increase in homicide was especially pronounced. In 2014, the police department recorded 159 homicides, a 32.5% increase over the 2013 total of 120. (31) As noted above, some public officials have attributed the crime increase in St. Louis to the police shooting in Ferguson that led to protest demonstrations in St. Louis, as well as Ferguson. The protests were also in response to two fatal police shootings that occurred in St. Louis after the Ferguson incident. (32)

    To determine with certainty whether the Ferguson events caused crime increases in St. Louis, we would have to know the crime...

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