The Ferguson Effect and Cop-Killing – Update

July 14, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

On May 29, Heather MacDonald wrote in the Wall Street Journal (here): 

A handful of highly publicized deaths of unarmed black men, often following a resisted arrest . . .have led to riots, violent protests and attacks on the police. Murders of officers jumped 89% in 2014, to 51 from 27.

I don’t know why MacDonald was apparently so eager primed to see an increase in cop-killing following protests and some rioting about cops killing unarmed people. In a post three days later (here), I offered some numbers showing that there was no Ferguson effect in the deaths of police officers.

Yesterday, criminologist and former cop Peter Moskos blogged (here):

July 13, 2015
Headline you won't see:

Police officer line-of-duty deaths are down 15 percent this year.  Gunfire deaths are down 38 percent.

Odd, because a lot of reporters were calling me last year when the numbers were up.

“Is it Ferguson?!” “Is it Obama?!” “Are criminals less brazen?!” “Has training gotten better?!” “Are criminals worse shots?!”

Those imagined questions aren’t so different from the questions reporters were asking about the 2014 increase. Reporters work on deadline. They want an explanation – any explanation will do – and they want it before 3 p.m. Maybe criminologists at the Manhattan Institute writing for the WSJ are under similar pressure.

Peter’s answer would, I assume, be that these are fairly small numbers, so short-run percentage increases can look misleadingly huge, and those increases can be created by a few isolated events that have nothing to do with long-term trends. As plain-spoken Peter puts it, “For the record, just like I said last year, I don't think it’s a big deal.


Andrew Gelman said...


You write, "I don’t know why MacDonald was so eager to see an increase in cop-killing following protests and some rioting about cops killing unarmed people."

I don't think calling her "eager" is quite fair. Isn't it just that she disagrees with the protests, thus she is primed to see evidence showing that the protests lead to bad things? You can disagree with her on this (and indeed it seems that she jumped to conclusions based on noisy data; I hope she follows up with an acknowledgement of her error) but her attitude hardly seems mysterious to me.

Jay Livingston said...

You say “primed,” I say “eager.”
Am I being less than fair? I guess so.

Andrew Gelman said...


In either case, I think her motivation is clear enough. Back in 2010, many conservatives had some satisfaction in seeing the country go into recession. Not because they wanted people to suffer but because they thought Obama's economic policies were bad and there was some satisfaction in seeing their beliefs borne out. Similarly with liberals in the 1982 recession. It's a natural I-told-you-so response, right?

Jay Livingston said...

"I told you so" probably doesn't win you many converts even when you're right, especially if it means that you appear to be rooting for bad stuff to happen to the country – more crime, a worse economy, military defeat, etc. Thus when Democrats pointed out that the Iraq war wasn't going swimmingly, Ann Coulter accused them of wanting it to go badly. She called them “Defeatocrats” (clever, clever Ann). On the other hand, Rush Limbaugh soon after Obama’s election said he outright that he was hoping Obama would fail. And this was in the worst years of the recession. I don’t think it cost Rush any adherents.