As cities like Baltimore and St. Louis continue to struggle with rising homicides and non-fatal shootings, the release of the LMPD UCR Report for January-June 2018 shows Louisville is making progress.
Though numbers remain above historic averages, January-June 2018 has had the fewest homicides since 2015 and fewest shootings since 2014.
Additionally, Louisville’s three most violent police divisions - the First, Second, and Fourth - have all seen significant decreases in homicide from last year.
The decrease in the Fourth Division is particularly encouraging given that it builds on an 18 homicide decrease from 2016 to 2017.
All of this is good, but it raises as many questions as it provides answers. Why the decline in homicides and shootings now? Is it sustainable?
Changes in policing may hold the answers.
Police are the element of the criminal justice system most visible to the public and the arm with which citizens are most likely to interact. When managed effectively, policing can be a powerful crime deterrent and can meaningfully impact crime rates. In fact, “[t]he American system of criminal justice is predicated on an assumption of effective policing. After all, in order to deter criminals and punish the evil-doers you have to catch them.” So one explanation for these decreases is the increase in self-initiated police activity that began in 2017.
To understand why this matters, we must first understand what self-initiated police activity is, and why the decrease in it occurred here. Self-initiated police activity typically includes things like pedestrian checks, building checks, occupied and unoccupied vehicle checks, foot patrol, and problem solving. One study of a St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department experiment found that hot spots that received self-initiated enforcement experienced a significant reduction in firearm assault rates compared to sites that received directed patrol and sites that received neither.
Here in Louisville, beginning in 2015, self-initiated police activity and arrests dropped significantly. At the time, Sgt. David Mutchler, then-president of the River City Fraternal Order of Police pointed to the so-called “Ferguson Effect” as one of the reasons for the drop.
The Ferguson Effect, a term popularized by Manhattan Institute Fellow Heather Mac Donald in a 2015 Wall St. Journal op-ed, refers to the withdraw from proactive policing policies following the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. A 2017 Pew Research Center study found that 72% of officers say they or other officers in their department are more reluctant to stop and question people who seem suspicious. Mac Donald argues that this withdraw from proactive policing is the chief contributor to the increases in violent crime and homicide since 2015.
It’s a claim backed up by a recent Department of Justice study by University of Missouri-St. Louis professor Richard Rosenfeld. Rosenfeld, whose prior work had been used to “debunk” the existence of the Ferguson Effect, gives the issue a second look. The study, examining the 2015 homicide surge, rules out the illegal drug trade, or a wave of ex-convicts getting released from prison as potential causes of the increased violence. Rosenfeld does lay the blame at the feet at “some version” of the Ferguson Effect. What’s clear from Rosenfeld’s study is that “violence escalates when individuals and communities are alienated from the legitimate means of social control.”
During the decrease in self-initiated activity in Louisville, homicides rose sharply.
Luckily, the 2017 reversal has continued so far in 2018, with January-April self-initiated activity up more than 8% over the same period of 2017. These increases should be a welcome development for residents who justifiably want greater police presence. There remains more work to be done, homicides are still above average and self-initiated police activity is still below average, but these two statistics are moving in the right direction.