Mimesis Law
6 July 2020

Cause of Death: Ferguson Effect?

Nov. 17, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — The City of Baltimore recorded an unfortunate statistic on Saturday, as the city marked its 300th homicide of the year.  It was followed later that day with the city’s 301st.  As was to be expected, everyone from the media to the police to local advocacy groups all rushed to determine a “reason” for the drastic increase in the numbers.   Apparently, those interviewed by The Washington Post felt that the high numbers were somehow related to the April death of Freddie Gray, albeit with varying perspectives.

Perry Hopkins, a recovering drug addict and a community activist, said much killing has been driven by anger in neighborhoods that have long felt neglected.

“Not knowing how to express that anger . . . it’s being expressed in open, rampant violence,” said Hopkins, an organizer for Communities United.

So, under this theory, murder is a way of expressing one’s self, much like writing, painting, or over-eating.  As noted in the article, Baltimore’s police union had an equally attenuated explanation with their own version of the “Ferguson Effect:”

The police union has complained that the aftermath of the riots [over the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody], during which officers were ordered to “stand down” amid the mayhem, has allowed the violence to swell.  In part because the six officers were charged in Gray’s death, the union said, the 3,000-member force is so demoralized that many are afraid to confront criminals.

If this explanation has any legitimacy, it would be taking the “Ferguson Effect” to a whole new level.  While an increase in crime due to an alleged order to “stand down” during the riots might have some legitimacy for the time period of the riots, it has been over six months since the riots ended.  An article in The Washington Post reported a total of 91 homicides as of May 14th.  The graphic attached to that article noted that the total of homicides were at 68 prior to the Gray riots, but increased by 23 during the 18 day period which began with Gray’s funeral and the beginning of the riots.

That number has gone up by 210 in the six months since that article was written.  Interestingly, although the article notes the upswing in homicides around the time of the riots, it does not identify any fatalities that are a considered a direct result of the riots.

Attributing “causes” to increases and decreases in homicide rates (or any crime rate) is an inexact science, to put it mildly.  While police departments and mayors may want to congratulate themselves for outstanding police work when murder rates drop, this overlooks the human drama behind each and every killing.  Of course, some in law enforcement have an easy answer:

Police chiefs nationwide have, in part, blamed the bloodshed on felons who have a history of violence.            

Apparently, the easy solution for those police chiefs would be to make sure society locks up felons for longer periods of time.  Unfortunately, the solution isn’t that simple and trying to attribute “causes” to overarching homicide rates fails to truly address the reasoning behind why people kill.  A quick cause to blame offers the false hope of an equally quick solution to the problem, but the reality is that there is neither a quick explanation nor a quick solution to homicide.

People kill for many reasons: anger, jealousy, and greed usually seem to be the Big Three.  Trying to attach statistics to these types motivations is a hell of a lot more difficult than pointing the finger at the Ferguson Effect or disenfranchised citizens who don’t know how to appropriately “express that anger.”  Attempting to draw a bead on why some put more value on a human life than others is equally challenging.

Neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys (unless they are bloggers) tend to spend much time dwelling on the societal undercurrents that led to them being in trial.  The job of the criminal lawyer on a murder case is a reactive one.  Although an accused’s motive for killing usually becomes relevant during a trial, neither a prosecutor or defense attorney is likely to blame it on something so abstract.  Most regard that effort as silly.

During my tenure as a prosecutor, I recall being assigned a murder case where a woman had fatally stabbed another woman due to a dispute over two dollars.  At the time, I remember thinking that the value of human life couldn’t get much lower than two dollars.  The following week, I was assigned a case where a man had killed another man in a dispute over one dollar.

The cases mentioned by The Washington Post in the May 17th article and the November 14th article indicate the motives behind the killings had much more to do with drug involvement than malaise.  Interestingly, the May 17th article quotes Rev. Jamal H. Bryant, who had a much more realistic assessment of why homicide rates are at such high rates.

“The young people are engaged,” the pastor said.  “Now there has to be a clear conversation on the contributing factors to murder – lack of jobs, lack of opportunity, hopelessness.  All have contributed to the downsizing of life . . . Young people don’t fear death.  They’ve almost embraced it as part of life in Baltimore.”

Although Baltimore is currently the city in the spotlight, Rev. Bryant’s words could describe almost any large city where there are significant areas of poverty.  Such a bleak outlook on life would naturally tend to diminish the value of other lives.  He speaks to the underlying causes of why people from an impoverished community would have such little regard for life, and notes that those with little regard for life have few qualms about ending one.

Many, if not most, of society’s crimes can be directly linked to areas of high poverty.  For some types of crime, a higher police presence can lead to reduced numbers.  Murder is not one of those crimes.  If a person is of a mind to take another’s life, a police car on the corner is not likely to dissuade him.  As John F. Kennedy once stated about his own safety from murder, “If anyone wants to do it, no amount of protection is enough.  All a man needs is a willingness to trade his life for mine.”

That’s not such a bad trade if you give no value to your own life in the first place.

7 Comments on this post.

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  • Rayray
    19 November 2015 at 9:53 am - Reply

    “All a man needs is a willingness to trade is life for my mine.
    That’s not such a bad trade if you give no value to your own life in the first place.”

    and it depends on how valuable ‘is mine is.

    • shg
      19 November 2015 at 10:09 am - Reply

      Oops. Fixed, thanks.

      • Rayray
        20 November 2015 at 6:44 am - Reply

        “All a man needs is a willingness to trade his life for my mine.”

        You fixed the trivial typo, but not the amusing one. Unless I missed something subtle about giving up ones life for the pursuit of another’s natural resources?

        Inadmissible anyway, hearsay.

        • shg
          20 November 2015 at 6:50 am - Reply

          The funny thing about editing is that you become blind to the typo. What is obvious to fresh eyes can be impossible to see, no matter how hard you stare at it, to someone who has read it a few times. So when someone points to a typo, without noting what the typo is, it remains invisible. I finally saw it, and fixed it. I hope.

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