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June 16, 2016

New NIJ research report explores particulars and reasons for unprecedented 2015 increase in US homicides

The National Institute of Justice this week released this important and interesting new report authored by criminologist Richard Rosenfeld titled "Documenting and Explaining the 2015 Homicide Rise: Research Directions." Here is the report's executive summary:

The debate over the size, scope and causes of the homicide increase in 2015 has been largely free of systematic evidence. This paper documents the scale of the homicide increase for a sample of 56 large U.S. cities. It then examines three plausible explanations of the homicide rise: an expansion of urban drug markets fueled by the heroin epidemic, reductions in incarceration resulting in a growing number of released prisoners in the nation’s cities, and a “Ferguson effect” resulting from widely publicized incidents of police use of deadly force against minority citizens. The paper concludes with a call for the more frequent and timely release of crime information to address crime problems as they arise.

The homicide increase in the nation’s large cities was real and nearly unprecedented.  It was also heavily concentrated in a few cities with large African-American populations. Empirical explanations of the homicide increase must await future research based on year-end crime data for 2015.  Several empirical indicators for assessing the explanations under consideration here are discussed.  For example, if the homicide increase resulted from an expansion in urban drug markets, we should observe larger increases in drug-related homicides than those committed under other circumstances.  If returning prisoners fueled the homicide increase, that should be reflected in growing numbers of homicides committed by parolees.

It will be more difficult to empirically evaluate the so-called Ferguson effect on crime increases, depending on the version of this phenomenon under consideration.  The dominant interpretation of the Ferguson effect is that criticism of the police stemming from widely publicized and controversial incidents of the use of force against minority citizens caused the police to disengage from vigorous enforcement activities. Another version of the Ferguson effect, however, switches the focus from changes in police behavior to the longstanding grievances and discontent with policing in AfricanAmerican communities.  In this interpretation, when activated by controversial incidents of police use of force, chronic discontent erupts into violence.

The de-policing interpretation of the Ferguson effect can be evaluated with data on arrests and other forms of self-initiated activity by the police.  De-policing should be reflected in declining arrest rates in cities experiencing homicide increases.  Tracing the pathways from chronic levels of discontent to an escalation in homicide will ultimately require ethnographic studies in minority communities that reveal, for example, whether offenders believe they can engage in crime without fear that residents will contact the police or cooperate in police investigations.  Such studies could also disclose other linkages between discontent, police use of force and criminal violence.

In summary, the following research questions for documenting and explaining the 2015 homicide rise, at a minimum, should be pursued when the requisite data become available:

• How large and widespread was the homicide increase in 2015? Did other crimes also increase?

• What conditions drove the homicide increase? Candidate explanations must account for the timing as well as the magnitude and scope of the increase.

• What role, if any, did the expansion of drug markets play in the 2015 homicide increase? Was there a relative increase in drug arrests and drug-related homicides?

• Did declining imprisonment rates contribute to the 2015 homicide rise? Was the increase greater in cities with more returning prisoners and among parolees?

• What role did the Ferguson effect play in the homicide rise? If de-policing contributed to the increase, arrest rates should have declined in cities experiencing the largest homicide increases. An open question is how to evaluate the role, if any, of community discontent with the police. Ethnographic studies, among other methods, should be high on the list of research approaches to identify the mechanisms linking police legitimacy and escalating levels of violence.

Researchers would have been in a better position to begin addressing the 2015 homicide rise, with evidence rather than speculation, if timely crime data had been available as the increase was occurring. We would have known whether the homicide rise was confined to large cities, whether other crimes were also increasing, and whether arrest rates were falling. The debate over the homicide increase would have been better informed. Technical impediments to the monthly release of crime data no longer exist. A large and worrisome increase in homicide should be the catalyst to finally bring the nation’s crime monitoring system into the 21st century.

June 16, 2016 at 11:56 AM | Permalink


I respectfully submit that the late Mr. Brown been white , black , indigo , albino , etc. ; and conducted himself as he did then , that he would also have been shot •

Posted by: Docile Jim Brady „ the Nemo Me ♠ Impune Lacessit ♂ in Bend, Oregon ‼ | Jun 16, 2016 12:58:37 PM

The Obama DOJ's decision to drop prosecution of gun criminals is likely part of the problem as well. It is funny--Obama wants new laws to restrict law-abiding citizens' rights, but drops the prosecution of gun criminals. Hmmmm.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 16, 2016 1:02:14 PM

What is a "gun criminal" and which ones aren't being prosecuted?

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Jun 16, 2016 2:14:38 PM

we've been through this before on this website.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 16, 2016 3:14:47 PM

But if you at going to keep attributing crime problems to how the Obama Admin is dealing with gun crimes, federalist, you ought to provide data and/or cites to support your soft on guns claims. In addition, what is the basis for saying Obama wants to prevent law abiding folks from getting guns when it seems he is more focused on how easy it was for the Orlando shooter to get the guns he used,

Posted by: Doug B. | Jun 16, 2016 5:11:36 PM

Doug, I've already provided the data on this website--federal gun law prosecutions are down significantly, and I already provided the stats to back that up.

As for Obama, one sure way to reduce gun violence--prosecute gun criminals. But he's dropping those prosecution--all the while decrying gun violence and yammering about banning so-called assault weapons (I say so-called because the definition of an assault weapon basically boils down to a semi-automatic rifle.)

Posted by: federalist | Jun 16, 2016 6:01:05 PM


Virtually all violent crimes have dropped, substantially, since 1996.

Did Obama's justice department drop its illegal gun activity prosecutions, substantially, more than the crime rates reduced?

I missed your earlier review.

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Jun 17, 2016 7:53:12 AM


there is some back and forth here . . . .

Posted by: federalist | Jun 17, 2016 11:22:43 AM

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