Spreading The Lie: The Ferguson Effect

There aren’t always two sides to every story. Oftentimes, it’s false equivalencies masquerading as “fair and balanced,” and when it’s coupled with a cool descriptor, writers just can’t bear to think hard enough to resist the urge to run with it. Not even writers at the New York Times.

Cities across the nation are seeing a startling rise in murders after years of declines, and few places have witnessed a shift as precipitous as this city. With the summer not yet over, 104 people have been killed this year — after 86 homicides in all of 2014.

The city would be Milwaukee. Then there’s St. Louis, which is almost Ferguson (as in Michael Brown). Increases in murders are happening elsewhere as well. Baltimore (as in Freddie Gray) and others as well. Startling? Perhaps. But also useful.

Law enforcement experts say disparate factors are at play in different cities, though no one is claiming to know for sure why murder rates are climbing. Some officials say intense national scrutiny of the use of force by the police has made officers less aggressive and emboldened criminals,

Note that the above quote doesn’t end the sentence. But it sets forth at length and in detail the “law enforcement” narrative.  The counter narrative is

though many experts dispute that theory.

Ending the sentence and, in six lackluster words, providing the minimal proviso for plausible deniability.  Except this time, it’s the phony narrative that drives the story, creating yet another media myth that law enforcement desperately hopes will reframe the story, blunt the impact of dead bodies at the end of cop bullets, and shift focus off police needlessly killing unarmed black men and onto the hysteria of the crime wave of rampant murder out of control!

And the kicker:  It’s all because protests and public outcries have impaired brave guardians of justice, who risk their lives and have to make split second decisions, from saving the good people from the murdering horde.

And the New York Times is dutifully spewing the police PR.

Among some experts and rank-and-file officers, the notion that less aggressive policing has emboldened criminals — known as the “Ferguson effect” in some circles — is a popular theory for the uptick in violence.

You see? You see? All your harping on cops murdering people, and you did this. You made this happen. Murders are out of control and it’s all because of the “Ferguson effect.” You happy now, murder enablers?

It’s reminiscent of the old tried and true cop union slogan, “if you don’t like cops, next time you’re in trouble, call a criminal.”  Except this time, it’s got a shorthand, a way cooler name, the “Ferguson Effect.”  FOP officials around the nation are laughing, drinking Rheingold and high-fiving until their hands bleed.

At the Atlantic,  Ta-Nehisi Coates makes quick work of calling it all a load of unadulterated bullshit, but then, it’s the Atlantic (as in, not the Gray Lady) and what else would Coates say, even though he’s absolutely right.

One might defend these paragraphs on the grounds of objectivity. But the writing here is not so much objective as it is vague. Note the deployment of qualifiers and weasel words—“some experts,” “some circles,” “other factors.” Note the juxtaposing of one expert opinion unhampered by facts (“the equilibrium has changed”) with another expert opinion directly rooted in one crucial fact (the rise in homicides in St. Louis precedes the Ferguson protests.)

Weasel words are the red flag, yet vagueness seems to fly over people’s heads these days, as thinking is bad for their health, and vague feelings are close enough.

But then came another post with this quote:

The murder rate is way up, so far this year, in dozens of U.S. cities, and federal and local law enforcement officials aren’t sure why or what to do about it.

Some blame the so-called Ferguson effect, a theory that the rioting and racial tension that followed the slaying of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in a small city outside of St. Louis has led to more lenient law enforcement and more crime. However, this hasn’t been proven, some say the data actually suggests that other factors may be contributing to a dramatic rise in homicides, the New York Times (reg. req.) reports.

Guess where this quote comes from? PoliceOne? Police Beat Magazine?  Noooooo. This comes from the ABA Journal, the trailing indicator of anything newsworthy in the law, and lover of all things shiny.

Sure, there is the final sentence of the second paragraph providing the required escape hatch, as every competent journalist knows must be included to cover butt just in case, but it’s buried in the caboose.

With fairness it doesn’t deserve, the ABA Journal doesn’t actually report, but regurgitates stories reported elsewhere. Its writers crank out words to put on pages to create the appearance of relevance. They don’t have time to ponder whether the story promotes crap. Crank it out and move on to the next one.

But the ABA Journal, which isn’t the mouthpiece of the ABA but a separate entity feeding off the association’s cred, feeds the prejudice of lawyers who don’t realize what they’re being fed, and it’s flagrantly apparent in the comments to the post. Lawyers who either don’t practice criminal law, or are thinking challenged, take it at face value. It’s must be true. It’s in the ABA Journal.

And then they use their license (hey, I’m a lawyer. I must know law stuff better than you) to validate prejudice, lies and nonsense. And indeed, the cop spin grows into the myth, and hysteria is validated and we can put all this ugly “bad cop” stuff behind us to end this epidemic of murder.

For a bright, shining moment, there was hope of reform, hope that the public was finally coming to realize that our heroes in blue were gunning a whole lot of black men (and women, and white people, all of whom shared one characteristic: they weren’t cops) down in the streets, and maybe, just maybe, it’s not good for cops to kill first.

And then the New York Times prints cop spin as if it’s real, making the public stupider. And the ABA Journal regurgitates it, making lawyers stupider. And all is right again with the world.

Maybe there is a “Ferguson Effect,” but it’s not what the murder apologists say it is. Maybe it’s our deepest desire to feed us any excuse, any lie, to allow us to cling tight to our need to believe police, to adore cops, no matter how many unarmed people die needlessly.  Maybe we just need a good night’s sleep, basking in the warm glow of a return to trusting that the police will protect us from those evil murderers.  Those other evil murderers.