The dismal tradeoff on police violence in America
Over the past decade, pivotal moments have forced Americans to confront the deep-seated issues of racial inequality and police brutality. The tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014, and the horrifying murder of George Floyd in 2020, among others, propelled an uprising that united many Americans under the banner of Black Lives Matter (BLM). While these protests have undeniably drawn attention to systemic problems, they have also laid bare the deep divisions within our nation as we grapple with the best path forward on the road to achieving racial justice.
To contribute to this ongoing debate, I conducted a thorough examination of the impact of BLM protests on police behavior, which is detailed in my recent article in the Journal of Urban Economics, “Black Lives Matter’s Effect on Police Lethal Use of Force.” To assess the influence of BLM protests on police conduct, I compared changes in police behavior between cities that experienced early protests during the Mike Brown era and cities that witnessed protests only during the later George Floyd era, provided they were on a similar trend before protests began. This comparison allowed me to uncover the effect of BLM protests over the five years between each wave of protests, which is notably prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
My findings suggest that BLM protests prompted police departments to scale back their interactions with the public and adopt body cameras, leading to an increase in crime and a decrease in police killings. Over the five years following local BLM protests, property crime arrests dropped by approximately 12 percent, while reported murders surged by roughly 11.5 percent, equating to over 3,000 additional homicides nationwide. Moreover, the property-crime clearance rate experienced a sharp 8 percent decline, pointing to a significant decrease in police activity.
The above statistics offer compelling evidence of a substantial reduction in law enforcement engagement with the communities they serve. The combined effect of police pullback and the widespread adoption of body cameras led to a remarkable 10 to 15 percent reduction in police killings, approximately 200 fewer deaths across the country.
These results can be explained by a phenomenon known as the “Ferguson effect.” A growing body of research supports the idea that when protests draw public attention to officer-involved killings, police officers become less proactive. They pull back from enforcing the law or engaging in practices aimed at ensuring public safety due to fear of criticism, lawsuits or simply low morale. As aversion to the criminal justice system increases and willingness to cooperate with law enforcement decreases, some citizens resort to violence to resolve conflicts, potentially explaining the rise in homicides following certain protests.
The shifts in community violence following these protests have profound implications for social welfare. Studies consistently show that violent environments have detrimental effects on mental health, sleep patterns, academic performance and cognitive abilities. Violence creates ripples, affecting not just the immediate victims but also witnesses, individuals connected to the victim or perpetrator, and even unaware community members who bear the consequences through heightened security measures and diminished employment prospects. These findings underscore the dire consequences of the increase in murders observed after BLM protests.
Meanwhile, the reduction in lethal force following BLM protests is a gain for societal wellbeing. Police violence carries far-reaching consequences, affecting the health and education of communities, especially Black mental health, and increasing the likelihood of future crimes, including homicides. Furthermore, it erodes trust and cooperation within communities, exacerbating the very problems it seeks to address. Indeed, research indicates that the spillover effects of police homicides on education are nearly twice as large as those of civilian homicides.
However, considering the much higher frequency of civilian homicides, these findings do not imply that police killings are more damaging than civilian homicides in aggregate. They do, however, suggest that using the rise in civilian homicides and the fall in police killings to construct a simple measure of lives saved/lost is insufficient to capture the broader social welfare implications.
My findings unveil a dilemma with dire consequences — a choice between ignoring incidents of excessive force to maintain a motivated police force that prevents crime, and exerting public pressure on the police to reduce unnecessary force at the cost of disengagement, allowing criminal activity to fester. Clearly, new policies are needed to circumvent this dismal trade-off.
Achieving the dual objectives of reducing police violence while ensuring community safety is an arduous task, but it is one that we must undertake with utmost care and consideration.
Travis Campbell is an assistant professor of economics at Southern Oregon University.