The “Ferguson Effect” in Baltimore City

How has Ferguson affected policing and crime in Baltimore, MD?

Baltimore is Maryland’s largest most populous city, and ranks 26th largest among U.S. cities with an estimated 622,793 residents (U.S. Census Bureau,2014). Comprised of over 275 identified neighborhoods it has often been labeled the “city of neighborhoods” or more fondly “Charm City” by many locals and is known for its rich cultural and historical significance. Baltimore also maintains the 8th largest municipal police force in the U.S. comprising over 4,000 civilian and sworn officers.

In 2015 Baltimore saw its highest per capita murder rate in history (55.31 per 100,000), surpassing the previous record set in 1993 (48.77 per 100,000), a time when it had over 100,000 more city residents. As we approach the 1 year anniversary of the historic 2015 Baltimore riots and crime rates –especially violent crime in American cities– continues to rise and policing strategies have taken a front and center role as protests and riots across the U.S in 2015 demonstrated a general disapproval crime reduction strategies. We take a in-depth look at publicly available crime data released through the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) open data policy to uncover some interesting trends in city crime over the past year.

If a local resident of Baltimore you probably know the incumbent mayor (Stephanie Rawling Blake) chose not to run for reelection, with the ensuing mayoral race becoming highly contested on multiple issues including how to reverse recent trends of increased crime. Currently, 12 candidates are competing for the opening, vying to restore order to a city struggling with the backlash of last years riots and general distrust of public officials (police force and city leadership). At the National level, the 2016 presidential primary candidates for the both the Democratic and  Republican parties are pushing for fundamental reforms in the criminal justice system. Reforms that include bipartisan support for less incarceration and milder sentencing laws of non-violent crimes such as drug offenses. This bi-partisan support is in contrast with previous positions and reverses a long time tradition of tough on crime rhetoric generally considered a safe platform regardless of party affiliation. As we progress through this election cycle, crime is most certainly going to be more than a talking point for politicians as “tough on crime” policies have become less popular, with recent polls indicating American voters nationwide are ready to change how the federal justice system works. For the residents of Baltimore and other cities dealing with crime increases reversing the “tough-on-crime” approach may be something they are not ready to embrace as their cities have descended into unprecedented violence over the past year.

Considering the progression of rising crime in many American cities, policing strategies becoming more scrutinized, and political parties seeking fundamental changes to the criminal justice system, we examine what the data show about crime in Baltimore. Has anything fundamentally changed in the policing of the city after the riots? Is the so called “Ferguson Effect”  changing police behavior? Is the violence really as bad as portrayed in local media or is a sensationalist prone media promoting a unfair city image? Were the  once peaceful protests and riots an impetus for even more violence and crime? Will the protests ultimately reverse recent trends and push the city back into widespread population decline as businesses and families leave for more safety outside city limits? Is more scrutiny of police tactics empowering the criminals as police now worry they too could be arrested for performing an already difficult job?

To answer these questions we explore several datasets made available through Baltimore’s open data policy. Using available open data we uncover a wealth of information about what is actually happening in Baltimore City. First, we look at the crime victims dataset, which represents a record of all reported victims from 2011-2015. A fundamental indicator of the number and types of crimes committed. Next, we examine the number of arrests before and after the riots as an overall measurement of policing strategies. We present all data in an objective way and let the reader examine each dataset in a series of interactive graphs and charts to help shape their own opinions .

2015 was yet another historic year for the city of Baltimore, a year in which riots and protests following the arrest and subsequent death of Freddie Gray on April 19th, 2015 showcased widespread distrust and anger of some city residents over police tactics and claims of excessive force -especially against members of the African American community- and finally culminated in the indictment of six city police officers. Recent news reports have suggested that Baltimore police are stepping away from some neighborhoods and the consequences of less police presence (de-policing) are being noticed by residents as violent crimes increase as a consequence of the police absence. The story below voices several residents concerns.

The riots which occurred between April 18th-27th, 2015 have shifted a multi-year pattern of declining crime in Baltimore city. Crime victim data show criminals not only committing more crimes in 2015 but the crimes they commit are getting increasingly violent. For instance, in 2015, 12 out of 15 crime categories (see chart below) saw year over year increases with many reaching double digit percentages. Compared with one year earlier, data indicate only 2 out of 15 categories increasing in 2014. What is most troubling about these increases is not only are more crimes being committed as a total number but the types of crimes being committed are shifting to a more violent nature. In 2015 the largest increases included:  Carjacking increased 75%, Shooting increased 71.9%, Homicides increased 63% and Street Robberies increased 16.1%. The interactive chart below highlights the year over year percentage increases for each crime category. Any one of these categories would raise concern in a given year and while general fluctuations are expected from year to year, taken together such large increases in 2015 these numbers become rather disturbing and indicate something far worse happening in Baltimore.

Increases in crime rates and particularly violent crime incidents raises serious questions about underlying causes. While admittedly not an expert at crime policy, I can almost certainly say something has fundamentally changed in the city and allowed for such dramatic changes over the past 12 months- a relatively short period. One possible explanation for the increase is the existence of the so called “Ferguson Effect” , a general term referring to officer dis-engagement resulting from higher police scrutiny after the riots in Ferguson Missouri. As police step away from strict enforcement policies over fears of constant scrutiny and potential prosecution themselves, they could inadvertently empower or perhaps incentivize criminals as the chances of being arrested  are now much lower if the police are less likely to engage. With potential lawsuits (Freddie Grays Family Settled for 6.4 million) or loss of job or worse yet prosecution (Police officers aren’t well liked in prisons), can anyone really argue why the police may not be as enthusiastic about confronting criminals in such an environment.

Another possible scenario could be that distrust and anger against policing strategies and the general “demonisation” of law enforcement are incentivizing criminals to commit more and exceedingly violent crimes as they feel empowered or even entitled to challenge the police in stopping them. This would be the scenario that many politicians are asserting and even the President of the United States has weighed in on the existence of a so called “Ferguson Effect”, while acknowledging crime rates are up, he says such an effect is not supported by statistics and has disagreed with his  FBI director James Comey about the relevance of the “Ferguson Effect”(Read More). Similarly, other government officials such as U.S Attorney General Loretta Lynch also suggest there is no data to support claims of an actual “Ferguson Effect”.

In both scenarios mentioned above the common theme is criminal empowerment and this certainly shows up in the localized data for Baltimore city. For instance, the chart below highlights the number of homicides per month and we show a large spike occurring after the Baltimore protests. Exploring other crime categories also indicates similar increases in violent crime numbers such as shooting and carjacking after the Baltimore Unrest. So we are confident that increases did occur around the same time as the riots ended, but that gives little indication of the underlying causes of this increase (de-policing or more criminals). To explore this question we further examine the arrest numbers before and after the riots as a measure of policing. A significant prolonged decrease in arrests would indicate a level of dis-engagement of the police force or alternatively, if policing levels stayed the same or increased after the riots, then we could say increases in crimes were simply a product of criminals committing more crimes with police struggling to keep up with increased demand on services.

Baltimore Homicides Map (Interactive)

Baltimore Homicides Infographic

To analyze effects of the Baltimore riots on the police force and the role of a so called “Ferguson Effect”, we look at the number of arrests before and after the riots to discover that the total number of arrests per day has decreased dramatically after both the Ferguson and Baltimore riots. Visually we observe the overall effects by viewing the large decline following each of these events. Most noticeably we can see how arrests started to decrease even before the Baltimore Riots and the tragedy of Freddie Gray. We examine this trend more closely below but this is a good indicator supporting the “Ferguson Effect”. As violent crime in the city continues to rise and police moral further erodes as each week a barrage of news stories and complaints continue to scrutinize policing tactics across the nation, neighborhoods and communites could find it increasingly difficult to reverse current trends as criminals become empowered through a lack of enforcement and decreased moral of police officers.

To further examine the effects of de-policing and overall lack of moral on BPD, the chart below shows the 12 month averages before and after both the Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore City riots. We use the 12 month averages to reduce the seasonal effects that crime numbers generally follow (less crime in winter and more in summer). For the 12 months prior to the Baltimore riots, BPD made an average of 97.75 arrests per day, and while this number includes the week of the riots, which inflate the total average, we removed the two highest arrest days during the riots (Apr 27th and 28th) and the number essentially remains unchanged at (97.43) arrests per day. If we look at the 12 months following the riots, the average number of arrests per day drops to 72.35, indicating a level of de-policing of over 26 percent after the Baltimore Riots. While this outcome makes sense as many officers in Baltimore had been working extended overtime for many days when the riots ended, we would expect to see some decrease directly after the unrest but the numbers have not returned to pre-riot levels which indicated a level of long term de-policing. What is more interesting is examining what the averages were prior to the Ferguson Riots and the numbers become more pronounced. In the 12 months prior to the Ferguson unrest which started on August 9th 2014, we see that on average the BPD were making 114.41 arrests per day, and in the 12 months following Ferguson the numbers decreases to 82.45 arrests per day, indicating a level of de-policing of 28 percent from the start of Ferguson. So the de-policing of Baltimore actually started well before the tragedy of Feddie Gray and was even more dramatic after Ferguson, Missouri. This is strong evidence that in fact there was a “Ferguson Effect” in Baltimore and the riots of Baltimore city just enhanced a already demoralized police force while simultaneously empowering criminals. From January 1st thru April 16, 2016, the average numbers of arrests per day are currently hovering around 75, which is still roughly 35 percent lower than pre-Ferguson levels of policing, indicating moral of city officers is still very low and we can continue to expect trends to continue well into the coming year(s).

Click <Lft-Rgt> to Scroll Chart

While it is clear that crimes are going up and police are making less arrests, crime victim data also show that more crimes were committed with guns in the city of Baltimore in 2015  than in any preceding year for which data was reported. A total of  4,420 crimes were committed with a firearm, a roughly a 43 percent increase from 2014. Of all crimes committed in Baltimore in 2015 around 28 percent were committed using a firearm. These statistics could be bad news for police officers who are now becoming more restricted in the tactics they employ while criminals are becoming less restricted and more violent/armed. Since 2011 the crime victim rate had been in steady decline, and we saw an especially large decrease between 2013 and 2014 of roughly 7 percent. Reductions in crime which have been wiped out over the past year as the crime rate increased by 5 percent over 2014. This raises some questions about current and future policing strategy. It is clear that policing-tactics in the years prior to 2015 were having an net effect on the number of crimes committed, however unrest across the nation in the preceding years has led to a level of de-policing that is directly influencing this trend.


As unrest across the nation began in 2014, the effects on the local police force in Baltimore were underway as arrest numbers started declining. The Baltimore arrest numbers show a more dramatic level of de-policing after the Ferguson Missouri unrest than after the Baltimore riots, a fact which indicates the “Ferguson Effect” was at play even before the Baltimore riots were initiated. Today the trend continues with the arrests numbers remaining flat since the beginning of 2016. Baltimore police continue to make approximatly 35% less arrests per day on average (thru Apr 16th, 2016) when compared to 12 month pre-Ferguson averages.  This apparent “Ferguson Effect” has shown that local police moral can be directly effected by national public sentiment more so than local unrest. A fact for which many politicians have been unwilling to recognize as both President Obama and Attorney General Lorreta Lynch agree that the data does not support “the Ferguson Effect” playing out in American cities. We show here that in fact the data does support such an effect when looked at through a localized view. We see a general decrease in policing after the Ferguson riots, which was further enhanced after the Baltimore Riots and together has resulted in less policing in the areas where it is needed most, resulting in tragic levels of increased violent crime incidents.

Another interesting fact clearly shown in the dataset was that as crime increased modestly throughout the city (a roughly 5% increase in 2015) which by itself is not a historical number, that increase is showing up as more violent crime incidents (murders, shooting, carjacking, armed robberies). In 2015, we saw a 43 percent increase in crimes committed using a firearm with almost 30 percent of all crimes in 2015 committed using a gun.  These trends are all converging on the perfect storm of de-policing, more guns, and public support for decreased sentencing laws that could ultimately promote very troubling scenarios playing out across American cities

Most Americans now agree that mandatory minimum sentences for certain low level drug offenses is unacceptable, but believe judges should have authority to sentence on a case by case basis. Such attitudes if adopted as nationwide policy could have potentially unintended consequences far greater than overcrowded prisons. Police agencies are already less willing or able to enforce current laws and reducing incentives against crimes could further undermine police agencies across the nation as many of the so called non-violent criminals released from prisons are likely to encounter less economic opportunities and possess less training in a skills oriented economy, and deal with more gun violence on the streets. The other side of the argument would support the belief that less harsh sentencing laws for non-violent drug offenders would essentially be opening up space for the more violent offenders now taking over the streets. This is the attitude of 61 percent of Americans according to a recent poll.

These questions will ultimately be decided by voters and as elections for both mayor and the national candidate for president are underway, I would encourage each citizen to look at the data very carefully and understand what is happening in cites across the nation and the potential unintended consequences of criminal justice reform on already de-moralized police agencies.

While exploring the data we generated some interesting maps and charts providing further context to the crime story. Our readers may want to continue with exploring these graphics. We have provided these as additional material to the end of the post in hopes of keeping the reader focused, feel free to explore the contents below and provide any additional comments below.

Map below shows the number of arrests spanning a two year period 2014 thru 2015, what is interesting is that we can actually see the decrease in arrests after the riots.

Depending on which neighborhood you live, your experience of “Charm City”- A nickname derived in the mid 70’s to promote the cities bad image- could be distinctly different than others. About a quarter of the population lives below the poverty level (U.S. Census ACS Estimates, 2010-2014)

Find your neighborhood to see how it compares

Next we look at the crime distribution throughout the city. Maps Below show distribution different complaints categorized as Shooting, Robbery, Carjacking, and Prostitution.


Leave a Reply