Public Scrutiny, Police Behavior, and Crime Consequences: Evidence from High-Profile Police Killings
132 Pages Posted: 1 Dec 2020 Last revised: 26 Apr 2022
Date Written: September 15, 2019
After a spate of protests touched off by high-profile incidents of police use of force, there has been a renewed focus on whether public scrutiny shapes policing behavior, otherwise known as the Ferguson Effect. This question has gained additional urgency as the country grapples with increases in murders. This paper provides the first national analysis showing that after police killings that generate significant public attention and scrutiny, officers reduce effort and crime increases. The effects differ by offense type: Reduced police effort yields persistently fewer arrests for low-level offenses (e.g., marijuana possession) but limited changes in arrests for violent or more serious property crimes. I show that decreased interaction with civilians through police stops may be driving the results. However, the increase in offending is driven by murders and robberies, imposing significant crime costs on affected municipalities. The effects only occur after there is broad community awareness of the incident. These findings are robust to numerous changes in empirical specification, transformations of the dependent variable, and varying levels of fixed effects that control for changes in state law and treatment spillovers. I also present evidence that suggests these effects are not driven by a pattern-or-practice investigation or a court-mandated monitoring agreement. To distinguish between the potential effects that may simultaneously impact arrest levels following a high-profile police killing, I develop a theoretical model that provides empirically testable predictions for each mechanism. I find that the reduction in low-level arrests corroborates public scrutiny as the causal channel. Finally, I provide evidence that the increase in offending is driven by both a response to the reduction in policing effort and a reaction to the police killing itself, suggesting that measures to reduce use of force should be prioritized.
Keywords: Ferguson Effect, police killings, public scrutiny, police effort, crime, arrests, stops
JEL Classification: K42, H76, J15, D73, H41
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation