SALT LAKE CITY — A new research paper from University of Utah criminal law professor Paul Cassell suggests that a spike in gun violence in American cities over the past several months may be attributable to a shift in police tactics in the wake of mass protests against police brutality.
Cassell's research contends that, as a result of "de-policing" and a move away from "proactive policing," about 710 additional people were murdered and 2,800 were shot in June and July of 2020.
The "Minneapolis Effect" is a reference to the May death of George Floyd in police custody, and also to the "Ferguson Effect" posited by some sociologists after an increase in violent crime following the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Floyd's lethal detainment was captured on video and drew thousands of outraged Americans into the streets. Protests have continued in the months since on behalf of Floyd and other Black Americans shot by police, including Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake.
The public's anger toward law enforcement, Cassell said, has caused officers to avoid some tactics they used previously that he argues are effective in reducing violent crime. In 2016, Cassell and U. economics professor Richard Fowles studied a similar phenomenon in Chicago when homicides and shootings spiked by 50% in one year; he ultimately tied that back to an agreement between Chicago police and the American Civil Liberties Union that drastically reduced the use of stop-and-frisk tactics by officers.
He called it the "ACLU Effect."
"Stop-and-frisk went from (about) 50,000 stops a month to 10,000 stops a month — an 80% drop," Cassell said. "If you reduce substantially one of the most important law enforcement techniques for trying to deter illegal gun possession, what would be the result?"
The Chicago study generated considerable debate among experts, and the ALCU vigorously disputed Cassell's conclusions.
Cassell said Chicago's nonviolent crime rates did not spike at nearly the same level gun crimes did in 2016, a trend that he said is repeating in many cities this summer, including Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, New York and Philadelphia. Cassell said his research did not study violent crime in Utah, though he suspects any effect will have been more modest because of general pro-law enforcement sentiment in the state.
Since Floyd's death, many activists have called for dramatic changes to American police departments, including overhauls of use-of-force policies. They argue that American police perpetuate systemic racism in their treatment of communities of color and consistently pose a threat to the lives of Black citizens, even ones who pose no threat themselves.
Activists this summer called for "defunding" police departments, and some cities responded with budget cuts or reallocations. Cassell said he understands the protesters' concerns, but thinks there should be a broader policy discussion about the second-order consequences of such decisions.
"Nothing I'm saying should take away from the fact that people want to have a vigorous discussion about police misconduct," he said. "I certainly am not discouraging that in any way. But I think part of the discussion also has to be, 'What are the trade-offs here?'"
For instance, he said, the New York Police Department has experienced a cut in overtime pay that he believes has contributed to the city's crime increase.
"What we're hearing, I think, from rank-and-file police officers is, 'Look, when you come on shift, make sure you get home alive and make sure you get home unindicted,'" Cassell said. "Let me be clear: I don't think police officers are just sitting on their hands or eating doughnuts all day. But I do think there's a natural reluctance, that's followed these very widespread police protests, to be a bit more cautious about intervening. And that has, sadly, resulted in a reduction in law enforcement and an increase in homicides and shootings."
Cassell's paper is titled "Explaining the Recent Homicide Spikes in U.S. Cities: The 'Minneapolis Effect' and the Decline in Proactive Policing," and will be published in an upcoming issue of "The Federal Sentencing Reporter."