A Decade of Crime in Ferguson, MO.

A simple analysis of crime statistics for Ferguson, MO, for the period 2000 to 2012 shows some basic patterns.[1] Property crimes (theft, burglary, auto theft) accounted for an average of 92 percent of all crimes per year. Robbery and Assault in roughly equal numbers accounted for an average of 7.18 percent of all crimes per year. The occasional murder, rape, or arson accounts for the remaining 1 percent of all crimes per year.

Across the period:

Theft fell by 28 percent, with most the most distinct decline coming from 2004 on.

Burglary fell by 21 percent, but there was a huge upward spike in 2007 and 2008.

Auto Theft fell by 51.7 percent from 2012, but the problem fluctuated within that trend (rose from 2000-2004, fell slightly from 2005-2009, and then dropped sharply from 2010 -2012.)

Robbery fell by 22.4 percent from 2000 to 2012, but with a severe spike from 2007 to 2009.

Assault fell by 15.8 percent from 2000 to 2012, but there was a spike up in 2008.

What can we make of these numbers?

Broadly, the Ferguson Police Department could legitimately congratulate itself on having done a good job in making the citizens of the town safer between 2000 and 2012. This may not have been a state of mind in which to conduct a critical self-evaluation of methods or community relations.

Why did Theft fall? This isn’t likely to be a product of policing. Store-owners tend to be on their own in preventing theft by employees and customers. Did store-owners adopt more rigorous security measures? Security cameras in plain sight, electronic tags on goods, a friendly-but-aggressive staff that stays in contact with customers throughout their time in the store are key components of loss-prevention. This can come across as an aggressive display of distrust toward customers.

Why did Burglary fall? Did an increasing number of people in Ferguson get electronic security systems? Did they at least get the little yard signs that announce that the house is “Protected by …”? Was there an expansion of neighborhood watches? Did the police offer advising on the little things that can make burglary more difficult?[2]

Why did Auto Theft fall? Auto theft fell because stealing newer cars is much more difficult than stealing older cars.[3] The introduction of “engine immobilizer systems” from the late 1990s on made it almost impossible to steal new cars. Theft shifted to older cars that could be scrapped and sold for parts. In a poor town like Ferguson, there were probably a lot of older cars. Once stolen, however, they were replaced by newer cars that couldn’t be stolen.

The year 2008 represented a crisis for Ferguson police. Burglary, Robbery, and Assault all spiked. The increase in Burglary might reflect the appearance of a gang of burglars working Ferguson and possibly neighboring communities. The increase in Robbery might reflect the appearance of a group or a few individual criminals on a hiatus between prison sentences. In either case, the police may have been ordered to make their presence felt on the street.

In sum, there is still much to learn about Ferguson, MO in the wake of the two recent reports from the Justice Department. (See: “Ferguson, MO,” November 2014.)

[1] Based on http://www.city-data.com/crime/crime-Ferguson-Missouri.html

[2] Lock your doors and windows. Don’t leave a spare key “hidden” outside the house; don’t put the box for your new computer or television out in the trash; get somebody to take in your mail if you’re away.

[3] Josh Barro, “Here’s Why Stealing Cars Went Out of Fashion,” NYT, 11 August 2014.


First, it is worth pointing out that Michael Brown robbed a store shortly before the encounter with Darren Wilson. Brown shoved the much smaller store employee who tried to get in his way. Soon afterward, he shoved the door of the police car shut when Officer Darren Wilson tried to exit. Then he struggled with Wilson. Was Brown, in fact, a “gentle giant”? Or did he have a history—written or unwritten—of violent encounters? If Brown was the “gentle giant” alleged by friends and family, what brought on this fit of physical aggression on the day he died? What put him over the edge into serious anger on his last day?   I haven’t seen any reporting that addresses these questions. Based on the little I have read about Michael Brown, he appears to have been an unpleasant person. This is not a capital crime.[1]

Second, I think that Darren Wilson succumbed to rage during his encounter with Michael Brown. I myself succumbed to rage one time. During a prolonged argument, someone did something that put me over the edge psychologically. During this episode, I was “outside myself” in some sense. Unthinking. Acting—I guess—on some deep impulse. Not feeling pain, and with time slowing down. That’s evidence for a huge adrenalin dump. At the last moment, God saved me from beating the other person to death.[2] So, that’s the basis for my thinking about this particular aspect of the case. The whole thing took place in a very compressed span of time” 90 seconds. What critical things happened? Brown shoved the door closed on Wilson when he was trying to exit the vehicle. Wilson grabbed Brown around the neck through the window. They struggled. Wilson at least believed that Brown had reached for his weapon, so he drew and fired within the car. Brown broke off and moved away. Wilson exited the vehicle, fired at Brown, and ordered Brown to stop. Brown turned to face him, then approached Wilson. It isn’t clear to me what happened after that. In any case, Wilson then shot Brown a bunch of times. The last one went into the top of Brown’s head while he was lying on the ground. A fatal wound, even if the other ones were not, fired after Brown posed absolutely no threat. To me, this is evidence that Wilson had lost control of himself. He revved through most of his mag, firing a total of twelve rounds. Racism and Rage aren’t the same thing.

Third, I think that District Attorney Robert McCulloch chose an unusual path for the grand jury, one that was unlikely to result in an indictment of Darren Wilson. In Anglo-American law, a trial is a confrontational procedure in which both the prosecution and the defense seek to structure the evidence to generate conflicting interpretations of that evidence. A decision emerges from the confrontation of the interpretations.   The jury must find for guilt or for innocence unanimously. Otherwise, you get a mistrial and a go-around. However, District Attorney Robert McCulloch short-circuited that procedure. Dumping all the information available in the case in an unstructured mass into the lap of the grand jury, with no one to provide an alternative explanation, and then letting them sort it out for themselves is a ludicrous procedure. If he had wanted to find out what happened, then he would have actively sought an indictment. New York judge Sol Wachtler once said that if a prosecutor wants to, he can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. Apparently, Darren Wilson isn’t a ham sandwich.

[1] At least, I hope that it isn’t for my own sake.

[2] Afterward, I felt dirty, and empty, and afraid—not of the Law, but of my newly-revealed, previously-unknown self. If I had killed the other person, then I would have been guilty under the law of some form of homicide. I imagine—and I hope with all my heart—that I would have been racked with guilt and felt deep remorse. Perhaps Darren Wilson feels these things. The circumstances for feeling remorse or expressing regret are not favorable.


MPs–Militarized Police.

The police response to civil unrest in Ferguson, MO, brought to public attention the “militarization of the police.” The irony is that rioting and looting of the sort that took place around the edges of the legitimate protests in Ferguson is one of the events in which a more robust police presence is appropriate. What got lost in the discussion was the far more common use of “militarized” police.

Once upon a time, the local authorities responded to trouble by calling the National Guard. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VwcJ5WQSamQ. Then a lot of “civil unrest” hit American cities in the 1960s-1970s: riots, rock concerts run amok like Altamont https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0qTKsylrpsg, holed-up radicals http://www.nbcnews.com/video/dateline/32129377#32129377, hostage situations, and just crazy people packing a lot of fire-power.

Police department Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams became common after the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) pioneered them in 1967. Subsequent events multiplied the demand and the occasions on which they might be used. The Columbine school massacre in 1999, the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, and the escalating violence of the war on drugs all argued for a more militarized police force as the first-responders to unimaginable dangers. The Department of Homeland Security, which is now headquartered at the old St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC, has poured $35 billion into up-arming local police forces. Some of the results are so ludicrous that they attract even media attention: armored vehicles (MRAPs) that were produced to respond to IEDs in Iraq, and helicopter gun-ships.

Far more important, however, have been the militarization of attitudes among police officers. Incessant talk of policemen as the front-line soldiers in “wars” on crime, drugs, or terror combines with training in military tactics to create the ideal of a “warrior cop.” One can’t help but wonder if police officers start to think of citizens as a foreign enemy. This is far removed from the boiler-plate slogan “to serve and protect.” Radley Balko, author of Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids (Cato Institute Press, 2006) and The Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (PublicAffairs, 2013), warned of the danger long before it began to make headlines

One thing that alarms observers has been the conversion of SWAT teams from a sensible “extreme case” response into a common feature of policing. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that SWAT team raids take place on an average of 124 times a day. Some observers wonder if having the capacity to conduct such operations creates a pressure to use it. The vast majority of SWAT operations now occur in support of drug searches. Apparently, theory holds that when policemen looking like big fighting insects bust down the door, suspected criminals will be too petrified to destroy the evidence by flushing it down the toilet. Carried to an extreme, these operations have included raids on illegal barbershops, cockfights, Tibetan monks on a peace pilgrimage in Iowa, and a guy who bet too much on a college football game. Several dozen people have been killed during these raids, although the most common victim is a family dog shot by amped-up policemen responding to incessant barking. (But who hasn’t felt that impulse in the middle of a summer night?) “The militarization of America’s police,” The Week, 1 August 2014, p. 11.)

The well-known gap between the American citizens and the military that protects them from foreign dangers, the broad reach of NSA communication searches, and the militarization of policing raise questions about the direction in which American democracy is headed.