Will the “Ferguson Effect” Kill Urban Renewal?

by James A. Bacon

Baltimore is the East Coast’s answer to Detroit, a once-prosperous city hollowing out from decades of mismanagement under the Blue State governance model. By the time the Washington Village Development Association (WVDA) filmed its documentary, “Fleeing Baltimore,” in 2013, 31,500 residents had abandoned Maryland’s largest city over the previous decade. Sixteen thousand buildings stood vacant. The documentary described how heroic efforts of middle-class Baltimoreans, both black and white, to clean up trash, combat crime and provide positive experiences for inner city youth were overwhelmed by the ineffectiveness of the city’s criminal justice system.

If conditions were hostile to the middle class two years ago, imagine what it is like now. Last month, a 25-year-old black man, Freddie Gray, died under mysterious circumstances in police custody, raising concerns about police abuse and laying bare a history of strained relations between police and the city’s poor black population. Riots ensued, and now gun violence is up 60% compared to the same time last year. Thirty-two shootings took place over Memorial Day weekend.

Similar explosions in violence are occurring in cities across the United States as as police and inner-city populations react to a series of incidents in which unarmed black men died at the hands of white police. In what what urbanist Heather Mac Donald calls the “Ferguson effect,” police are disengaging from discretionary enforcement activity, the criminal element is feeling empowered and a wave of violence has reversed much of twenty years’ decline in crime rates.

If the surge in murder and violence is foreshadowing of things to come, it will have a tremendous impact on the livability of major urban areas. Two outcomes can be predicted. First, middle-class households with the means to do so will flee the urban core. Second, law-abiding African-Americans living in high-crime neighborhoods but lacking the means to flee will suffer the most.

I’m not disputing the ugly reality that police abuses occur in poor African-American communities. I’m not disputing the fact that police sometimes commit violent crimes themselves, or that African-Americans have a basis for mistrusting the police in some cities. These are real problems that our society must grapple with. But I’m also arguing that the over-reaction to these problems threatens to un-do much of the progress we’ve made in the past twenty years in fighting the scourge of crime and revitalizing our central cities.

Police officers increasingly second-guess themselves in the use of force, writes Mac Donald, writing in the Wall Street Journal. “Any cop who uses his gun now has to worry about being indicted and losing his job and family,” one policeman told her. If police are more timid in applying force, the bad guys will be emboldened in their criminality. She continues:

Even if officer morale were to miraculously rebound, policies are being put into place that will make it harder to keep crime down in the future. Those initiatives reflect the belief that any criminal-justice action that has a disparate impact on blacks is racially motivated.

In New York, pedestrian stops — when the police question and sometimes frisk individuals engaged in suspicious behavior — have dropped nearly 95% from their 2011 high. … Politicians and activists in New York and other cities have now taken aim at “broken windows” policing.

Meanwhile, the move to end “mass incarceration” is gaining momentum across the country. Across the board, Americans are second-guessing the strategies that largely won the “war on crime.” The results will look a lot like Baltimore as productive, law-abiding citizens flee jurisdictions where anarchy and disorder prevail for the safety of suburban jurisdictions.

Watch the WVDA documentary, and you’ll wonder how the city of Baltimore can ever reverse its decline. One of the most basic human needs is a desire to feel safe from physical harm. If the rebound in crime is more than a passing blip — if peoples’ perceptions of crime in American cities undergoes a major change — the human cost will prove devastating and urban jurisdictions once again will slip into the corrosive spiral of rising crime, middle-class flight, shrinking tax base and busted budgets from which we hoped they had escaped.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


35 responses to “Will the “Ferguson Effect” Kill Urban Renewal?”

  1. Acbar Avatar

    I blame the increasing militarization of our police, both in equipment and tactics, and in who seek the job (primarily vets). It’s all about us versus them. Us is not the kid who didnt sign up for a tour in Iraq. As for them, we say, how can urban life survive and thrive withohut safety, but “they” don’t feel safe at all in this environment, rather like prisoners in a ghetto. As indeed they are.

  2. larryg Avatar

    I agree with Acbar – the police are out of control .. “community policing” is a joke – it’s code for “stop and frisk” and arrest and incarcerate people engaged in street drugs – put them in prison for a few years then send them back to the community – repeat, rinse, recycle.

    what does a young man who grows up without an education do – when he grows up and need money to survive?

    when folks are honest enough to address that question – we can start to address the real problem.

    there is no magic here. people without sufficient education – don’t have a job and have a lot of time on their hands.. and eventually fall in with others who also don’t have jobs..

    you can hire all the police you want, build all the prisons that you will, blame
    “blue” policies for “hollowing out” but it won’t fix it.

    at some point – someone needs to explain what “hollowing out” means.

    how about it?

  3. larryg Avatar

    lest anyone getting mislead about Detroit, Baltimore, Ferguson:

    Civil Rights Movement and Black Power period: 1955–1977

    Rochester 1964 race riot; Rochester, New York – July
    New York City 1964 riot; New York City – July
    Philadelphia 1964 race riot; Philadelphia – August
    Jersey City 1964 race riot, August 2–4, Jersey City, New Jersey
    Paterson 1964 race riot, August 11–13, Paterson, New Jersey
    Elizabeth 1964 race riot, August 11–13, Elizabeth, New Jersey
    Chicago 1964 race riot, Dixmoor riot, August 16–17, Chicago
    Watts riots; Los Angeles, California – August 1966
    Hough Riots; Cleveland, Ohio – July
    Hunter’s Point Riot; San Francisco
    Division Street Riots; Chicago – June 1967
    1967 Newark riots; Newark, New Jersey – July
    1967 Plainfield riots; Plainfield, New Jersey – July
    12th Street riot; Detroit, Michigan – July
    1967 New York City riot; Harlem, New York City – July
    Cambridge riot of 1967; Cambridge, Maryland – July
    1967 Rochester riot; Rochester, New York – July
    1967 Pontiac riot; Pontiac, Michigan – July
    1967 Toledo riot; Toledo, Ohio – July
    1967 Flint riot; Flint, Michigan – July
    1967 Grand Rapids riot; Grand Rapids, Michigan – July
    1967 Houston riot; Houston, Texas – July
    1967 Englewood riot; Englewood, New Jersey – July
    1967 Tucson riot; Tucson, Arizona – July
    Milwaukee riot; Milwaukee, Wisconsin – July 30–31
    Minneapolis North Side Riots; Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota – August
    Orangeburg massacre; Orangeburg, South Carolina – February

    King assassination riots: 125 cities in April and May, in response to the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. including:
    Baltimore riot of 1968; Baltimore Maryland
    1968 Washington, D.C. riots; Washington, D.C.
    1968 New York City riot; New York City
    West Side Riots; Chicago
    1968 Detroit riot; Detroit, Michigan
    Louisville riots of 1968; Louisville, Kentucky
    Hill District MLK riots; Pittsburgh, PA
    Summit, Illinois Race Riot at Argo High School, September 1968
    1968 Democratic National Convention
    York Race Riot; York, Pennsylvania – July 1970
    May 11th Augusta Race Riot; Augusta, Georgia – May
    Jackson State killings; Jackson, Mississippi – May
    Asbury Park Riot; Asbury Park, New Jersey – July
    Chicano Moratorium, an anti Vietnam War protest turned riot in East Los Angeles – August 1971
    Camden Riots, August 1971, Camden, New Jersey

    1. Any statistics since 1971? Has there been a riot in Texas since the assassination of MLK?

      Sometimes wonder if unmet economic expectations isn’t the best correlation to urban rioting. The South has a long history of poverty, prejudice, etc. However, recent decades have seen a fairly steady improvement in opportunities in the South. And it was Virginia which was the first state to elect an African-American governor (post Reconstruction).

      Places like Baltimore and Detroit used to be prosperous cities where African-Americans could go to improve their lot in life. Many arrived from the segregated south. But when their economies started to flounder as good paying manufacturing jobs gave way to a polarization of jobs – high paying service vs low paying service – people simmered. Eventually the pot boiled over.

      All of which makes me wonder about the ultra-secret TPP negotiations. First, why the secrecy? Second, what will be the real impact on US middle class jobs? Third, hos is there a coalition of Obama and the Republicans? Fourth, how is the money flowing?

      An answer to the fourth question may be at hand:


  4. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

    So the cops are killing unarmed American citizens and people are unhappy about that and the cops are pouting and refusing to engage in their jobs, but the police aren’t the problem and we shouldn’t “overreact” to cops standing on the hood of cars and pumping bullets into unarmed civilians and facing no legal repercussions because it might hurt the feelings of cops and they’ll stop doing pointless efforts like stop and frisk and then we’ll lose the “war on crime” even though the crime rate has been dropping since the 90s independent of local police efforts and the people at fault in all of this aren’t the cops who aren’t doing their jobs and aren’t being held responsible and showing the people in these cities that there is no good reason for them to play by the rules because the people in charge of protecting them aren’t.

  5. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

    “One of the most basic human needs is a desire to feel safe from physical harm.”

    Unless, apparently, you’re an unarmed Black citizen, in which case if you respond to that lack of safety you might hurt police morale and then it’s all Baltimore, everywhere in the United States.

  6. larryg Avatar

    for anyone who wants to make the argument that years of “blue” governance in the cities has FINALLY led to the current problems – please consult the list of riots posted upthread.

    the problem did just pop up. It’s been there for a long time – for more than 50 years.. while some folks have deluded themselves that the race thing got resolved.. and we no longer have a racial society.

    Now that we obviously STILL have the problem – it never really went away – we just convinced ourselves that it had – what should be done – besides blaming “blue” governance?

  7. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Documentary? I watched The Wire and decided I would never set foot in Baltimore again.

  8. Interestingly perhaps, it was Progressive icon Martin O’Mallethead who first introduced “zero tolerance policing” while he was mayor of Baltimore.

    O’Mallethead launched his presidential campaign in what he must have thought would be the friendly confines of the city he once led. Maybe he should have considered Arlington County instead.

    From his announcement speech:

    From his stage overlooking Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, he added that “what took place here was not only about race, not only about policing in America” but about “everything it is supposed to mean to be an American.”

    But Baltimore residents who were also in attendance in Federal Hill Park said Gray’s death last month and the ensuing demonstrations and riots were a direct result of O’Malley’s police policies as mayor. A few minutes into O’Malley’s speech, Megan Kenny, a Baltimore activist holding a sign reading “Stop Killer Cops,” began marching and chanting “black lives matter” as police attempted to stop the interruption.

    “The unrest and the unlawful police practices stem from O’Malley’s zero tolerance policies,” Kenny said. “His zero tolerance policies were ineffective, period.”


  9. larryg Avatar

    My point is that anyone who thinks this unrest is a “new” thing – is not only ignoring the history – but the reasons behind the unrest.

    blaming “blue” politicos and “blue” policies without advocating for different policies is more of the same behaviors from the “anti” types who have no solutions.. offer none…essentially imply the problem cannot be fixed …

    it’s okay to be an opponent and blame – as long as you follow that with “we should be doing this instead”.

    if that’s not there .. then what is the point of the discussion?

  10. larryg Avatar

    there is a fairly simple solution to this problem. Hire the unemployed to repair our infrastructure, expand and improve the urban spaces, and train them.

    you ask where the money will come from ? Pretty simple – less prisons and less, jails, police and prosecutors and less entitlements.

    prison alone, costs 30K a year.

    we actually spend money to provide people with jobs in prison.

    40% of those in prison are there because they messed around with street drugs – and usually because they had no prospects for a job … and that was/is the option of last resort.

    we make bad choices on these things and we essentially vote to continue a broken system that breaks people’s lives.. by ignoring the obvious – these folks needs jobs – and we need our infrastructure repaired.

    instead , we choose the path of ignoramuses …

  11. Hill City Jim Avatar
    Hill City Jim

    ” Hire the unemployed to repair our infrastructure”

    Are you kidding me?

    Most of the unemployed are unemployable because they have no SKA (Skills, Knowledge, Ability)

    And you want them building a new tunnel in Newport News?

    Would you hire somebody without SKA to re-wire your house just because he was unemployed?

    1. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

      By God, you’re right! If only there was some way to…train…people through something like…an apprenticeship…I mean, I know that’s how my high school dropout father was able to become a nuclear certified pipe fitter, but the technology to transfer those skills has clearly been lost to us!

      Of course, tunnel infrastructure might be more complicated and hazardous than the insides of a nuclear powered aircraft carrier, so maybe we should only rely on people with SKA who are also SME because LOL.

      1. Cville Resident Avatar
        Cville Resident

        Did your father have the soft skills though?

        I’ve been reading a bit about our “long term unemployed.” It’s not just KSAs. It’s showing up on time, not taking more than an hour for lunch, actually staying the entire shift, organization, attire, ability to work with others (huge problem), passing a drug test, etc. Those soft skills are just as important as competencies. You can train someone to do a lot of the available jobs out there, but it’s about much more than the tasks associated with the job.

        And, for the most part, the soft skills are really not attainable when you’re 30 or 35 or 40…..if your whole life has been unorganized and chaotic, it’s highly doubtful that you can flip a switch and be on time every day, magically attain conflict resolution, stop substance abuse, etc.

        1. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

          “Did your father have the soft skills though?”


          I mean, no.

          “And, for the most part, the soft skills are really not attainable when you’re 30 or 35 or 40”

          Awesome, I guess we better grab some people who have long-term unemployment problems in their 20s, then.

          And, yes, it’s those lazy, thriftless poors who take two-hour lunches, work full days, fail marijuana screens, can’t seem to stay organized without help and have caustic personalities. If only they could get their shit together long enough to have the right dad and have gone to the right college they could become upper management where half-day business lunches, leaving early to “network”, having an administrative assistant do their organization for them, be classified as a “Type A personality” and enjoy a little cocaine every now and then without fear they wouldn’t have all those problems with soft skills.

          1. Cville Resident Avatar
            Cville Resident

            I’m a volunteer with Big Brothers. This has become a huge push with the organization. They really are trying to get Bigs to work on these skills with their Little Brothers/Sisters. Some of their presentations are quite striking/sad about how a lot of kids simply are never taught how to handle even the most basic conflicts without resorting to extreme remedies.

            But I guess Big Brothers/Sisters doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Instead, we should rely on fables about C suite behavior and pretend that no one can have an ounce of organization without an administrative assistant. What insight!

          2. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

            No, they’re not fables, I read up a bit on them! I’ve also personally observed them, but those are other stories for other days.

            “I’m a volunteer with Big Brothers.”

            Irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

            “But I guess Big Brothers/Sisters doesn’t know what they’re talking about. ”

            Nothing in what I said leads to this conclusion, but nice try.

            “… pretend that no one can have an ounce of organization without an administrative assistant. ”

            Also not what I said. If you want to engage me in that you’re welcome to try again.

      2. NoVaShenandoah Avatar

        TRAIN people?!?!?!?!?!?!? that’s what unions did. But corporations went after unions like they are the plague. And then they trimmed their own ‘training’ departments.

        Train people!???!

        1. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

          I know! It’s incredible the extreme and radical lengths groups who actually want people to work will go to to help them secure jobs.

    2. larryg Avatar

      they have jobs in prison and some get jobs out of prison.

      you combine the job with training. It’s a choice and you totally underestimate
      the ability of the individual to know that it’s a better chance than what they have now.

  12. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

    But, hey, you’re the voice of reason, help me not overreact to the news that a Nazi sympathizer who already killed one unarmed PoC just killed an unarmed Black teenager in a Wal-Mart parking lot.


    What’s the appropriate level of reaction here? Because God knows I don’t want to get too upset and lower the morale of Nazi cops and make Portsmouth any worse than it already is.

    1. “What’s the appropriate level of reaction here?”

      Waiting until we have all the facts would be a good place to start.

      1. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

        You’re right, we need more facts other than an unarmed teenager was shot dead by a cop with a history of killing unarmed people who also has a penchant for Nazi imagery and photographs of lynching.

        I’d really hate to rush to judgment against this guy. He’s absolutely deserving of the benefit of the doubt.

        1. Sounds like you ought to wrestle up a lynch mob right now!

          1. Cville Resident Avatar
            Cville Resident

            I’m sure this same poster was saying the same about George Zimmerman….damn the rule of law, no way a jury could acquit him! Oh wait…

          2. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

            For someone who purports to be colorblind you have a real interesting history of racial language and assumptions when these issues come up.

            – The Black Lives Matter protesters in Charlottesville and Richmond were a “traveling minstrel show.”

            – We needed to speculate that maybe Martese Johnson earned his bloody head by assaulting ABC agents even though there was no evidence of that and made the assertion that was difference between he and Elizabeth Daly who remained unbloody after hitting two ABC agents with her car while fleeing.

            – You post as evidence of Black anti-police leanings a “gangsta rap” song that’s actually a parody of gangsta rap.

            – When presented with the idea that maybe we – the public, forming public opinions about the state of policing and what should be done about it – should do something accuse someone who thinks an appropriate response to a Nazi sympathizer who shares photos of actual lynching who has already shot one unarmed man is something beyond “Golly, maybe the system will get it right this time!” of wanting to form a lynch mob. Lynch mobs, of course, historically being used in this country to control and terrorize Black people.

          3. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

            Good call, Cville, juries always get it right and disagreeing with the results of a jury trial means disagreeing with the rule of law! I guess that’s why no one outside the families involved was ever upset about the result of the OJ trial and the people who were upset about the Zimmerman verdict hunted him down and killed him. Or, wait, we live in a world where the opposite of those things is true.

          4. Look, the Portsmouth cop may well be guilty of an unjustified killing. I’m not defending the guy. I’m saying, let’s wait until we see all the evidence. Let’s let the legal system work. We’ve seen in several high-profile cases that first impressions are not always accurate impressions. But you’re willing to declare the guy guilty right now. If it turns out the story is just as you say it is, then the cop deserves what he has coming to him.

            Does the legal system work perfectly? Of course not. It sucks. It just sucks less than any other mechanism we have for enforcing justice right now…. unless you happen to believe in mob rule. Which is great… until you’re on the wrong side of the mob.

          5. NoVaShenandoah Avatar

            Re: George Zimmerman: I must admit that I am amazed at how many whites (typically males, too) are obviously convinced that OJ Simpson was innocent.

            I mean, I am truly AMAZED because I cannot find any who will actually say it!

          6. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

            Yeah, the problem is the legal system isn’t working to adequately merit out justice to these guys. What other job exists where the person doing it can be bad at it with such fatal consequences get the opportunity to go out and do it again?

            No one other than the people you’ve created in your head for this occasion is calling for mob rule. What’s being asked for is actual justice when the people we pay to serve and protect us are killing our fellow citizens with near complete impunity.

          7. “No one other than the people you’ve created in your head for this occasion is calling for mob rule. What’s being asked for is actual justice when the people we pay to serve and protect us are killing our fellow citizens with near complete impunity.”

            At least we agree in the abstract.

      2. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

        Oooo, maybe one of the facts is he tried to go for his gun, just like Walter Scott took Michael Slager’s Tazer, right?

  13. NoVaShenandoah Avatar

    When I compare Ferguson/Baltimore/etc. to Waco, I can only conclude that the police are prone to shoot you in self-defense (of course) only if you are unarmed.

    1. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

      HA! Well, I mean, obviously though, right? Wouldn’t they be too worried armed people would shoot back?

  14. larryg Avatar

    I guess some don’t remember the armed services and their knack for taking raw human capital and developing people into someone who learns what a job is and what’s required to do a job.

    it won’t work for everyone – especially the older – but it’s the right path for kids still in high school not headed for college.

    there’s some irony here too – because quite a few of the law enforcement guys are – guys who did not go to college out of high school but instead, you guessed it, joined the armed services , put their time in, come home an become police officers…

    we have two choices here and the one we are engaged in now – goes nowhere and in fact will end up with more and more Baltimores.. more and more turning our cities into 3rd world enclaves.

    “justice” in this context – is a cruel joke.

Leave a Reply