Is BLM Responsible for Increased Crime?

One talking point on the political right is that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is causally responsible for an increase in crime. This point has been made by such sources as the National Review and Bill O’Reilly. As would be suspected, those to the left of the right have denied this connection and, of course, BLM has denied this claim.

In general terms, BLM is alleged to make two major contributions to crime. The first is in regards to videos: BLM encourages citizens to take videos of the police and also supports the release of police videos. These videos are said to create what is known as the ‘Laquan McDonald Effect.’ Laquan McDonald was a 17-year-old black man who was killed by officer Jason Van Dyke. The police video shows the officer shooting McDonald 16 times as he was moving away from the officers. McDonald was holding a small knife; as such he was technically armed. The effect of this video and the following protests, it is claimed, was to cause officers to step down in their policing out of fear of being the next Van Dyke. For example, police in Chicago reduced their street stops by 80%. This reduction in policing is supposed to contribute to the increase in crime (or at least fail to address the increase).

The second is in regards to the protesting against the police. One alleged impact is that the hostility towards the police damages their morale and this negatively impacts how they do their jobs. In the face of weakened policing, crime increases. Another alleged impact is that the police are burdened by dealing with BLM protests and this pulls away resources, thus allowing crime to increase. There are also the assertions that BLM engages in criminal activities (under the guise of protesting) and that it encourages or inspires (intentionally or not) criminal activity.

The hypothesis that BLM has a causal role in the increase of crime is certainly something that should be given due consideration. Those that already think it does would presumably want confirmation and those who disagree would want it to be disproven. Naturally, many people see BLM through the lens of ideology and proof contrary to their views could merely cause them to double down on their claims. However, those willing to accept reason should be prepared for the possibility they will need to adjust their views in the face of adequate evidence.

As some people see it, the fact that BLM’s appearance was followed by an increase in crime in some cities is sufficient proof that BLM was the cause of this increase. While cause normally precedes effect, to infer that BLM is the cause of the increase because it occurred after BLM arose would be to fall victim to the classic post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that one event causes another simply because the proposed cause occurred before the proposed effect. More formally, the fallacy involves concluding that A causes or caused B because A occurs before B and there is not sufficient evidence to actually warrant such a claim. While this sort of error is usually the result of a lack of caution, it can also arise from motivated thinking: those who dislike BLM could be quick to link it with the increase of crime because of their dislike.

Properly sorting out the connection, if any, between BLM and the increase in crime would require a robust and objective analysis of statistical data, causal connections and human motivations. As of this writing, this has not been completed. As such, whether or not BLM really is a causal factor remains an open question. That said, it is certainly worth assessing the arguments advanced in support of BLM responsibility.

The first argument, as noted above, focuses on the claim that BLM encourages people to take videos of police and pushes for the release of police videos when incidents occur. This causes officers to worry that they will be filmed, thus leading them to scale back on policing. It is this, it is alleged, which increases crime. In terms of a causal explanation, this has considerable plausibility. If the police are afraid of being filmed, they are less likely to engage in activities that would result in their being filmed. When the police cut back on those activities, such as stops and aggressive policing, the pressure on criminals is lessened and they have a freer hand in committing crimes.

The second set of arguments also do establish a link between BLM and the increase in crime. The idea that the protesting demoralizes the police does make sense and dealing with protests does pull away police resources. As such, the causal link between BLM and an increase in crime can be established. While those who dislike BLM would be content to take this as the end of the story, this is actually just the beginning. There still remain causal questions as well as questions about moral responsibility.

One way to consider the matter is to use an analogy that is, hopefully, less imbued with ideology and emotion. Imagine that it was found that some doctors were prescribing unnecessary medications in order to get money and gifts from pharmaceutical companies. It can also be added that some doctors engaged in Medicare fraud that also proved harmful to the patients. Suppose that this was exposed by videos taken by patients and an organization arose called Patients’ Lives Matter to address this mistreatment of patients by some doctors. Suppose that the rate of illnesses started increasing after PLM started protesting.

Some might argue that PLM is to blame. One argument might be that doctors are now afraid to properly treat patients because someone might take a video of them. Another might be that doctors have become demoralized by the protests and hence do not do as well on the job. Presumably the solution would be for PLM to disband and allow the doctors to return to what they were doing. But, this seems absurd—the moral responsibility rests on the doctors who engaged in the misdeeds, not on PLM. The bad doctors need to be corrected or replaced—getting rid of PLM will merely “solve” the problem by returning to the previous problem.

In this case it would seem odd to blame the patients alone. After all, but for the doctors who engaged in the misdeeds, there would be no PLM to demoralize the doctors. Going back to BLM, but for the police who engaged in misdeeds, there would be no BLM. As such, the police who have engaged in misdeeds are also a causal factor. BLM would have nothing to encourage people to film and no videos to press for release if there were no misdeeds. As people so often say, those who have nothing to hide have no reason to fear scrutiny—ironically, this is often said about cases in which the police or other agents of the state are intruding into the privacy of citizens. If it applies to citizens, it surely applies to the police as well. After all, if an officer does nothing wrong, video will vindicate the officer. This is why some departments actually want officers to have cameras.

In terms of the protests, while it is true that such protests can be demoralizing, BLM is not protesting nothing—they are protesting events that are quite real. Naturally, it is reasonable to be concerned about how the community regards the police. However, BLM seems to be a response to the already poor relationships between many communities and their police, not the cause of those poor relationships.

The complaints about BLM disrupting communities seems analogous to the complaints about civil rights activists “damaging” community relationships by protesting the violation of civil rights. That is, that race-relations were just fine until the civil rights activists came in and caused all the trouble.

While it is true that people reacted negatively to civil rights activists, the moral blame for the reactions lies with those responding, not with the activists. And, of course, race relations were not fine—at least not fine for those being lynched. In the case of BLM, the problems are already there in the community, BLM is merely bringing them into the national spotlight—and some would prefer that they remain in the shadows. Blaming BLM for the increase in crime is thus a red herring—an attempt to distract people from the real cause and to discredit a movement that makes the white right very uncomfortable by bringing what was once in the shadows into the light.

 

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  1. Is BLM Responsible for Increased Crime? | D!srupt - pingback on September 26, 2016 at 8:52 am
  2. The first question that needs to be addresses is whether there has been an increase in crime which began after the start of the BLM movement. This has yet to be shown. Crime in general, and violent crime in particular still seem to be generally declining. In some areas where we have seen a recent increase in crime, that increase seems to be more closely correlated with relaxations in gun regulation. (Note the spike in crime in Chicago after the Supreme Court stuck down local gun prohibition.)

    The second question, is whether the two changes may be due to the same cause, rather then the first change causing the second. Recently I experienced a mild headache and fever, followed the next day by body aches and vomiting. The headache and fever did not cause the body aches and vomiting. Both were caused by a flue virus and the headache and fever merely preceded the full illness. Before trying to reason out how the BLM movement might cause an increase in crime, it would be useful to investigate whether both might be symptoms of the same disease. In this case the disease might be systemic racism and lack of opportunity for a segment of the population and a failure of our political institutions to address the problem.

    None of these questions preclude the idea that the BLM movement might lead to an increase in crime, at least temporarily. If it could be shown that BLM protests lead directly or indirectly to an increase in crime, the next question would be whether the good that they can produce might outweigh the harm. To continue my previous analogy: sometimes my arm hurts after getting a flue shot but I consider the protection from the flue to be worth the temporary discomfort. If protest lead to addressing a larger problem, then a temporary increase in crime might be a reasonable price to pay.

  3. As you note, violent crime has been declining, although there has been a recent slight uptick. While some are quick to blame BLM using a post hoc approach fueled by ideology, you are right to argue that alternatives need to be considered.

  4. I’d like to know how BLM could conceivably cause an uptick in crime (Unless BLM is itself criminal, which it isn’t). Are there lots of potential criminals lying in wait for the police to get distracted? Or are they saying that successful crimes are up, but there used to be more attempted crimes? And crime is a huge, diverse category. Are all crimes supposedly up or just certain crimes? And which ones?

  5. Biting insects, sharks and flu viruses may be uncomfortable or lethal, but they are not criminal. I am cautious about what causes things, and I am definitely sure I do not know what causes crime. A legal advisor to Ronald Reagan once wrote that criminals cause crime and not bad neighborhoods. The circular argument fails quickly.

  6. Gene,

    I think that the argument is that because of BLM protests, the police feel inhibited about cracking down on criminals (street criminals of a certain race) and thus, rather than risk getting blamed for being brutal and racist, they sit back and watch said criminals operate. The criminals sense this and thus, go about their business more boldly since they no longer fear the police.

    Let me be clear that if that is the case, I do not justify the police attitude since it is their job to deal with criminals without brutality, without excessive force, without killing innocent people and without racism.

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