Jeff Asher, Five Thirty Eight, July 29, 2016
Much of what followed the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling, a black man in Baton Rouge, on July 5 has been well-chronicled. Philando Castile, also a black man, was killed a day later by a police officer in Minnesota. A day after that, five police officers were fatally shot in Dallas in an ambush during a protest against police violence. And on July 17, 10 days after the Dallas shootings, three officers were killed in Baton Rouge after responding to a call about a suspicious man with a rifle.
Outside the headlines, something else has been happening since Sterling was shot: The Baton Rouge Police Department has substantially reduced enforcement of narcotics offenses.
In a moment of heightened tension between the police and a city’s residents, the trends in proactive policing can tell us whether officers are engaging with residents more or less often than they once did.
Baton Rouge’s open data portal provides information on more than 27,000 narcotics offenses from January 2011 to the present, and a review of those showed a clear change after Sterling was shot. The Baton Rouge Police Department averaged 94 narcotics offenses per week from the start of 2011 through July 4, 2016 — the day before Sterling was killed. But in the seven days after Sterling was killed (July 6-12), there were only 22 narcotics offenses — 77 percent fewer than the average.
In three other cities — Baltimore, Chicago and St. Louis — I found a similar drop in proactive policing, as measured by the change in drug enforcement, after demonstrations against high-profile deaths of black men involving police officers. Roughly six months after Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, drug enforcement in St. Louis had mostly recovered to the levels before the shooting.
In Chicago and Baltimore, narcotics enforcement is still occurring far less frequently than before the November 2015 release of the video of the shooting of Laquan McDonald and the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray, respectively.
After drug enforcement in those three cities fell, the number of murders rose significantly. For each city, I looked at the number of murders in the four months before the month of the incident and the four months after, comparing each stretch of months to the number of murders in those same months the previous year. Here’s how that worked in practice, using Baltimore as an example: Gray died in April 2015. In the four months before April (December 2014 through March 2015), 51 people were murdered in Baltimore, fewer than were killed in the same four months the previous year. In the four months that followed April, though, murders increased to 151 compared with 91 in the same period the previous year.
It’s too early to tell what effect (if any) Baton Rouge’s apparent drop in proactive policing will have on long-term violence trends in the city. And even when enough time has passed, it will be difficult to assess the trends. Baton Rouge has far fewer annual murders than Chicago, Baltimore and St. Louis have, so knowing when a short-term spike or drop is a real change, as opposed to a temporary blip, won’t be easy.