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Calling In The Missouri National Guard May Have Been A Bad Idea

On Monday, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency. The emergency hasn’t happened yet — it’s what might happen if a grand jury decides not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. The National Guard, thanks to the order, is standing by.

Nixon says he owes it to his citizens to protect them “from violence and damage” and that “the State of Missouri will be prepared to appropriately respond to any reaction to these announcements.”

The declaration “immediately enraged protest leaders and some local black elected officials,” according to The Washington Post, and Jamelle Bouie, writing in Slate, argued that what Nixon sees as protection many in Missouri will see as antagonism. “The unrest in Ferguson was as much the fault of the police as it was the protesters,” Bouie said. “But by declaring a ‘state of emergency’ aimed at residents of Ferguson and the broader St. Louis County, Gov. Nixon obscures this fact and smears the community … all but giving license to law enforcement to reprise its draconian response.”

This is the riddle of crowd control: Does showing force in advance of a protest help control it, or send it out of control? Academic research says it’s more likely the latter.

I emailed Patrick Sharkey, an associate professor of sociology at New York University who has written about Ferguson. “I think the most compelling research is on perceived legitimacy and the use of violence,” Sharkey told me. “When people feel like core institutions have failed them, and that representatives of these institutions do not have legitimacy, then they are more likely to resort to violence.” As they did in the 2011 London riots, or in Ferguson three months ago.

“In Ferguson, most of the actions taken by the police in the aftermath of Brown’s death have served to weaken their legitimacy, not to strengthen it,” said Sharkey, referring to what he called the “brute force” response. “Immediately after [Brown’s] death, the police could have begun a thorough review of the incident, focused on apologizing for the way that the incident unfolded and promised to do whatever possible to restore the community’s faith in the police department. The police, at least in the immediate aftermath, took the opposite path.”

One threat to legitimacy is lack of representation — people who don’t have a voice in an institution may not trust it. Research by my colleague Nate Silver has shown that most police officers don’t live in the cities they serve, and The New York Times wrote about the disparity between the number of black residents and the number of black elected officials in many cities — including Ferguson. Other threats include the lack of acknowledgement of grievances, perceived disrespect of rights — such as to speak and peaceably assemble — and shows of force.

“Military equipment is used against an enemy,” Maria Haberfeld, a professor at John Jay College, told New York magazine in August. “So if you give the same equipment to local police, by default you create an environment in which the public is perceived as an enemy.” And in Ferguson we saw a lot of military equipment. The Washington Post documented the angry reaction to the police’s show of force, and their Pentagon-sourced equipment, and the Senate conducted a review of how police departments across the country use military-style gear.

But what about deterrence? Could a National Guard force in Missouri deter violence and crime — at least in theory? The empirical evidence is mixed.

Tom Tyler, a professor of psychology at Yale, makes a simple argument against deterrence (e.g. Nixon calling in the National Guard) — it’s costly and not very effective. He argues instead for the importance of legitimacy, and that “there are tremendous benefits to shifting our focus toward voluntary acceptance of decisions and, beyond that, toward cooperation with legal authorities.”

Economist Steven Levitt, of “Freakonomics” and the University of Chicago, on the other hand, has credited increased numbers of police with large reductions in crime. And he says it’s because of deterrence. However, certain police practices like “broken windows” — meant to deter serious crime by addressing minor crime — show no evidence of effectiveness in work also done by scholars at Chicago.

It’s unclear how or when the grand jury’s decision will come down, or whether the National Guard will be used. But research suggests that officials in Ferguson would do well to prioritize legitimacy over emergency.

Oliver Roeder was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied game theory and political competition.