By Lena Williams, Guild-CWA :: Don’t blame the police for the recent rise in violent crime. It’s our own fault, or so FBI Director James B. Comey would have us believe.
In Comey’s opinion, increased public scrutiny has made police reluctant to carry out their sworn duty to protect and defend the people whose taxpayer dollars pay their salaries.
Commenting on the spike of criminal activity in some major cities, Comey pointed an accusatory finger at everyone from mainstream and social media to activist groups such as Black Lives Matter to anyone with the audacity to use their cell phone cameras to document police behavior.
He made his remarks in an Oct. 23 speech at the University of Chicago Law School, saying police and communities of color are “arcing away” from each other under public scrutiny.
“Each time someone interprets ‘hashtag Black Lives Matter’ as anti-law enforcement, one line moves away and each time someone interprets ‘hashtag Police Lives Matter’ as anti-black, the other line moves away,” Comey said.
“And just as those lines are arcing away, and maybe, just maybe, because those lines are arcing away from each other, we have a crisis of violent crime in some of our major cities in this country and in those cities in some of our most vulnerable neighborhoods.”
Comey acknowledged that cheaper drugs and easier access to guns are also likely causes of the rise in crime.
But he still thinks the real problem is that some officers are looking the other way, failing to pursue suspects and enforce the law, because they feel maligned, misunderstood and unappreciated by the public. After all, he’s talked to “many police officers” who’ve told him so.
While Comey may have anecdotes, he has no evidence to support his hypothesis. But that didn’t stop him from reiterating his claim this week in front of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Chicago.
“In today’s YouTube world, are officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime?” Comey said. “Are officers answering 911 calls but avoiding the informal contact that keeps bad guys standing around, especially with guns?”
When someone frames a theory in question form, it’s a huge red flag that there’s little or no supporting evidence.
Comey’s theory has been dubbed the “Ferguson effect,” the idea that police officers are avoiding aggressive tactics because they fear repercussions or the prospect of criminal charges.
The Ferguson effect has been bandied about in law enforcement circles since the a white police
officer fatally shot a young unarmed black man in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, in August 2014. The protests that began in Ferguson and spread across the country gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement.
In metropolitan St. Louis, homicides spiked by nearly 50 percent in the first half of 2015. Another spike was recorded in Baltimore in May, a month after a young black man, Freddy Gray, died of injuries sustained in police custody.
Baltimore had 43 homicides in May, making it the deadliest month in 40 years. The week of May 3, the city’s police made a total of 319 arrests, down 61 percent from last year.
Given those numbers, it’s not hard to understand how people might draw a cause-and-effect conclusion. But many other factors, unrelated to the shootings and public reponse, could be responsible. Right now, people are guessing. And even educated guesses are often wrong.
Comey should have known better. After all, the FBI does the country’s most comprehensive collection and analysis of crime data. At the Bureau, statistics matter.
DOJ officials – Comey’s bosses — were said to be infuriated by his remarks. And at a White House, press briefing, Press Secretary Josh Earnest distanced the administration from Comey’s theory.
“The evidence we’ve seen so far doesn’t support the contention that law enforcement officials are somehow shirking their responsibility, and in fact you’ve seen law enforcement leaders across the country indicating that’s not what’s taking place,” Earnest said.
While throwing activists and cell phone videographers under the bus, it seems Comey never considered that he was also disrespecting police officers who may have done nothing wrong.
He effectively accused them of violating their oath of office, impugning the reputation of the many officers who are doing their jobs honorably, despite any fears.
You might say it’s Comey who violated his oath: He swore to “support and defend the Constitution” then criticized those citizens who are exercising their First Amendment rights when they record police activity in public.
Since Comey feels free to share his theories, I’ll share mine: All his comments have managed to do is exacerbate tensions between the police and the people they serve.