The F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, said on Friday that the additional scrutiny and criticism of police officers in the wake of highly publicized episodes of police brutality may have led to an increase in violent crime in some cities as officers have become less aggressive.
Comey is lending his support to a meme called the “Ferguson Effect”. As the “Ferguson Effect” theory goes, police have slowed down enforcement due to public scrutiny, which has led to more crime, including homicides. In the absence of tough policing, chaos reigns.
Ever since Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, MO last year, people across the country have taken to the streets to protest police brutality and the mistreatment of black men and women. At the same time, police officers and pundits began arguing that demonstrators are jeopardizing community safety, pointing to rising violent crime rates.
This theory for the uptick in violence in some cities is partly based on a cherry-picking of violent crime data, since some increases actually occurred BEFORE the Ferguson demonstrations, and in general, the data are unclear. We know that far more people are being killed in America’s cities this year than in many years. And to be clear, the increases are largely among people of color, and it’s not cops that are doing the killing.
Most of America’s 50 largest cities have seen an increase in homicides and shootings this year, and many of them have seen a huge increase. These are cities with little in common except being in America—places like Chicago, Tampa, Minneapolis, Sacramento, Orlando, Cleveland, and Dallas.
So something big is happening, but what? Comey thinks he knows, and in Chicago, he floated the same idea as Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently floated, that cops are not doing their job because people have started taking videos of police interactions with their smart phones.
Here is snippet of what Comey said:
I spoke to officers privately in one big city precinct who described being surrounded by young people with mobile phone cameras held high, taunting them the moment they get out of their cars. They told me, ‘we feel like we’re under siege and we don’t feel much like getting out of our cars.’…I’ve been told about a senior police leader who urged his force to remember that their political leadership has no tolerance for a viral video.
If Comey’s impression both of the Ferguson Effect, and the role of cameras is correct, cops have stopped doing the job we pay them to do because they’re under amateur surveillance.
If Comey’s right, what he’s describing is the chilling effect of surveillance, the way in which people change their behavior because they know they will be seen on camera. That the Director of the FBI is making this claim is more striking, since the surveillance cops are undergoing is targeted, and by the public. It is not the total government surveillance (such as the use of small planes and stingrays to surveil the Baltimore and Ferguson protests), which both the FBI and NSA use in inner cities.
Comey can’t have it both ways. Since he said in Chicago that surveillance has a “chilling effect”, that it makes cops feel under siege, maybe he should consider the implications of what he is saying about surveillance by his own agency and the NSA of all Americans.
If the targeted surveillance of cops is a problem, isn’t the far less targeted surveillance conducted on Americans a much larger problem?
And why can’t Americans hold two diametrically opposed ideas in their minds at the same time? We love the police, and want them safe. But, the real problems in US law enforcement have to be addressed.
And why does Comey imply that we need to accept a trade-off between a brutal police state and weakened policing? Why can’t we have civilized police who focus on getting the real bad guys, instead of choking a man to death for selling loose cigarettes?
So, wake up Mr. Comey! Show us data that support your feelings, or get in line with the data we have. To help you wake up, here is Humble Pie doing “30 days in the Hole”, from their 1972 album, “Smokin’”. The song was featured in “Grand Theft Auto V”:
For those who read the Wrongologist in email, you can view the video here.