James Comey continues to cling to “Ferguson Effect” false narrative to rationalize improper policing while fellow officers denounce the claim as unproven and divisive
The director of the F.B.I. once again referenced the controversial “Ferguson Effect” Wednesday, saying that he believed “less aggressive policing was driving an alarming spike in murders in many cities.”
This claim, which first appeared as a concept under its official moniker last August in response to rising murder rates that started happening well before Darren Wilson shot unarmed Michael Brown, involves the unfounded belief that the usage of viral videos and monitoring the police as a tactic of reducing misconduct and brutality is somehow “spooking” police into being less competent in their daily tasks which prevent crime.
James Comey, the F.B.I. director since 2013, has claimed to see the “Ferguson Effect” numerous times in the past 18 months as viral videos continue to serve as a window into the inherent biases that would seem to run systemically throughout law enforcement. These police brutality videos act in turn as a catalyst for a nationwide discussion on police reform, institutional racism, and the unequal enforcement of criminal law.
On Wednesday, Mr. Comey said that while he could “offer no statistical proof,” he believed after speaking with a number of police officials that a “viral video effect” – the concept of officers wary of confronting suspects for fear of ending up on a video highlighting misconduct – “could well be at the heart” of a spike in violent crime in certain cities.
“There’s a perception that police are less likely to do the marginal additional policing that suppresses crime – the getting out of your car at 2 in the morning and saying to a group of guys, ‘Hey, what are you doing here?” he told reporters.
When the concept was first introduced in August, it was strongly rebuked as factually baseless from investigative journalists, who noted that in particular homicides began increasing in St. Louis significantly before the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, and Ta-Nehisi Coates noted the dangers of an “insidious false equivalence” that seeks to deflect and pivot the conversation away from police brutality and back towards the familiar adage of recognizing that an officer’s job is difficult, and that he/she should naturally be given the freedom to do it unchecked and unguarded.
“A reasonable person could read the Times’ story and conclude that there is as much proof for the idea that protests against police brutality caused crime to rise, as there is against it. That is the path away from journalism and towards noncommittal stenography: Some people think climate change is real, some do not. Some people believe in UFOs, others doubt their existence. Some think brain cancer can be cured with roots and berries, but others say proof has yet to emerge.”
Coates point, in the simplest sense, is not only to warn against false narratives but also to ask in earnest the question: Even if the “Ferguson Effect” was real, an unproven hypothetical but for the purposes of his point assumed to be valid, is that a justified reason for police to deliberately decide to lower their overall competency level? Even given the videos that we have seen where there appears to be no regard for the preservation of life?
In lay terms, are we really to believe that an explanation essentially saying “I’m now worried that I might be filmed, and because I daily break police protocol, violate civil rights, and unfairly target marginalized communities, I will instead scale back protecting the very neighborhoods most in need,” as a valid excuse for depreciated performance levels? Is there any other industry where we would even think to entertain the validity of that response?
The answer, simply, irrefutably, and logically is no, absolutely not.
If my boss is dissatisfied with my performance and calls me in to say, “Adam, the last few months there has been notable drop in your performance and I’m struggling to understand its origin,” I don’t reserve the right to go home, stew in the displeasure of being called out and in turn inappropriately respond with “You might have thought I was incompetent before, but now I’m REALLY going to show you incompetency so you appreciate what you used to have!”
I would be terminated the next day before lunch.
In October, Comey publicly supported the concept as a valid explanation, saying that “a chill wind” had deterred aggressive policing. At the time, Obama administration and Department of Justice (DOJ) officials distanced themselves from this rhetoric, saying that they had seen no evidence to support this concept.
Obama administration officials declined to comment Wednesday regarding Mr. Comey’s latest remarks but, in an uncharacteristic twist from an organization known to seize any opportunity to defend its ranks against public scrutiny, law enforcement officials issued a stern condemnation of the remarks, saying he was needlessly stirring up a notion that was unproven and equally divisive.
“He ought to stick to what he knows,” James O. Pasco Jr., executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), an organization known for its hawkish defense of officers even when they are standing trial for first degree murder, “He’s basically saying that police officers are afraid to do their jobs with absolutely no proof.”
The organization counts more than 330,000 members nationwide.
One of the biggest issues Black Lives Matter, Campaign Zero, and other movement for justice have drawn attention to over the past 18 months is the stunning lack of national data regarding fatal police shootings. In the age of viral videos, this omission became painfully obvious when unarmed African American males were being killed by law enforcement officials at the stunning rate of nearly once every two weeks in 2015.
The F.B.I. has promised to build a database compiling police shootings along with any record-able confrontation with civilians, but Mr. Comey said that project was “at least” two years away from completion.