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Baltimore Sun: FBI Director Comey Wrong about ‘Ferguson Effect,’ Distracts from Real Issue

FBI Director James Comey

FBI Director James Comey

By Editorial Board
Baltimore Sun

On Friday, FBI Director James Comey told an audience in Chicago that he believes that the “YouTube effect” — that is, the heightened scrutiny police officers have faced after a series of highly publicized incidents of questionable use of force, including Freddie Gray‘s arrest in Baltimore — has contributed to the nation-wide rise in violent crime. This is not a new theory — it has been voiced here by the head of the police union and by the former police commissioner, who said he believed officers “took a knee” after April’s riots. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently said he believed officers had gone “fetal” under the scrutiny. But given what Mr. Comey admits is a lack of any real data to support it, the theory is a damaging one to advance, as it only underscores the disconnect between police and the communities they are supposed to serve.

Mr. Comey said he has heard anecdotal evidence that officers are being told by superiors that their political leaders have “no tolerance for a viral video,” and that as a consequence, officers are reluctant to get out of their cars and question suspicious people. “Lives are saved when those potential killers are confronted by a police officer, a strong police presence and actual, honest-to-goodness, up-close ‘What are you guys doing on this corner at 1 o’clock in the morning’ policing,” Mr. Comey told an audience at the University of Chicago Law School. “We need to be careful it doesn’t drift away from us in the age of viral videos, or there will be profound consequences.”

What is so troubling about this line of reasoning is that it suggests officers have no idea about what has brought us to this point. The issue is not officers doing their jobs in an energetic, proactive way. The issue is the use of force when it’s not needed, the violation of civil rights and the general dehumanization of people who live in high crime areas, usually African Americans. The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., which sparked the era of heightened scrutiny for officers, was not captured on video and proved less clear-cutthan reports initially suggested. But a series of subsequent cases — the killings of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott and Sam DuBose, the arrest of Sandra Bland and others — cannot be construed as situations conscientious officers would find themselves in simply by doing their jobs.

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