On Wednesday, FBI Director Jim Comey said something incredible—in the negative sense of the word. Here it is, as reported by The New York Times:
James Comey, the director, said that while he could offer no statistical proof, he believed after speaking with a number of police officials that a “viral video effect” — with officers wary of confronting suspects for fear of ending up on a video — “could well be at the heart” of a spike in violent crime in some 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.
This isn't the first time Comey has raised the specter of cops being afraid to do their jobs. As others have pointed out, his new claims are a re-branding of the so-called "Ferguson Effect," a term that Comey adopted last year after it appeared in a Wall Street Journal op-ed by the Manhattan Institute's Heather Mac Donald.
Mac Donald quoted St. Louis police commissioner Sam Dotson, who coined the term, and described the "Ferguson Effect" as one where anti-police sentiment was leading cops to engage in less "discretionary enforcement activity," which in turn was driving higher crime rates. When Comey started banging that drum it led to some division between him and President Obama.
Unfortunately for Comey, the Ferguson effect is specious and his new "viral video effect" is likely to be as well. Last September, the Marshall Project analyzed statistics about the rising crime rates supposedly caused by the Ferguson effect and determined they were "badly misleading" and didn't represent a meaningful trend. The Brennan Center also found that crime levels remained more or less the same between 2014 and 2015.
Even cops don't buy Comey's "viral video" explanation: the executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police told the Times that Comey is "basically saying that police officers are afraid to do their jobs with absolutely no proof."
Admittedly, one of the researchers whose data was used to argue against the existence of the Ferguson effect, Richard Rosenfeld, has recently endorsed some version of the theory. However, his conclusion is only one, "preliminary," and quite different from the one laid out by MacDonald in the op-ed.
“She thinks the solution is to stop criticizing the police," he told The Guardian. "I think the criticism is understandable, rooted in a history of grievance, and serves as a reminder that the police must serve and protect our most vulnerable communities.”
This new, improved Comey theory has a couple of wrinkles that make it particularly pernicious. First, it's conveniently based on new numbers about crime that have not yet been made public. Secondly, it shifts the blame from fear broadly of policing to a fear of being caught on camera. (Congrats on finding the tech angle, Mr. Director!). He told the paper that "he continued to hear from police officials in private conversations that 'lots and lots of police officers' are pulling back from aggressive confrontations with the public because of viral videos."
The sorts of viral videos he probably has in mind are the one from last month where a school officer in Texas body-slammed a student (and was subsequently fired) or another from the same month where a Texas woman was dragged out of her car by a police officer. Or a video from last fall where a school officer in South Carolina flipped a student's desk and dragged her along the ground, or the video from last year that showed a McKinney, Texas police officer pinning a 14-year-old to the ground. These are acts of police brutality that disproportionately affect young, black Americans.
It may seem odd to the head of an agency that continues to dodge transparency and spy on people without warrants, but these videos are important. In several of the cases listed above, they led to abusive officers being suspended, investigated, or fired. And despite the fact that police continue to try and avoid being filmed or photographed, cop-watching is an important tactic for anti-police brutality activists, helping to ensure that bad or illegal police behavior is observed and reported.
Besides, to once again trot out an old intelligence community cliche, if the cops aren't doing anything wrong, what do they have to worry about? Or perhaps they're worried about the more than 1,145 people killed by police last year, and the numerous other acts of violence perpetrated by law enforcement agencies.
Blaming a constitutionally protected practice for a rise in crime is a pretty crass way to try and put a stop to that practice. Sorry Director Comey, but filming cops is a feature, not a bug.
Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at firstname.lastname@example.org