When Comey Was Right: How Viral Videos Affect Policing & the Importance of Police Legitimacy
I wrote I was wrong about James Comey post-election, thinking his last-week-of-the-campaign actions couldn’t possibly sway the electoral votes away from Hillary Clinton towards Donald Trump. But tonight that he’s incredulously fired by President Trump over ostensibly his handling of Clinton’s emails, I still believe there’s much about what Comey represented — and stated publicly upsetting both sides of the aisle — that will stand the test of time and be proven right. Especially when I wrote about his views on the The Ferguson Effect and how scrutiny of police may affect public safety. I believed that for some time, and only in May 2017 is my local NPR affiliate talking about it. Below are my pre-election 2016 thoughts on former FBI Director James Comey I wrote in October 2016, two weeks before he once again became a lightning rod during the 2016 presidential campaign:
Lately, I’ve come to think that FBI Director James Comey is among the most honest public officials out there from DC to LA. At least he doesn’t care to play politics. Well, at least in obvious ways. He managed to piss off both Clinton fans and Clinton haters by not prosecuting her for using a private email server, but by also calling her actions “extremely careless.” He first infamously invoked “The Ferguson Effect” in May 2015, much to the ire of U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and President Obama. Though, he speculated again five months later that policing has changed in the “age of viral videos,” he also urged law enforcement leaders to end the us-vs.- them war of words with protesters from Black Lives Matter. He doesn’t straddle the middle as much as yearn for common ground.
He also wants to increase minority hiring in the FBI, which is overwhelming male and white. And he has a strong desire to continue to engage — listening to each other, empathetic and openly — about the topic of crime and race. Thus, I’ll leave you with FBI Director Comey, in a 2015 Georgetown University speech on law enforcement and race. His words I highly recommend hearing or reading if you have an open mind and keen interest in this important topic.
A second hard truth: Much research points to the widespread existence of unconscious bias. Many people in our white-majority culture have unconscious racial biases and react differently to a white face than a black face. In fact, we all, white and black, carry various biases around with us. I am reminded of the song from the Broadway hit, Avenue Q: “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” Part of it goes like this:
Look around and you will find
No one’s really color blind.
Maybe it’s a fact
We all should face
Everyone makes judgments
Based on race.
[AND LATER, ADDRESSING DISPARITIES THAT INDICATE IT’S NOT BIAS]
So why has that officer — like his colleagues — locked up so many young men of color? Why does he have that life-shaping experience? Is it because he is a racist? Why are so many black men in jail? Is it because cops, prosecutors, judges, and juries are racist? Because they are turning a blind eye to white robbers and drug dealers?
The answer is a fourth hard truth: I don’t think so. If it were so, that would be easier to address. We would just need to change the way we hire, train, and measure law enforcement and that would substantially fix it. We would then go get those white criminals we have been ignoring. But the truth is significantly harder than that.
The truth is that what really needs fixing is something only a few, like President Obama, are willing to speak about, perhaps because it is so daunting a task. Through the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, the President is addressing the disproportionate challenges faced by young men of color. For instance, data shows that the percentage of young men not working or not enrolled in school is nearly twice as high for blacks as it is for whites. This initiative, and others like it, is about doing the hard work to grow drug-resistant and violence-resistant kids, especially in communities of color, so they never become part of that officer’s life experience.
So many young men of color become part of that officer’s life experience because so many minority families and communities are struggling, so many boys and young men grow up in environments lacking role models, adequate education, and decent employment — they lack all sorts of opportunities that most of us take for granted. A tragedy of American life — one that most citizens are able to drive around because it doesn’t touch them — is that young people in “those neighborhoods” too often inherit a legacy of crime and prison. And with that inheritance, they become part of a police officer’s life, and shape the way that officer — whether white or black — sees the world. Changing that legacy is a challenge so enormous and so complicated that it is, unfortunately, easier to talk only about the cops. And that’s not fair.
I think it’s time academics and the media start talking about the elephant in the jailhouse room: The Ferguson Effect.
Let me end this post with a collective, “We.” We’re in this together. We called the Ferguson Effect a “Big Foot” myth in 2015. And we wring our hands and ignore the obvious — sometimes changing our minds some — in 2016. Or we omit rising crime rates in Chicago, Baltimore, Milwaukee and St. Louis performing mental twister with crime data when we ask, “Has the ‘Ferguson Effect’ Finally Been Debunked?” We won’t move forward to limit pain — from injustice, from racism, from crime — until we acknowledge our biases, and occasional allergic reaction to the growing evidence. Or if we solely look at evidence through an ideological prism.
What will 2017 tell us? Will it be too late?
The recent increases in crime come amid intense scrutiny on police officers and how they use deadly force, an issue that emerged as a central national debate after an officer fatally shot a teenager in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. Since then, protests has continued to crop up in cities nationwide, most recently in Charlotte, which just days ago saw violent demonstrations erupt after an officer fatally shot a man there.
This intense focus on how law enforcement uses force has caused many officers to say they feel like they are under attack, a sentiment that flared up again after a three-day span in July that saw deadly shootings of and by police officers. Comey has been among those questioning whether this increased scrutiny has played a role in the uptick in violence, asking whether it is occurring because officers are pulling back due to the negative attention. This theory is known as the “Ferguson Effect,” and in a report released this summer, criminologist Richard Rosenfeld said he believes there is a connection between the crime levels and criticism of police.
Updated Jan 2017: FBI Director James Comey in October, 2015:
“In today’s YouTube world, are officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime? Are officers answering 911 calls but avoiding the informal contact that keeps bad guys from standing around, especially with guns? I don’t know whether this explains it entirely, but I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year. And that wind is surely changing behavior.”
Wait, police are effective in reducing violence? Police morale may be down and they may actually be pulling back in today’s Black Lives Matter and ACLU-placating political climate? Ta-Nahesi Coates pretty much thinks FBI Director James Comey’s points are incredulous and “fascism,” which I found in an article with this dismissive ‘Animal Farm’ image above. (Side note: I loved George Orwell’s books in my teens and twenties, but I find as I get older his ideas get over-hyped; I’d be quite alright not seeing the term “Orwellian” for a while.)
But what argument can be made today that Comey wasn’t onto something regarding a potential viral video-induced “Ferguson Effect”? Cleveland, Chicago, and Baltimore saw significant homicide increases in the year after viral videos of Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, and Freddie Gray caused protests and national headlines. Nowadays, Chicago police officers aren’t even pulling their guns out to protect themselves when their brains are being smashed on the curb. The emboldening of criminality due to radical policing changes is difficult to argue against, and is even supported by criminologist and one-time “Ferguson Effect” naysayer Dennis Rosenfeld. Officers in Chicago are saying, “You have to be a complete idiot if you don’t think the climate doesn’t have a role in the rise in crime and murder.” To start 2017, Chicago — and the nation — experienced a “horrific” hate crime, according to President Obama where criminals audaciously live-streamed torturing a mentally disabled person.
Oh, and to end the year: There’s an 80% decrease in police stops, 33% decrease in arrests, but 57% increase in homicides (762 total) in 2016 in Chicago. There’s no evidence Chicago police shoot citizens higher than the national average, despite a four to six times higher rate of homicides, or stops citizens in a significantly discriminatory manner. Yeah, not a “viral video effect” at all. There is no solid case to say criminality is “emboldened” — uh-uh. (Insert head into sand.)
Originally Published October 2016:
“The 13th” and its Glaring Omission: Actual Crime that Mirrors Demographics