Why FBI and White House can't agree whether 'Ferguson effect' is real

The 'age of viral videos' and anxious officers may be at least partly behind the increase in violent crime, said FBI Director James Comey. But the White House disagrees.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
FBI director James Comey responds to a question during a panel discussion on race and policy, at the University of Chicago law school Friday.

During the past week, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the White House have found themselves conspicuously on opposite sides of a renewed debate about the “Ferguson effect.”

The question of whether police officers are wary of being videotaped and are changing how they do their job has been hotly debated since the summer. Criminologists are struggling to explain a spike in violent crime in certain cities across the United States.

That “age of viral videos” and anxious officers may be at least partly behind the increase in violent crime, said FBI Director James Comey Monday, amplifying earlier remarks.

“Nobody says it on the record, nobody says it in public, but police and elected officials are quietly saying it to themselves,” he said Friday, at the University of Chicago Law School. He said officers in one big city precinct told him, “We feel like we’re under siege and we don’t feel much like getting out of our cars.”

But on Monday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said – and Comey largely conceded – that there’s little hard evidence to prove that police are pulling back wholesale from their duties. Some evidence directly contradicts it. 

In his speech Tuesday to the International Association of Police Chiefs, President Obama pushed back against rhetoric that he said “seeks to divide police and communities they serve.” Such notions, the president added, “frames any discussion of public safety around ‘us’ and 'them'.…"

Yet as experts struggle to fully explain the abrupt rise in violent crime, and the FBI claims it can’t supply data to inform the debate in real-time, rhetoric and anecdotal evidence are filling the vacuum. Which means that, for now, the disagreement between the FBI and White House illustrates a broader point: Belief in the Ferguson effect appears to depend largely on where one sits on the political spectrum.

Some criminologists acknowledge Comey’s analysis contains at least a kernel of truth: Many police say they do feel besieged. That, in turn, could play into a deeper understanding of the complex dynamics that affect crime rates.

“Comey is voicing legitimate frustrations that a lot of police officers in the field experience when they get out of their car and see a group of people turn their iPhone cameras on them,” says Rob Kane, a Drexel University criminologist and author of “Jammed Up: Bad Cops, Police Misconduct, and the New York City Police Department.” 

In a sense, the tables have been turned, he adds, with police now experiencing the kind of siege mentality residents of minority neighborhoods have felt for years. “But really what I’ve just done is describe the way that members of ghetto communities feel about police when they come in there.”

“This is a very human dilemma, and cellphones aren’t going to get un-invented,” Professor Kane says. “We have this technology and now we have to learn to live with it.”

Comey’s comments come as the US faces a bipartisan opportunity to address both systemic problems in policing, as well as sentencing reform that would turn back a three-decade-long focus on mass incarceration. Some criminologists worry that wider acknowledgement that police are not proactively fighting crime could cut that effort “off at the knees,” as the Atlantic’s David Graham wrote Monday.

That could prove especially true if harder data emerge that suggest the Ferguson effect is real. After all, 2014 was the first time where both the federal prison population and the national crime rate dropped at the same time.

But for those convinced that US cops are switching to more laid-back tactics, Comey’s decision to wade into the debate is significant.

“It’s a huge deal that Comey is acknowledging this, because he’s the nation’s keeper of the most official crime data that we’ve got,” says Heather MacDonald, a Manhattan Institute scholar who documented evidence of the Ferguson effect for an influential Wall Street Journal story in May.

“The conceit is that police are simply in poor neighborhoods randomly and are making stops just out of sheer racial perversity, as opposed to being confronted with situations of sometimes just chaos,” she adds. “What’s really at stake, as Comey said, is that officers are now confronting unbelievably hostile situations, which is increasing the rate at which people are resisting arrest, which is of course only going to drive up the use of force by police further.”

There is some evidence that discretionary stops and arrests have declined in places that have seen crime increases. In St. Louis, criminologist Richard Rosenfeld has pointed out that the murder rate had risen before Michael Brown was killed last August in Ferguson. But the same research suggests that property crimes have gone up since Mr. Brown’s killing, suggesting that police may be easing off on responding to minor crimes. 

“That increase [in property crimes] fits the broad outlines of a Ferguson effect,” says Professor Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri at St. Louis. “But that’s not all the evidence you need, because you need to know what the mechanism is.”

Rosenfeld says he talked to Comey last week about a central problem in resolving the “Ferguson effect” debate: The decision by the FBI to only release crime data once a year.

In the 1930s, the FBI released monthly crime data, but hasn’t done so since World War II. Comey told Rosenfeld that the FBI doesn’t have the capability of doing so today, likely because it has to collate reports from 18,000 police agencies. But Rosenfeld argues that the FBI need only release a fraction of the data in order for researchers to cull out possible trends, in near real time.

In the meantime, experts say, communities and police departments need to have a broader conversation of what the job of protecting the public should entail.

“America has to decide what it wants from its cops,” says Jon Shane, a criminologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “We want police to come when they are called, but what do we want them to do in between? Do we want them to be more like firefighters, who wait to be called? Or do we want them to be more proactive and to uncover crimes of their own volition?”

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