Myth of the Ferguson Effect Is Hard to Kill

Experts dismiss FBI Director James Comey's claims that viral videos of police abuse have led to higher crime rates.

Photo: Jacob Crawford/WeCopwatch

The myth of the widely debunked “Ferguson effect” on policing is hard to kill. FBI Director James Comey once again raised the specter of the impact of protests against police brutality on police effectiveness yesterday, when he made comments suggesting that a spike in violent crime in some cities may be correlated to officers’ fear of doing their jobs because of community hostility and the growing popularity of cop watching.

“What I’m talking about is sort of the viral video effect,” Comey told reporters. “Changes in the way police may be acting and in the way communities may be acting in terms of how much information they share with police could well be at the heart of this or could well be an important factor in this.”

Comey, who in the past has spoken sensationally about a “chill wind blowing through law enforcement,” and has been widely criticized for making his allegations with zero data to back them up, was once again vague with his fearmongering. Crime experts say his alarm doesn’t square with the numbers.

Comey said yesterday that he “resists” calling the phenomenon the Ferguson effect, though his message echoed his earlier stance. “The reason I resist Ferguson effect is Ferguson, at least to my recollection, wasn’t about videos.” “I think it is the potential effect of marginal pullbacks by lots and lots of police officers that is changing some cities. I continue to hear that privately,” he said. “I’ve heard it in lots of conversations privately with police leaders.”

“I don’t know for sure,” he said. “Something has happened.”

But to those who have been closely watching — and, yes, videotaping — police, that’s “nonsense.”

“If their job is hunting people, hunting black men, then yes, we made it harder for them to do their job. If their job is to be public servants, then no,” said Jacob Crawford, who moved to Ferguson following the killing of Michael Brown and has handed out hundreds of cameras to residents there and in other cities, training them on their right to document the police.

“Police now for the first time are having to consider the consequences of being brutal, being unethical, and doing things that for the longest time they could do and not be accountable for,” he added. “But that doesn’t make crime happen.” In Ferguson, he said, scrutiny of police has meant officers are now coming into a community when called for help, and that “they know better than jump out of cars and chase kids.”

Michael Wood Jr., a former Baltimore police officer-turned-advocate for police reform, also questioned Comey’s assumption that less aggressive policing leads to more crime. “Comey’s position is that if the armed enforcement wing of the government takes its boot off the neck of the public, just a little, then we will just become killers,” he wrote in an email to The Intercept, citing the example of cities like New York where less aggressive policing has actually led to a decline in crime — a decline that remains unchanged despite significant protests against police violence in recent years.

The problem with the FBI director’s statements is that there is “a lack of science,” he charged. “Comey is making a claim of which there is no evidence to support, he is pushing an ideology.” After Ferguson, the FBI promised to compile data on “officer involved” incidents, but that hasn’t happened yet and lack of consistent data across police departments remains one of the largest obstacles to serious reform.

The nationwide trend in violent crime continues to point downward, as it has for the last 25 years.

Comey’s claim that an intimidated police force is at the root of growing violence is also a gross oversimplification of the multiple and complex factors that determine crime rates, which are mostly rooted in socioeconomic issues and a lack of resources and opportunity. The very cities Comey chose to single out reveal the lack of a consistent cause behind spiking crime rates. In St. Louis, where the “Ferguson effect” was supposedly born in the aftermath of protests over the police killing of Michael Brown, gun violence has been on the rise for years. In Baltimore, where 344 people were killed last year, its most violent yet, violence did spike following the protests over the death of Freddie Gray but the reasons there, according to researchers, were also more complex and deeply rooted in economic problems.

“It’s really a local problem, not a broad trend,” Ames Grawert, an attorney with the Brennan Center for Justice, told The Intercept, pointing to the group’s research on 2015 crime rates. “There is no evidence that crime has gone up overall.”

There are year-to-year variations, and differences between cities, but no nationwide crime epidemic and most importantly no easy explanation for the violence, he added. And while some cities are undoubtedly facing unacceptable levels of violence, the nationwide trend in violent crime continues to point downward, as it has for the last 25 years.

“The cities with more crime in the last years are cities that are already facing severe challenges,” Grawert added, citing poverty and unemployment. “If we’re going to talk about causes of crime we should be talking about that.”

Comey’s latest remarks were prompted by a private briefing on crime rates in the first quarter of 2016. “The numbers are not only going up, they’re continuing to go up, in most of those cities, faster than they were going up last year,” he said. Comey himself acknowledged local differences yesterday. “Why does Dallas see a dramatic spike and Houston doesn’t?” he asked. “The map and the calendar makes no sense.” The FBI has not yet released the statistics Comey was briefed on.

Yet Comey’s alarmist claims that public demands for police accountability have increased violent crime may actually make the problem worse, Wood charged. “He could heed his own advice when he says that he does not know what it is,” Wood said. “This is the point where he should remind himself to not speak because his words influence the perceptions of police officers and the public, insulting both, and breaking down the public trust that is pivotal to police legitimacy, and police legitimacy is critical to police and public safety.”

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