FBI Director James Comey attributed a recent spike in crime to police officers not doing their jobs because they are afraid of being caught on video doing something wrong an unfounded claim that sparked outrage in police officials, the Obama administration and the Justice Department.
The “viral video effect” is Comey’s unsubstantiated belief that police officers are hesitant to make arrests for fear of winding up on a widespread video.
“He ought to stick to what he knows,” James Pasco Jr., executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, said to the NY Times. “He’s basically saying that police officers are afraid to do their jobs with absolutely no proof.”
Law enforcement officials have slammed Comey for assuming officers are not doing their jobs to the best of their ability because they are scared.
Comey made these comments after reviewing a report that revealed an increase in crime in over 40 cities for the first quarter of 2016. He called the spike “a complicated, hard issue” that he admitted he could not definitively explain.
“A whole lot more people are dying this year than last year, and last year than the year before and I don’t know why for sure,” he said. However, according to Comey, police officials have revealed to him that “lots and lots of police officers” are not policing as aggressively as before because they do not want to appear in the next viral video.
“Director Comey’s recent comments about a ‘viral video effect’ are unfounded, and frankly, damaging to the efforts of law enforcement,” said Ronal Serpas, chairman of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration.
Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, who released the data Comey reviewed, pointed out that recordings of what police officers do is nothing new despite the heightened focus on police behavior over the past couple of years and it has never stopped them from performing their duties before.
“Police, they receive a lot of negative feedback and the sense that all of these problems that we’re encountering are the fault of the police,” Stephens said. “And they don’t feel good about it, but that doesn’t stop them from doing their work.”
The White House responded as well, criticizing Comey for drawing conclusions without any factual basis. “This administration makes policy decisions that are rooted in evidence, that are rooted in science,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said. “We can’t make broad, sweeping policy decisions or draw policy conclusions based on anecdotal evidence. That’s irresponsible and ultimately counterproductive.”
Earnest emphasized that “there’s not evidence at this point to link that surge in violent crime to the so-called viral video effect, or the Ferguson effect. There’s just no evidence to substantiate that.”
Stephens also said that while the spikes in crime in some areas should not be ignored, it is not nationally representative because the data only analyzes certain cities.
“If you put it in perspective, it’s much, much lower than what we experienced in the ’90s,” he added.
Several months ago, Comey made remarks about the “Ferguson effect” (a term he did not use this time around) while delivering a speech at the University of Chicago Law School. Just as he has now, he admitted to having no statistical evidence to back up this belief. His comments were not received well by the Justice Department or law enforcement officials around the country at that time, either.
President Barack Obama said it is imperative to not “cherry-pick data or use anecdotal evidence to drive policy or to feed political agendas.”
Attorney General Loretta Lynch also disagreed with the director’s assessment. “While certainly there might be anecdotal evidence there, as all have noted, there’s no data to support it, and what I have seen in my travels across this country is the dedication, the commitment and the resolve of our brave men and women in law enforcement to improving policing, to embracing the 21st Century Task Force recommendations, and to continuing to have a dialogue that makes our country safer for all,” she said.
The Myth of the Ferguson Effect
The existence of the so-called “Ferguson effect” (a term coined for the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by former Police Officer Darren Wilson, which resulted in widespread protests and riots in the town) has been a heated topic over the past two years, despite insistences from the White House and Justice Department that no evidence exists to prove such a phenomenon.
Over the past two years, several videos have went viral of police officers violently arresting, shooting or killing Black people notably Black males including Eric Garner, who was unarmed and choked to death by an officer on Staten Island for selling loose cigarettes; Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was playing with a pellet gun at a rec center in Cleveland; Walter Scott, whose shooting death from behind sparked outrage when it was discovered the officer tried to cover it up; and Sandra Bland, who was violently arrested for failing to use a signal while driving and was later found hanging in her jail cell. These deaths sparked protests all across the country.
Richard Rosenfeld, a St. Louis criminologist who has worked the past year to disprove the “Ferguson effect” theory, now says his data shows “some version” of the Ferguson effect exists, calling it “the only explanation” for his data, The Guardian reported on Friday.
But other findings argue that it is difficult to determine yet whether a recent increase in crime is significant or part of a trend, or if it is not statistically relevant. An analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law found that three cities alone Baltimore, Chicago and Washington, D.C. contributed more than half of the country’s increased murders, lessening the likelihood that an increase in murder is a nationwide problem.
“These serious increases seem to be localized, rather than part of a national pandemic, suggesting that community conditions remain the major factor,” the study observes. “Notably, these three cities all seem to have falling populations, higher poverty rates, and higher unemployment than the national average. This impliesthat economic deterioration of these cities could be a contributor to murder increases.”
The report also emphasizes: “Nationally, crime remains at all-time lows.”
According to Rosenfeld, a criminology professor, “The conclusion one draws from the Brennan Center’s report is, ‘Not much changed,’ and that is simply not true. In the case of homicide, a lot did change, in a very short period of time.”
But even what seems like a big change does not necessarily reflect a significant change when percentages are very small to begin with, the report explains: “However, in absolute terms, murder rates are so low that a small numerical increase can lead to a large percentage change.”