James Comey jumps back into the debate over the Ferguson Effect

You would think that the FBI Director’s dance card would be full, what with trying to wrap up his investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server business. In fact, just this week he talked to reporters and admitted that he was feeling “under pressure” to bring that horse back into the barn. (Politico)


FBI Director James Comey said Wednesday he feels “pressure” to complete the federal investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail server competently and quickly.

However, Comey said the pressure is similar to other high-profile cases the bureau handles such as terrorism investigations.

“We want to do it well and we want to do it promptly. I feel pressure to do both of those things,” Comey told reporters during a roundtable at FBI headquarters. “As between the two things, we will always choose ‘well.'”

Clearly however, the pressure isn’t so great that Comey doesn’t have room for some multitasking. Being in the business of fighting crime, he took some time to weigh in on the subject this week and address urban homicide rates. We recently covered the disturbing statistics which show that several large cities are experiencing a two year spike in murder rates even as the rest of the nation continues to see declining rates of violence. Comey was asked to comment on the situation and continued to defy the pushback he’s received from the White House, citing the “chill wind” which has affected law enforcement in recent years better known as the Ferguson Effect.

The director of the F.B.I. reignited the factious debate over a so-called “Ferguson effect” on Wednesday, saying that he believed less aggressive policing was driving an alarming spike in murders in many cities.

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.


Unfortunately for our law enforcement officials at the highest level there is a distinct difference between getting your job done and navigating the frequently poisonous waters of politics. When the administration doesn’t want to acknowledge (or even talk about) the Ferguson Effect, they are quick to point to a lack of statistics to back up such assertions. This represents a shift in tactics from their normal practice of ignoring statistics such as the relatively minuscule number of murders committed with so called “assault rifles” as compared to handguns (or even blunt objects) when they want to pitch new gun control initiatives.

Comey’s problem in this debate is that he’s forced to rely on decades of experience and gut level instincts rather than crime data. He can point to the murder rates in Baltimore, Chicago, Charlotte, New York City and Las Vegas and say that they’ve been going up for two years, but that doesn’t definitively tell us why. We don’t tend to ask murderers to fill out surveys indicating what they were thinking about or how they were feeling the night before they decided to go shoot up a neighborhood and mow down some civilians. (Bunny Friend Park, anyone?) The task becomes even more difficult if the perpetrators are at room temperature after the cops bring them to bay. All we really have to go by is the body count and the criminal records of the accused.


But Comey does talk to the men and women on the front lines and his instincts are likely worth a lot more than a stack of campaign talking points.

Asked about his past views on the “Ferguson effect” as a possible explanation, Mr. Comey said he rejected that particular term, but added 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.

He said that the phenomenon “could well be an important factor in this.”

More than many of his predecessors at the F.B.I., Mr. Comey has not hesitated to use the prestige of his office to draw attention to difficult and sometimes unpopular issues involving race and crime.

Comey described the “viral video effect” and the tendency of officers to hesitate before getting out of their squad car at two in the morning to ask a group of young men what they’re up to in some dark alley. Who wants to risk being the next YouTube star that becomes the target of riots in the street when Al Sharpton shows up in town? But by not pursuing such early leads, the cops miss out on a lot of lower level crime which can then spiral out of control and into a spiral of violence.

But why listen to a guy with literally thirty years of experience in the federal prosecution system and who helped bring down the Gambino family in New York? What would he know about it?



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