As President Obama spoke Tuesday to an international conference of police chiefs and the nation reeled from the latest incident of police violence gone viral, FBI director James Comey has come under renewed fire for further driving a wedge between law enforcement and the communities they are supposed to serve.
Comey on Friday and again Monday repeated the assertion that the unrest, protests, and increased scrutiny on police following the recent killings of black civilians was driving a spike in violent crime, a phenomenon that has been dubbed the "Ferguson effect."
"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?" he asked in his Friday remarks at the University of Chicago Law School. "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."
The White House swiftly rebuffed these claims. And Comey's stance was flipped on its head a day later when a police officer's attack on a black female student drew national outrage after a number of cell phone videos of the incident went viral.
Author and Atlantic columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote Tuesday that Comey's own admission that his comments were not based on fact is part of a legacy of "creationist-style crime control" which has taken "a special and discriminating interest in black communities." Coates cites a number of historic myths about black criminals: "'they’re raping our women' to 'negro cocaine fiends,' to 'crack babies,'...and now to 'the Ferguson Effect.'"
Coates added that Comey's reasoning has dangerous implications that extend beyond the black community. "A theory of government which tells citizens to invest agents of the state with the power to mete out lethal violence, but discourages them from holding those officers accountable is not democracy," he writes. "It is fascism."
An editorial published Monday in the Baltimore Sun—a city which was also rocked with protests following the police killing of Freddie Gray—rebuked Comey's "Ferguson effect" claim, noting "the theory is a damaging one to advance, as it only underscores the disconnect between police and the communities they are supposed to serve."
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Further, the Sun argues that saying police are subdued by the threat of a viral video "suggests officers have no idea about what has brought us to this point," and are thus even further detached from the civilian population.
"The issue is not officers doing their jobs in an energetic, proactive way," the editorial states. "The issue is the use of force when it's not needed, the violation of civil rights and the general dehumanization of people who live in high crime areas, usually African Americans."
Against this backdrop, President Obama on Tuesday gave an address to the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Chicago during which he told the officers that they can't "cherry-pick" crime data, in what appeared to be a reference to Comey's claims.
"We do have to stick with the facts," the president said. "What we can’t do is cherry-pick data or use anecdotal evidence to drive policy." He added that violent crime rates this year appeared to be nearly as low as last year.
The president also attempted to strike a tone of appreciation and common ground with the assembled officers, saying the broader social inequities and failures within the justice system should not be left for police to bear alone.
"Too often, law enforcement gets scapegoated for the broader failures of our society and criminal justice system," Obama stated in his prepared remarks.
"I know that you do your jobs with distinction no matter the challenges you face. That’s part of wearing the badge," he continued. "But we can’t expect you to contain and control problems that the rest of us aren’t willing to face or do anything about."