The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation doubled down on controversial comments he's previously made asserting that videotaped encounters with police are compromising the ability of officers to do their jobs and contributing to a spike in crime.
"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?'" James Comey told reporters Wednesday at the bureau's DC headquarters.
Crime rates have risen in more than 40 cities in the first three months of 2016, according to a private briefing the FBI director received on Wednesday. Comey suggested that officers are deterred from more active policing because they fear being filmed and ending up online.
"What I'm talking about is sort of the viral video effect," he remarked. "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 raised this issue last fall, dubbing it the "Ferguson effect" in reference to the Missouri city where a white officer shot an unarmed black teen named Michael Brown, sparking nationwide protests as well as spurring the Black Lives Matter movement and calls for police accountability. Part of the effort to increase transparency and accountability has been the proliferation of online videos documenting incidences of apparent police brutality and excessive use of force.
Comey told a group of students at the University of Chicago Law School in October that officers are "under siege" from viral videos. He said that a spike in murders across the country has come after homicides fell to historic lows in 2014. He added that there are other possible reasons for the jump in crime, but the one that seems to fit best is a change in police behavior.
"I actually feel the lines continuing to arch away, and maybe accelerating, incident by incident, video by video, hashtag by hashtag, and that's a terrible place to be," he said. "The question is, are these kinds of things changing police behavior around the country? The honest answer is I don't know for sure whether that's the case… but I do have a strong sense."
Comey's remarks in October drew criticism from law enforcement leaders across the country — chiefs in Seattle and Oakland told reporters that their officers did not feel boxed in by the prospect of cellphone footage. But former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly commended Comey for "telling it like it is."
"I mean, if you talk to police officers in other jurisdictions, not only in New York where I am, they will tell you that. They are backing off," Kelly said.
The most recent statistics on rising crime rates have not been publicly released. Comey received the briefing on Wednesday and made his most recent comments shortly after. The FBI director once again said he didn't know "for sure" why "a whole lot more people are dying this year than last year, and last year than the year before." But he claimed that the viral video effect "could well be an important factor in this."
He repudiated his previous use of the term "Ferguson effect" on Wednesday, but said that "lots and lots of police officers" had told him that they felt forced to back off on policing tactics and confrontations with suspects because of the videos.
In March, former White House National Drug Policy spokesperson Robert Weiner and senior policy analyst Ben Lasky argue argued in an article for the Washington Times that the uptick in violent crimes in major cities throughout the US is related to new drug legalization laws a lack of background checks on firearm purchases rather than the "Ferguson effect."
Weiner and Lasky referred to the Ferguson effect argument and the idea that concerns about cellphone cameras were increasing violent crime as "convenient rationalizations by law enforcement."
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