FBI Director James Comey is faulting anti-police brutality activists and the explosion of police brutality video footage with discouraging cops from doing their jobs. It's an odd move for one of the nation's top law enforcement officials, especially since the White House is currently championing body cameras as a solution to police brutality.
Speaking to students at the University of Chicago, Comey said on Friday that the "era of viral videos" has put cops "under siege," pushing cops to stay in their cars and avoid walking their beats in rough neighborhoods. He doubled down on Monday in a speech to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, telling the group that those filming the police were driving a wedge between African-American communities and law enforcement.
"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.
David Couper, a celebrated former chief of police in Madison, Wisconsin, was in the audience on Sunday — he called Comey's remarks "strange" and "dangerous."
"Are we going to talk data or are we going to talk about feeling?" he told VICE News by phone. Couper was particularly upset that Comey's seemed to be musing off the cuff about the impact of anti-brutality activism on police work.
"The question is, are these kinds of things changing police behavior around the country?" said Comey. "The honest answer is I don't know for sure whether that's the case... but I do have a strong sense."
The word "sense" rubbed Couper the wrong way.
"Is the FBI director going to start shooting from the hip on this without any real information?" he asked. "We don't want that."
The White House seemed to side with Couper.
"I will say that the available evidence at this point does not support the notion that law enforcement officers around the country are shying away from fulfilling their responsibilities," White House spokesman Earnest said on Tuesday.
The only major White House initiative in the wake of national uproar over police brutality, has been to promote body-cameras among police forces. Comey's statements, which imply that the monitoring of police actions discourages good police work, represent a sharp divergence from the Obama administration's line.
The FBI did not respond to request from comment when VICE News asked it to clarify Comey's remarks, but the New York Times reported that Department of Justice officials "privately fumed" over the director's speech.
Jocelyn Simonson, a professor at Brooklyn Law School who studies the impact of filming on police, said the proliferation of cell phone cameras does impact police behavior, but just not in the way Comey thinks.
"From my research, police do behave differently when civilians are taking out smartphones and pointing them," she said. "They are more reluctant to use lethal force, aggressive force — and that's a good thing."
Comey's remarks drew criticism from law enforcement leaders across the country — chiefs in Seattle and Oakland told reporters that their officers are not feeling boxed in by the proliferation of cell phone 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.
Michael Wood, an ex-Baltimore police sergeant, said by phone from his home in Baltimore that Comey's remarks were insulting.
"The insinuation that people who live in these neighborhoods are too fucking stupid to decipher the difference between the police they see on YouTube, and the officer in front of their house is totally insane," he said.
Wood left the Baltimore force in 2014 and has since turned into a fierce critic of the Baltimore police department, publicly excoriating what he says is its culture of brutality and violence.
If police aren't walking their beats in tough neighborhoods, he said, they themselves are to blame for fraying relations with community members.
"If you're a cop, you're an asshole if you don't act like you're on camera all the time," he said. " You're on a public street doing a public job, that's it."
The people who are actually filming the police also think Comey missed the mark.
"I fail to see how exercising our right to film is inhibiting their ability to do their work," said Jacob Crawford, one of the founders of Wecopwatch, a national coalition that promotes the filming of police. "I would expect people in power, to recognize something as practical as filming as part of the very fabric of our democracy."
Simonson, at Brooklyn Law School, said Comeys' remarks themselves might have hardened the lines between communities and their police.
"There's a sense that there's no middle ground between aggressive violent policing and no policing," Simonson said. "But in fact one of the ideas behind good policing is that being polite, and using the least amount of force as possible, might encourage lawful behavior."
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