FBI Director James B. Comey said he had a “strong sense” that scrutiny of the police has made officers less aggressive and emboldened criminals.
CHICAGO — FBI director James B. Comey said Friday that the additional scrutiny and criticism of police officers that has come in the wake of highly publicized incidents of police brutality may be the main reason for the recent increase in violent crime.
“I don’t know whether that explains it entirely, but I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is a chill wind that has blown through American law enforcement over the last year,” Comey said in a speech at the University of Chicago Law School.
With his remarks, Comey lent the prestige of the FBI, the nation’s most prominent law-enforcement agency, to a theory that is far from settled: that scrutiny of the police has made officers less aggressive and emboldened criminals.
There is sharp disagreement among law-enforcement leaders and public officials about whether there is any credence to the so-called Ferguson effect — after the protests that erupted in summer 2014 in Ferguson, Mo.
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Comey said he has been told by many police leaders that officers who normally would stop to question suspicious people are opting to stay in their patrol cars for fear of having their encounters recorded and becoming video sensations. That hesitancy has led to missed opportunities to apprehend suspects and has decreased the police presence on the streets of the country’s most violent cities.
“I’ve been told about a senior police leader who urged his force to remember that their political leadership has no tolerance for a viral video,” Comey said. But he acknowledged that there is so far no data to back up his assertion and that it may be just one among many factors that are contributing to the rise in crime, which could include cheaper drugs and an uptick in criminals being released from prison.
Comey added: “Lives are saved when those potential killers are confronted by a police officer, a strong police presence and actual, honest-to-goodness, up-close ‘What are you guys doing on this corner at 1 o’clock in the morning’ policing.”
The concept is particularly controversial among some Justice Department officials, whose investigations have given weight to the loudest criticisms of police behavior in Ferguson and elsewhere.
Those inquiries have found that many officers unfairly singled out African-Americans for stops and arrests, and too often used force that was unjustified. Videos of deadly police encounters in cities such as Cleveland, New York and North Charleston, South Carolina, have fueled that criticism.