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FBI chief's 'YouTube era' theory for violent crime worth considering, experts say

FBI director James Comey addresses students during a discussion on race and policy, at the University of Chicago law school, Friday, Oct. 23, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

One factor potentially contributing to a rise in violent crime in some major cities is the increased scrutiny of police brought on by videos of controversial arrests and shootings posted online, according to the head of the FBI.

In a speech before the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Monday, FBI Director James Comey reinforced comments he made last Friday about a "chill wind" over law enforcement agencies due to the scrutiny officers are facing and fear of being captured in a YouTube video that could ruin a career.

Violent crime has spiked in many major cities in 2015, but some criminologists say it is too soon to label it a statistical trend. Police and local governments have been struggling to understand exactly why the violence is rising.

Comey laid out a number of possible factors, but he focused on one that he said makes the most sense to him: officers becoming less aggressive because they do not want to be recorded making a mistake.

"Nobody says it on the record, nobody says it in public, but police and elected officials are quietly saying it to themselves," Comey said in a speech at University of Chicago Law School Friday. "And they're saying it to me, and I'm going to say it to you In today's YouTube world, are officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime?"

Other prominent officials have made similar observations in recent weeks. At a gathering of top police officials in early October, the Washington Post reported, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel indicated that officers have backed down from situations that could result in negative media coverage.

"We have allowed our police department to get fetal and it is having a direct consequence," Emanuel said. "They have pulled back from the ability to interdict...they don't want to be a news story themselves, they don't want their career ended early, and it's having an impact."

The Chicago police union criticized Emanuel for suggesting officers have gotten "fetal," but they acknowledged that officers are aware they are frequently being recorded.

Some who have alleged a link between violent crime rates and the criticism of police that grew out of controversial deaths of black civilians like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice at the hands of officers have dubbed it the "Ferguson effect," referring to the city where Brown was shot.

However, Emanuel later told the Chicago Sun-Times that New York City Police Chief Bill Bratton refers to it as the "YouTube effect." Comey has said he prefers to describe the current environment as the "YouTube era," rather than the "post-Ferguson era."

Confrontations between police and civilians posted online, such as this video of a South Carolina school resource officer struggling with a student, frequently go viral online and on cable news, playing over and over and generating allegations of misconduct and brutality, sometimes before all of the facts are known.


Comey acknowledged in his speech Friday that he does not know how much cameras and YouTube videos are actually affecting policing, but based on the increases in crime in a number of cities that have little else in common, he believes that they are.

"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." Comey said. "And that wind is surely changing behavior."

He connected this to a loss of "honest-to-goodness, up-close 'what are you guys doing on this corner at 1:00 in the morning' policing" that prevents violent crime.

His comments also questioned the notion that mass incarceration is a problem, argued for gathering better data on crime and shootings, and addressed the demographics of murder victims.

"Far more people are being killed in America's cities this year than in many years," Comey said.

"And let's be clear: far more people of color are being killed in America's cities this year. And it's not the cops doing the killing."

In his second speech on the issue Monday at the IACP conference, Comey softened some of his rhetoric and suggested that police can learn a lot from the Black Lives Matter movement, while Black Lives Matter activists could learn from police.

"Law enforcement can actually use hashtag Black Lives Matter, to see the world through the eyes of people who are not in our line of work and see how they might perceive us," he said, according to the Washington Post. "And I believe that those members of the black community can use hashtag 'police lives matter' to see the world through law enforcement eyes and see the heart of law enforcement."

Asked about Comey's comments, some of which have been seen as conflicting with the Obama administration's stance on criminal justice reform, at the White House press briefing Monday, Press Secretary Josh Earnest disputed the notion that police are becoming less proactive and taking fewer risks.

"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," Earnest said.

President Barack Obama is scheduled to speak at the IACP conference on Tuesday.

Comey's words have drawn criticism from who saw them as an attack on the Black Lives Matter movement and the call for police accountability.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board wrote, "Given what Mr. Comey admits is a lack of any real data to support it, the theory is a damaging one to advance, as it only underscores the disconnect between police and the communities they are supposed to serve."

David Graham of the Atlantic called Comey's comments "troubling."

"The implication of the Ferguson-effect argument is that police can't provide safe streets and low crime rates without massive civil-rights violations--aggressive use of physical force, racial profiling, searches that fall into legal gray areas, and so on--and without alienating black communities," Graham said.

"It is disappointing to see President Obama's former chief of staff join the ranks of those who insist we must treat police like hothouse flowers or Faberge eggs," wrote syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts. "First, we are told we may not criticize bad cops because that means we hate all cops. Now, apparently, we may not criticize them because doing so hurts their feelings."

The New York Times also noted that top officials within the Justice Department do not agree with Comey about this YouTube effect and were surprised and angered by his speech Friday.

Experts said Comey has identified a legitimate feeling shared by some police officers, but quantifying the scope of that problem is difficult and fixing it is even harder.

Robert Kane, a professor in the department of criminology and justice studies at Drexel University, said he has heard anecdotally from officers that they are stepping back from proactive policing, as Comey described, but not enough to determine how widespread it is.

"The FBI director's comments are probably not out of the realm of reality," Kane said, but the degree to which it represents a systemic change rather than just police "folklore" is unclear.

Kane was surprised to hear the head of the most visible law enforcement agency in the country say something that could be interpreted as claiming that scrutiny of police is a bad thing, even if that is not how Comey meant it.

For Kane, it is too soon to start looking for reasons behind the increased violence. Violent crime has been dropping since 1993 with some year-to-year fluctuations, so elevated figures in some cities for one year do not necessarily constitute a trend.

"To make something out of a year-to-year difference is really not valid," he said.

Even if it may take some time to confirm there is a trend of rising crime or that disengagement by police is related to it, Comey's explanation is better than others that have been suggested, according to Peter Moskos, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

"I've yet to hear anything that he said that's not worthy of discussion and reasonable-sounding," he said, adding that he was more surprised by the liberal backlash against Comey's comments than by what the FBI director actually said. From talking to officers he knows in Baltimore, a city that was at the center of the strife earlier this year with the death of Freddie Gray, Moskos said it makes sense.

"It goes back I think a lot to, it's too easy to say what we don't want from police...but it's much harder to say what we do want cops to do," he said. If police start to worry that they could be punished for doing their job legally, it is only human nature for them want to stay out of trouble, and sometimes "it's easier to stay in your car and drive away."

"It's almost absurd to say it doesn't have an impact."

According to Jon Shane, an associate professor of criminal justice at John Jay College, there is limited empirical data to support the claim of a Ferguson effect, but there is some. The exact impact social media and negative media coverage have on policing is still unknown, though.

"Officers are pulling back," Shane said. "They're very concerned about things that they weren't necessarily concerned about in the past...Officers believe public sentiment weighs much more heavily against them today."

While some, like Pitts, argue that police who do their jobs right have nothing to worry about from being recorded, experts say it is not that simple. There are bad cops who do bad things and should be punished when caught, but some legitimate police work and justifiable force look bad when captured on camera.

"The job requires use of force sometimes," Moskos said, "and it never looks good...If you start criticizing cops for that, what are cops supposed to do?"

"Police work is heavily laden with discretion," Shane said. Officers make choices and members of the media and public who criticize them often do not know enough about police work to understand them.

"There's a tendency for people to question the decision...and say, well, why didn't you do it this way?" Videos can also be taken out of context or fail to capture the complete story.

"There's a fundamental lack of understanding about how police work is carried out," Shane said.

For those who do not see why police officers might have apprehensions about constantly being recorded, Kane suggested imagining every time you get out of your car, five people whip out cameras and follow you hoping you make a mistake.

"The reason people are recording them is because they're trying to find them doing something wrong," he said. Frustration and nervousness are not unreasonable reactions.

That said, Kane noted something like the Rodney King beating may have gone unnoticed by the public if it had not been caught on tape. Recording the police can be empowering for minorities that "historically have not had great access to our traditional mechanisms of police accountability."

If Comey is correct, though, and arrest videos and heightened scrutiny are contributing to a rise in violent crime, there is not much that can be done to quickly alleviate the situation.

"People aren't going to stop recording," Moskos said, "so it's inevitable...It's happening, it's going to happen, cops have to get used to it."

He suggested police can sometimes do a better job of explaining their actions when they are making an arrest.

In addition to officers ensuring that they act within the confines of the law and agency policy, Shane recommended education of the public about police procedure and community outreach programs could help.

"Educate the public about how police work is actually carried out," he said. "Most people have really no idea how police work is done, and that's a big problem."

According to Kane, the situation may improve as people become more familiar with having cameras in phones.

"To some extent, we are a society that is still immature in the ways in which we integrate video recording into our lives," he said. "Any time a new technology is introduced into society, it becomes disruptive."

"We're in this stage still where the camera on the iPhone is a disruptive force."

The important thing in the case of a controversial arrest or shooting caught on tape, according to Kane, is to look at the totality of the circumstances.

"[The video] can't be the only piece of evidence used to prove the case."

Whether there is enough data to validate it or not, Moskos believes the possibility that this YouTube effect is influencing policing is worth considering because, as Comey said, it is a concern that police officers are talking about, and it is not going away on its own.

"We're not going to un-invent cellphones and video cameras," Moskos said, "so it is what it is."

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