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November 10, 2015

FBI Director James Comey on the “Ferguson effect” at the Law School

FBI Director James Comey (J.D.’85) caused a stir in national media and the White House when he proposed the possible validity of the so-called “Ferguson effect” in an address at the University of Chicago Law School on October 23. The controversial theory suggests that crime rates have risen recently because highly publicized police shootings, like that of Michael Brown in Ferguson, have resulted in lax policing. Viral video footage that vilifies the police, as the theory presumes, has made law enforcement officials reluctant to crack down on crime.

“Nobody says it on the record, nobody says it in public, but police and elected officials are quietly saying it to themselves. 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? Are officers answering 911 calls but avoiding the informal contact that keeps bad guys from standing around, especially with guns?” Comey said.

“So the suggestion, the question that has been asked of me, is whether these kinds of things are changing police behavior all over the country. And the answer is, I don’t know. 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,” Comey asserted.

Comey cited an interaction with law-enforcement officials in which they expressed concern over the public’s heightened suspicions.

“I spoke to officers privately in one big city precinct who described being surrounded by young people with mobile phone cameras held high, taunting them the moment they get out of their cars. They told me, ‘We feel like we’re under siege and we don’t feel much like getting out of our cars.’”

These remarks have attracted attention elsewhere in the country, though the media remains largely suspicious of such comments. David Graham, a writer for The Atlantic, expressed skepticism about the “Ferguson effect.”

“[The Ferguson effect is] the Bigfoot of American criminal justice: fervently believed to be real by some, doubted by many others, reportedly glimpsed here and there, but never yet attested to by any hard evidence.”

However, there has also been support for the “Ferguson effect.” Heather Mac Donald, Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal, supported the theory in a panel hosted by NPR’s Diane Rehm Show on October 28.

“I’ve spoken to so many officers who say that they are reluctant to engage in proactive policing because that—exactly that type of policing has come under such strenuous attack over the last year, and they are reluctant to engage and possibly end up on a YouTube video that could go viral, even if it doesn’t necessarily capture the entire engagement with a civilian. So I think also the crime drop is just so significant, and as I say, it’s accompanied by a drop in enforcement.”

The approval of the “Ferguson effect” by the heads of the DEA and the FBI provoked a response from the White House. They indicated that such positions were in opposition to the Obama administration’s official stance against the legitimacy of the “Ferguson effect.”

“The fact is the evidence does not support the claim that somehow our law enforcement officers across the country are shirking their duties and failing to fulfill their responsibility to serve and protect the communities to which they are assigned,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said last week.

Though Comey may have suggested the “Ferguson effect” as one possible explanation for the rise in shootings, he also expressed the need for more data in his address at the law school.

“One of the ways to get a better handle on what’s happening in our communities is through more and better information,” Comey said.  “Data related to violent crime and homicides. Data related to officer-involved shootings. Data related to altercations with the citizens we serve, and attacks against law enforcement officers.”

“We have to get up close if we are to bend these lines. We must start seeing one another more clearly. We have to resist stereotypes,” Comey concluded. “We have to look for information beyond anecdotes. And we must understand that we need each other.”

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