FBI chief tries to deal with the ‘Ferguson effect’

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FBI Director James Comey.

CHICAGO – A year after unrest in Ferguson, Mo., brought increased scrutiny of police, FBI Director James Comey has thrown his weight behind the idea that restraint by cops in the wake of criticism is at least partly to blame for a surge in violent crime in some cities.

The tensions over policing and crime come when, for the first time in a generation, unusual political forces have aligned and the nation appears on the verge of relaxing tough criminal sentencing laws. Liberals and conservatives now seem to agree that 1980’s-era anti-drug laws boosted U.S. prison populations too much, with the burden falling disproportionately on minority communities.

Some law enforcement officials, including Comey, are raising concerns that a spike in crime — or at least the perception that the recent era of historically low crime rates is at risk — could hurt criminal justice reforms efforts.

The crime spike is showing up in a variety of cities big and small, while others have avoided the same. Cleveland and Milwaukee have blown past the number of murders reported in 2014, with more than two months left in the year. Dallas and Tampa in recent weeks were on pace to surpass 2014 murder totals. Meanwhile, other cities, including New York, haven’t seen similar increases.

At the same time, a number of high-profile police shooting incidents, many caught on ubiquitous camera phones, have given rise to protests over policing tactics that critics call heavy-handed. In some cities, police officers privately report holding back on making stops for fear of ending up the next YouTube “bad cop” sensation. They call it the Ferguson effect.

These are among the issues facing the nation’s top local and federal law enforcement officials meeting in Chicago this week. President Barack Obama, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Comey are scheduled to address the gathering of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

As if to underscore the roiling controversies hanging over policing in America, on Saturday hundreds of protesters staged what they called an “I Shocked the Sheriff” Counter-Conference outside the Chicago convention hall hosting the IACP meetings. Police made dozens of arrests when protesters blocked intersections.

Comey waded into the thorny issues at play in a speech Friday at the University of Chicago Law School, his alma mater. He has expressed worry about the spike in the number murders in some cities, and for the first time said it could be at least partly linked to what he called a “chill wind” police are facing in the wake of Ferguson.

“Far more people are being killed in America’s cities this year than in many years — 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,” Comey said.

The FBI chief repeatedly used the phrase “all lives matter” in various contexts during his discussion led by Ruby Garrett, editor of the law school’s Legal Forum and president of the Black Law Students Association. The phrase has drawn controversy because some view it as a response to the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement. The two spoke before a mostly white student audience.

On Sunday, after some critical news coverage of his Friday speech, Comey complained about being misunderstood to a town hall hosted by the Police Executive Research Forum, on the sidelines of the IACP conference. He said critics missed the nuance in his remarks.

Comey said Sunday he was “not trying to pick on the people scrutinizing law enforcement.” But he noted “something is happening that is hard to explain,” and he said he was only giving voice to the views he hears from police chiefs who only share their concerns in private.

The provocative remarks expanded on themes comey first broached in a 2014 speech at Georgetown University, where he acknowledged racial biases were at times to blame for “lazy mental shortcuts” that lead to more police stops of young black men.

But in Friday’s speech, and again Sunday, he said he was trying to start a conversation about whether the pendulum has swung too far.

“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?” he asked in his Friday remarks. “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.”

To be sure, violent crime remains at historic lows.

Even in cities where dozens of shootings in a weekend regularly make national headlines, violent crime rates were far higher 20 years ago. Chicago has recorded over 400 murders this year, but that’s well short of the more than 900 common in the early 1990s. Police in Washington, D.C., which recorded nearly 400 murders in 1996, are facing public pressure because of 124 killings this year, an increase from 88 in 2012.

Obama last week tried to calm fears about rising murder numbers, noting that broader statistics still reflect historically low crime rates.

“You have to step back and say you have to look at statistics. 2014 was a historic low in violent crime,” Obama said. “If there’s a spike in some cities, that’s something we have to take seriously and pay attention to, but it certainly doesn’t suddenly translate into this notion that a crime wave’s coming.”

Comey’s cautious endorsement of the Ferguson Effect may be welcomed by some in policing, but many other police chiefs disagree. To do so, some say privately, would admit that their officers aren’t doing their jobs. Many other chiefs blame a rise in synthetic drugs and other discrete causes for crime.

And groups that grew out of the Ferguson protests dispute that crime rates have any link to their efforts to shine a light on what they believe is widespread problem of excessive use of force.

The nature of U.S. policing, with more than 12,000 local police departments, makes it difficult to gather statistics on police shootings. Because not all police departments collect and report such numbers, no national count exists.

Comey, in his speech Monday to the IACP, plans to urge police to better report statistics on use of force to the FBI. He is expected to link better statistics to resolving tensions between police and the communities they serve.

The president and attorney general are both expected to their pitch for criminal justice reform to the gathering of police.

But both are likely to give remarks generally supportive of police.

That’s a message that likely will go over well inside the convention hall in Chicago. Outside, the jury remains out.

By Evan Perez, Shimon Prokupecz and Wesley Bruer, CNN