The Myth of Police Reluctance

Protesters kneel down with their hands up in front of police officers in Los Angeles, California, on November 26, 2014.

FBI Director James Comey seems to believe that a recent uptick in violent street crime plaguing several major U.S. cities can be traced to the reluctance of police officers to do their jobs in the wake of intense public scrutiny.

Some observers call it the “Ferguson effect,” an anecdote-rich belief that criminals are more brazen and that cowering police officers are declining to fight crime since the death of Michael Brown in August 2014. The Atlantic’s David A. Graham labels such a theory “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.”

Yet the nation’s top cop appears to have thrown his lot in with the tinfoil hat crowd, repeatedly citing the Ferguson effect as a possible explanation for rising crime in some cities. Most recently, Comey speculated about this idea in a provocative speech last Friday at the University of Chicago Law School:

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?

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.

This disturbing notion took flight with Heather Mac Donald’s opinion piece published last spring in The Wall Street Journal. Journalists then followed with equally speculative observations, including an authoritative-sounding article in The New York Times.

The problem with all of these Sasquatch sightings is that there is virtually no evidence to support them. The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based criminal justice nonprofit organization, recently produced a report showing that the rise in crime in St. Louis, Missouri, began well before Ferguson became a rallying cry for videotaped documentation of police abuse.

As if on cue and as I write, a news bulletin just flashed across my computer screen: “BREAKING: FBI and U.S. Justice Dept. to Investigate Spring Valley Incident.” Let’s be very clear—there is no rational explanation or justifiable reasoning for condoning a hulking, armed officer’s attack on a student at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina. The officer had nothing to fear from a young girl and was not the least bit inhibited when he misused his authority by hurling her across the classroom floor. The videotaped incident has produced justifiable outrage across the nation after it spread on Twitter with the #AssaultAtSpringValleyHigh hashtag.

Obama administration officials took issue with the FBI chief’s comments last week. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday during his daily news briefing that the administration does not believe in the Ferguson effect.

“The available evidence at this point does not support the notion that law enforcement officers are shying away from fulfilling their responsibilities,” Earnest told reporters, as reported by CNN. “The evidence we’ve seen so far doesn’t support the contention that law enforcement officials are somehow shirking their responsibility, and in fact you’ve seen law enforcement leaders across the country indicating that’s not what’s taking place.”

The White House smackdown prompted Comey to offer a slight modification to his comments on Monday in a speech to the International Association of Chiefs of Police convention in Chicago. There, he conceded he has little evidence to support the Ferguson effect theory. “We need to figure out what’s happening,” he said.

True enough. Without grainy photos or shadowy video images to prove its existence, the Ferguson effect is nothing more than an apparition. Meanwhile, folks on the streets in St. Louis and Baltimore and kids in a South Carolina classroom have clear and irrefutable evidence of police abuses. And—as everyone in this Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube world knows—Bigfoot becomes dangerously real when captured on social media.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.