Is the Ferguson Effect For Real?

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from TIME Magazine,

President Obama and the FBI director square off.

FBI Director James Comey is known for speaking his mind. The Republican once put his senior Justice Department job on the line by challenging President George W. Bush’s warrantless-wiretapping program. But it was still striking to see him suggest a link between the violent-crime spike in some U.S. cities and the heightened scrutiny of police in recent months. “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 during a speech at the University of Chicago Law School on Oct. 23. “And that wind is surely changing behavior.”

Comey was channeling a theory popular among police officials, beat cops and even big-city mayors like Chicago Democrat Rahm Emanuel who believe the backlash against police brutality, coupled with the ubiquity of smartphone cameras brandished by mistrustful bystanders, has made officers leery of interceding in situations apt to wind up on YouTube. “Officers are extremely cautious right now,” says Sergeant Delroy Burton, chairman of the police union in Washington, D.C., where homicides are up 45% in 2015. “Nobody wants to become the next guy in a viral video on the 6 o’clock news.”

This phenomenon has been dubbed the Ferguson effect, after the St. Louis suburb where protests raged when a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man in August 2014.

Not everyone thinks so. Among the skeptics is President Obama, who has made criminal-justice reform a goal of his final months in office and has been waging that crusade more in public than in Congress. On Oct. 27, the President told a conference of police chiefs in Chicago that despite spasms of gun violence in cities like his hometown, violent crime nationwide is up just slightly from recent years and remains near 50-year lows. Obama disputed the idea that the difficulty of patrolling communities where officers face rampant distrust had driven police forces into a defensive crouch. “What we can’t do,” Obama said, “is cherry-pick data or use anecdotal evidence.”

Comey acknowledged that the Ferguson effect is just a theory. But his remarks rankled some officers, who perceived the suggestion that they might shrink from duty as an unintended slight.

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