WASHINGTON -- FBI Director James Comey once again suggested this week that the "viral video effect" on police may be to blame for the rise in murders in some cities, tripling down on a theory that has put him in conflict with the Obama administration as well as criminal justice experts who don't see any evidence of a connection between murder spikes and scrutiny of police.
Citing conversations with law enforcement leaders, Comey contended that "marginal pullbacks by lots and lots of police officers," as well as "changes in the way police may be acting and in the way communities may be acting in terms of how much information they share with police," could be having an effect on homicide spikes. The comments came at a press briefing with reporters at FBI headquarters on Wednesday, which took place shortly after Comey had been briefed on early homicide numbers in a number of cities in early 2016.
But as pointed out by experts at the Brennan Center in March, there's simply no evidence of a national crime wave, let alone a signifiant spike in murders that could somehow be attributable to scrutiny of the conduct of police officers. While there was a 1.7 percent spike in the violent crime rate, there was a significant 4.2 percent drop in property crime in the first half of 2015.
"While there were 471 more murders in large cities in 2015 than 2014, more than half (260) of that increase occurred in just three cities: Baltimore, Washington and Chicago. Until we have more information, then, warnings of a 'new nationwide crime wave' are premature by several years and more than a few percentage points," wrote Ames Grawert and James Cullen.
At the briefing with reporters, Comey said he didn't know for sure what was driving a spike in homicides in some cities.
"It could be it's simply a collection of individual factors in different cities," Comey said in response to a question from The Huffington Post. "It's hard for me to believe that there isn't something broad that's affecting it, but maybe it could be. Maybe the reason that we're seeing a jump in homicide in different cities all over the county is driven by factors in those particular areas."
Many members of law enforcement leaders are also insulted by the suggestion that officers are standing down on the job simply because they fear being filmed with a cell phone camera.
“He ought to stick to what he knows,” James O. Pasco Jr. of the National Fraternal Order of Police told The New York Times. "He’s basically saying that police officers are afraid to do their jobs with absolutely no proof.”
Comey said the preliminary 2016 numbers he's seen showed a "significant number of cities have seen a significant jump in their homicide rate between this quarter and last year," when numbers were up over 2014. He acknowledged the threat of oversimplifying the cause of spikes in violent crime rates, which can be affected by a large number of factors (including, for instance, easier access to guns in certain parts of the country).
"These are really hard questions. Academics wrestle with it and wrestle with it," Comey said. "I think everybody ought to wrestle with it, because something is going on."
The Huffington Post asked Comey what the public policy solution would be to the "viral video effect" -- if it truly does have an effect on homicide numbers -- given that private citizens have the constitutional right to record police officers operating in public.
"There's nothing wrong with scrutiny, Comey said. "If that is a part of what's going on in some of these cities ... it's incumbent upon leaders in the police organizations and in the communities to agree we all want the same kind of policing."
Comey said that "everybody" wants the same kind of "up-close, respectful, appropriate policing" in their communities.
"We want police officers to get out of their car at midnight or 2 a.m. and say 'Hey, you guys live around here?' and have a conversation with them, up close," Comey said. "And so if there's something going on in the community where there's fewer and fewer of those conversations, leadership in the police needs to make sure that's what's expected, and leadership in the communities to say that's exactly what we want. We want you out of your cars talking to these people in an appropriate and respectful way."
Comey contended that what he has said has sometimes been mischaracterized.
"I'm not against scrutiny of police, I think that's fabulous and has worked some important changes in the past two years, and I hope it continues to," the bureau's chief official said. "What I'm worried about is, we all agree we want the same kind of policing and if it's not happening, we've got to talk about why."
Comey also said that it may take more than two years for the federal government to get an accurate count of how many people were killed by police officers each year, and said that was frustrating.