FBI director James Comey, in a speech to the University of Chicago Law School on Friday, gave voice to a controversial theory that scrutiny of police conduct and the threat of exposure through “viral videos” has generated a “chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year.”
Comey’s description of “The YouTube Effect” as “the one explanation that does explain the calendar and the map and that makes the most sense to me” contrasts with the uncertainty of his remarks following a meeting with the nation’s law enforcement officials on October 7:
“We stare at the math, and stare at change in cities that seem to have nothing in common with one another. What’s the connection among Boston, Washington, Minneapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Houston, Dallas, other than being American cities?” he said. “Has policing changed in the YouTube era? I don’t like the term ‘post-Ferguson,’ because I actually believe the ‘YouTube era’ captures it better.
The question I keep asking my staff is, ‘Do these hypothesis fit the map and the calendar?’ ” he continued. “Cities with nothing in common are seeing in the same degree and in the same time – dramatic increases in violence, especially homicides — does heroin explain that? I struggle with that … is it guns? Well, what’s changed with guns in the last nine months? Is it the criminal justice system? Well, I keep asking my staff, what has changed that would explain that this is happening in the first nine months of this year and all over the country?”
In May, the Justice Department announced $20 million dollars in funding for body-worn cameras for local police departments.
“Body-worn cameras hold tremendous promise for enhancing transparency, promoting accountability, and advancing public safety for law enforcement officers and the communities they serve,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said at the time.
In March, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing addressed the question of police self-awareness because of the presence of a camera (a police body camera, specifically) and found it to have a positive result.
“When police officers are acutely aware that their behavior is being monitored (because they turn on the cameras), and when officers tell citizens that the cameras are recording their behavior, everyone behaves better. The results of this study are highly suggestive that this increase in self-awareness contributes to more positive outcomes in police-citizen interaction,” read one of their findings.
As Comey was in Chicago making an explicit argument for aggressive policing as a means of reducing crime, and relaying the admittedly anecdotal theory of police self-consciousness, President Obama was participating in a White House panel discussion on criminal justice reform, emphasizing fairness in policing as one of the administration’s primary principles.
And where Comey used the phrase “all lives matter” three times in his speech, President Obama used his closing remarks to explain the meaning of the phrase “black lives matter” and why saying “all lives matter” misses the point.
“I think the reason that the organizes used the phrase ‘black lives matter’ was not because they said they were suggesting nobody else’s lives matter; rather, what they were suggesting was there is a specific problem that is happening in the African American community that’s not happening in other communities. And that is a legitimate issue that we’ve got to address,” Obama said.
Where there is one very clear common thread among administration officials is on the need for more real data from which to draw conclusions.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch went to great pains this month to emphasize the value and importance of gathering reliable statistics on police shootings and other police interactions. “Certainly the fact that we don’t have a nationwide, consistent set of standards is – not only does it make our job difficult it makes it hard to see these trends and that’s why it is so important to focus on these,” she said in an Oct. 5 press conference.
President Obama, while at one point highlighting research that calls the crime spikes assumed in the YouTube effect into question, also emphasized the importance of data from activists. “There is a specific concern as to whether African Americans are sometimes not treated in particular jurisdictions fairly or subject to excessive force more frequently.” he said. “I think it’s important for those who are concerned about that to back it up with data, not anecdote[s]; to not paint with a broad brush…”
Comey too, was deliberate in pointing out the need (and his advocacy) for more and better data to develop a more accurate picture of crime patterns. “We need better information to make better decisions,” he said Friday.
In a speech to Georgetown University in February, Comey shared an exchange he’d had with a city official:
“I recently listened to a thoughtful big city police chief express his frustration with that lack of reliable data. He said he didn’t know whether the Ferguson police shot one person a week, one a year, or one a century, and that in the absence of good data, ‘all we get are ideological thunderbolts, when what we need are ideological agnostics who use information to try to solve problems.’ He’s right.”