Over the last week, FBI Director James Comey has done serious damage to his credibility as the nation’s top crime-fighter. To repeat an old saw, he has figuratively shot himself in both feet, with two ill-considered speeches on the so-called post-Ferguson world where police hold back because of fears of smartphone-wielding citizens. His comments have drawn fierce criticism from civil libertarians, law enforcement analysts, and the White House itself – and rightly so.
The "age of viral videos" has fundamentally altered policing, Comey told an audience 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? . . . 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." Then, in case no one had gotten the message, he upped the ante at the International Association of Chiefs of Police a few days later, feeding the misguided notion that an outbreak of constitutionally protected community scrutiny has fueled a crime wave.
But Comey's Cassandra act is not supported by statistics. In fact, the data don't suggest that there is a long-term spike in violent crime in the United States, according to James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology, law, and public policy at Northeastern University. In Seattle, police chief Kathleen O'Toole says crime is down this year and told The New York Times: "There's never been as much scrutiny on police officers as there is now. We should embrace it."
There is no question that police and community relations have been fractured by horrific spasms of violence in the last year. Protests have erupted nationally over the deadly police shootings of unarmed black men like Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Walter Scott in South Carolina. A little more than a week ago, New York City police officer Randolph Holder died after being shot in the head while pursuing a suspect; he was the fourth officer in the city murdered in the last 11 months, according to Commissioner William Bratton.
Comey's speeches reflect the fact that nerves are on edge. But they also call into question his ability to lead an agency that should be instrumental in probing instances of racial profiling and police shootings of unarmed black men. A police officer conducting routine business has nothing to fear from a security camera video recording or from a citizen wielding a cellphone. In suggesting that legitimate scrutiny by the community is causing a crime wave, Comey runs the risk of shielding bad cops.