Top U.S. government officials endorsing the so-called “Ferguson effect” — the untested notion that increased scrutiny makes police stop policing — are following the model of the cops who fire at innocent, unarmed people: Shoot first and ask questions later.
President Barack Obama has rejected the Ferguson effect, but that hasn’t stopped FBI Director James Comey and Drug Enforcement Administration chief Chuck Rosenberg from embracing the hypothesis. The president needs to send a strong message that fear-mongering from within his administration will not be tolerated. He should fire Rosenberg and Comey.
The Ferguson effect, or at least the version of it championed by these officials, posits that as police face greater scrutiny, particularly from civilians armed with cell-phone cameras, they become so fearful of policing that crime rates increase. The correlation is completely made up. There is no evidence that scrutinizing the police, criticizing the police, or filming the police has the slightest effect on crime. Period.
Comey admitted his belief in the Ferguson effect was based on a conversation with a group of police officers in a single precinct. He should know better than to base broad conclusions on anecdotes, and it is exceptionally naïve to treat police accounts as disinterested. Of course many police officers want to trump up the Ferguson effect and encourage people, the FBI director included, to view transparency as a problem.
More fundamentally, capturing police abuse on video is a positive development — not, as Comey and Rosenberg imply, a problem. When people film and photograph law enforcement abuse, they are exercising a First Amendment right and discharging a civic duty. Their patriotism and courage is to be celebrated, not disparaged. “Sunshine is the greatest disinfectant,” Justice Brandeis wrote.
Officers once could be confident that beatings on dark street corners would vanish into plausible deniability — “Kid, it’s going to be a ‘he said, she said,’ and no one’s going to believe you over me.” Now, more and more abuse sees the light of day, and video doesn’t lie. Perhaps, as Comey suggests, the new scrutiny blows a “chill wind” over policing. But does a top law enforcement official really need to be reminded that exposing — and thereby deterring — police misconduct is a good thing? If that is a chill wind, he should be praying for a polar vortex.
The president should dismiss Comey and Rosenberg because keeping them on the payroll compromises his message that he cares about police misconduct and communities of color. On the Ferguson effect, Obama has stated that he wants to “stick with the facts” rather than cherry-picked anecdotes, and his Justice Department has demanded accountability from police departments that abuse communities and single out minorities. Now the question is whether the president will go to the mat or allow his subordinates to undermine him from within.
David M. Shapiro is a clinical assistant professor of law and attorney for the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law, Chicago.