In recent weeks, we have seen arguments claiming that reforms like Proposition 47 and AB 109 in California have reversed long-standing trends of falling crime rates. At the same time, many have argued that focus on policing has resulted in police less willing to confront potential suspects, and thus a rise in crime rate known as the Ferguson effect. This week we have seen interesting developments both in a coalition of police officials coming together to put forth a new path for law enforcement and the FBI Director publicly opposing the Administration position on police tactics.
The New York Times is reporting this morning that FBI Director James Comey caught the Administration and Justice Department off guard when he said that “additional scrutiny and criticism of police officers in the wake of highly publicized episodes of police brutality may have led to an increase in violent crime in some cities as officers have become less aggressive.”
As the Times article notes, Mr. Comey’s comments lend credence to the “Ferguson Effect” theory that “is far from settled: that the increased attention on the police has made officers less aggressive and emboldened criminals.”
The striking thing is he acknowledged the lack of data “to back up his assertion and that it may be just one of many factors that are contributing to the rise in crime, like cheaper drugs and an increase in criminals who are being released from prison.”
“I don’t know whether that explains it entirely, but I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is a chill wind that has blown through American law enforcement over the last year,” Mr. Comey said in a speech at the University of Chicago Law School.
The views of Mr. Comey are not shared in the top levels of the Justice Department where “[h]olding the police accountable for civil rights violations has been a top priority at the department in recent years, and some senior officials do not believe that scrutiny of police officers has led to an increase in crime.”
The Times notes, “Among the nation’s law enforcement officials, there is sharp disagreement over whether there is any credence to the so-called Ferguson effect, which refers to the protests that erupted in the summer of 2014 in Ferguson, Mo., over a police shooting.”
The data shows a far more complex and mixed picture. For instance, in Oakland, homicides are up this year, but shootings are down and the crime rate is stable. So is that evidence of a Ferguson effect? You also have the problem of trying to analyze crime data that fluctuates year to year even, as the pattern has been downward over the last several decades.
In Washington, “homicides are also up, but violent crime and crime over all are down,” said Lt. Sean Conboy, a police spokesman. “Trying to correlate it to a Ferguson effect, I don’t believe is appropriate,” Lieutenant Conboy said.
“After civil rights leaders and the Justice Department accused the Seattle Police Department of discriminatory policing and excessive force, the number of officer-instigated stops declined and crime ticked upward, said Kathleen O’Toole, the police chief.” However, “Chief O’Toole said it was up to police leaders to insist on reversing that trend. The critiques made the department better, she said. Crime is down this year, and her city has hosted police officials from places such as Baltimore wanting to understand why.”
“There’s never been as much scrutiny on police officers as there is now,” Chief O’Toole said. “We should embrace it.”
But the Times reports, “Mr. Comey said that he had been told by many police leaders that officers who would normally stop to question suspicious people are opting to stay in their patrol cars for fear of having their encounters become worldwide video sensations. That hesitancy has led to missed opportunities to apprehend suspects, he said, and has decreased the police presence on the streets of the country’s most violent cities.”
“I’ve been told by a senior police leader who urged his force to remember that their political leadership has no tolerance for a viral video,” Mr. Comey said, ‘adding that many leaders and officers whom he had spoken to said they were afraid to address the issue publicly.’
“Lives are saved when those potential killers are confronted by a police officer, a strong police presence and actual, honest-to-goodness, up-close ‘What are you guys doing on this corner at 1 o’clock in the morning’ policing,” Mr. Comey said. “We need to be careful it doesn’t drift away from us in the age of viral videos, or there will be profound consequences.”
But the Times reports that “investigations by the Justice Department have given weight to the loudest criticisms of police behavior in Ferguson and elsewhere. Those inquiries have found that many officers unfairly singled out African-Americans for stops and arrests, and too often used force that was unjustified. Videos of deadly encounters with the police in cities such as Cleveland, New York and North Charleston, S.C., have fueled that criticism.”
Again Mr. Comey acknowledges the lack of “reliable data” making “the task of identifying trends and remedies to fix them is far more challenging. He said state and local law enforcement officials were increasingly open to providing the F.B.I. with better data so it can more accurately chart trends.”
“‘Data’ is a dry word, but we need better data,” Mr. Comey said. “And people tend to tune out when you start to talk about it, but it’s important, because it gives us the full picture of what’s happening.”
Mr. Comey’s view is but one view, however. Other groups of law enforcement actually are coming together with a plan to reduce both crime and incarceration, with the hopes that “smart policing, treatment, alternatives to prison and educational programs are what work to bring down crime.”
Bringing down crime and interactions between law enforcement and communities of color will help reduce the tensions between those communities.
In an op-ed in USA Today, Garry McCarthy and Ronal Serpas wrote that, as politicians from both sides of the aisle are calling for a reduction in imprisonment, they have more than 70 years of experience “managing crime,” and “we firmly believe that we can reduce incarceration and crime together. We know firsthand that more incarceration does not keep our country safe. Our experience and research show that good crime control policy is not about locking up everyone. It’s about locking up the right people.”
They argue, “Our experience has led us all to the same conclusion, which some may find hard to believe: We can reduce incarceration and crime at the same time. Our mission is to urge this shift across the country. We can do it. We should do it. And there are solutions to guide us.”
On Wednesday, a group calling themselves “Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration” launched an initiative uniting 130 current and former police chiefs, federal and state chief prosecutors, and attorneys general from all 50 states to urge for a reduction in both crime and incarceration.
On Wednesday a press conference was held by, among others: Charlie Beck, Chief, Los Angeles Police Department; William Bratton, Commissioner, New York City Police Department; Benjamin David, District Attorney, New Hanover County & Pender County, North Carolina; Cathy Lanier, Chief, Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department; Garry McCarthy, Superintendent, Chicago Police Department; co-chair, Law Enforcement Leaders; Charles McClelland, Chief, Houston Police Department; Ronal Serpas, former Superintendent, New Orleans Police Department; co-chair, Law Enforcement Leaders.
“As the public servants working every day to keep our citizens safe, we can say from experience that we can bring down both incarceration and crime together,” said Law Enforcement Leaders Co-Chair Garry McCarthy, Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department. “Good crime control policy does not involve arresting and imprisoning masses of people. It involves arresting and imprisoning the right people. Arresting and imprisoning low-level offenders prevents us from focusing resources on violent crime. While some may find it counterintuitive, we know that we can reduce crime and reduce unnecessary arrests and incarceration at the same time.”
Members of the group will work within their departments as well as with policymakers to pursue reforms around four policy priorities:
- Increasing alternatives to arrest and prosecution, especially mental health and drug treatment. Policies within police departments and prosecutor offices should divert people with mental health and drug addiction issues away from arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment and instead into proper treatment.
- Reducing unnecessary severity of criminal laws by reclassifying some felonies to misdemeanors or removing criminal sanctions, where appropriate.
- Reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum laws that require overly harsh, arbitrary sentences for crimes.
- Strengthening ties between law enforcement and communities by promoting strategies that keep the public safe, improve community relations, and increase community engagement.
“Our decision to come together reflects the deep commitment among law enforcement’s ranks to end unnecessary, widespread incarceration,” said Law Enforcement Leaders Co-Chair Ronal Serpas, former Superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department. “As leaders of the law enforcement community, we are committed to building a smarter, stronger, and fairer criminal justice system. We do not want to see families and communities wrecked by our current system. Forming this new organization will allow us to engage policymakers and support changes to federal and state laws, as well as practices, to end unnecessary incarceration.”
Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration is launching at a time when crime in the United States is at its lowest levels in half a century, but our country’s incarceration rate is the highest in the world.
The new organization is being welcomed by other criminal justice reform advocates.
“Too many Americans, particularly low-income communities and communities of color, are being torn apart by our overly punitive justice system,” said Cornell Brooks, President and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). “Seeing law enforcement officials from across the country come together to address problems in the justice system sends a powerful message. We welcome these leaders to our efforts.”
“There is no validation more important to our efforts to reduce incarceration and enhance public safety than the word of the men and women we entrust to protect our communities,” said Mark Holden, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of Koch Industries. “Today, the nation’s most respected law enforcement leaders declare their support for efforts to reduce incarceration. Our current system is a disservice to them. It requires law enforcement to handle issues that aren’t necessarily criminal in nature and creates friction with the communities they serve. They deserve better than this and so do the Americans they protect and serve.”
Law Enforcement Leaders is a project of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “Today, law enforcement joins the growing bipartisan movement of lawmakers, advocacy groups, scholars, and communities of color calling for an end to mass incarceration. Law Enforcement Leaders is a critical, and long needed, addition to our efforts,” said Inimai Chettiar, Director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program.