Is a 'viral video effect' increasing crime?

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Story highlights

  • Are police less willing to intervene to stop crime for fear of winding up on a cell phone video that goes viral?
  • Alexander says his own officers tell him "they are acutely aware of being under added public scrutiny"

Cedric L. Alexander is a CNN law enforcement analyst and director of public safety at the DeKalb County Police Department in Georgia. He is a former national president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)What the New York Times called an "alarming spike in murders in many (American) cities" recently prompted FBI Director James Comey to reprise the idea of a "Ferguson effect."

That phrase was coined by St. Louis Police Department Chief Sam Dotson in November 2014 to explain an uptick in crime after the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police shooting of Michael Brown in that St. Louis suburb on August 9, 2014.
Cedric L. Alexander
"It's the Ferguson effect," Dotson told reporters. "I see it not only on the law enforcement side, but the criminal element is feeling empowered by the environment." The St. Louis County chief, Jon Belmar, agreed, saying there were no "ifs" about it and arguing that both the city and the county needed more police. I agree. Most departments are understaffed -- not just because of budgetary constraints, but because recruiting officers is a particular challenge these days.
    Comey stirred controversy back in October 2015 when he told an audience at the University of Chicago Law School that additional public scrutiny and criticism of police following intensively publicized episodes of police brutality and shootings -- many of them accompanied by bystander smartphone video or police dashcam and bodycam video -- may have led to a spike in crime because officers became less aggressive.
    "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," Comey told his audience.
    Although his 2015 remarks drew criticism, including from the White House, Comey essentially repeated this view in remarks earlier this month. Instead of linking this year's reported spike in homicides to the "Ferguson effect," however, he spoke of a "viral video effect," which he described as "a perception that police are less likely to do the marginal additional policing that suppresses crime -- the getting out of your car at 2 in the morning and saying to a group of guys, 'Hey, what are you doing here?'"
    Once again, Director Comey has been criticized. But I have to praise him for two things: First, for his willingness to present -- twice now -- a view he knows that many do not endorse. Second, for his frank admission that he has "no data to back up" his interpretation and that, in fact, he doesn't "know what the answer is."
    Understandably, these admissions provoked an angry response from the executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, James O. Pasco Jr., who told a reporter that the FBI director "ought to stick to what he knows. ... He's basically saying that police officers are afraid to do their jobs with absolutely no proof."
    I fully appreciate Pasco's response. Yet I don't agree with the proposition that Comey should "stick to what he knows." He is, after all, a distinguished law enforcement leader in a position of great responsibility. His gut feeling about the pressures on America's police officers therefore has value. We need to listen to it, and we need to ponder it. I say this especially because, as public safety director of DeKalb County, Georgia, I've had my own officers tell me that they are acutely aware of being under added public scrutiny.
    Yet the fact is that our most recent crime stats in DeKalb show violent crime is running below last year's levels.
    Why?
    Like Comey, I have to respond that I do not know -- not definitively. What I do know is that my officers come to work every day, go out on patrol every day, and risk their lives to serve and protect our community every day. Yes, they feel pressure every day. Yes, they know they may end up starring in a smartphone video gone viral. But none of this stops them from doing their job. I'm proud of them for it. But I also expect no less from them. It is what they swore to do.
    Like Comey, I have gut feelings. Also like him, I don't have all the data I would want to have to back up those feelings. But, like my officers, I do the job I swore to do.
    And I am not alone. While homicide rates have risen in more than 20 cities and have spiked sharply in six of these during the first quarter of 2016 (Chicago, Dallas, Jacksonville, Florida; Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Memphis), "almost as many cities reported a notable decline in recent months," according to the New York Times.
    We need to pay attention to the good news as well as the bad. Criminologist James Allan Fox says that some American cities are actually "victims of their own success." The crime rate "can't go to zero, and when you hit really low numbers, it can only go up." Depending on exactly where you happen to live or how much of the 24-hour TV news cycle you watch, it may not seem like it, but the data show that Americans are actually enjoying the lowest crime rates in more than 45 years.
    How do we know this? The data comes straight from the Department of Justice, of which James Comey's FBI is an agency.
    At any given place and at any given time, the closest we can come to the "truth" about any complex issue is to know what we know as well as what we do not know. We need to apply more science and get more data so that we can transform what we do not know into what we know. In the meantime, we need the courage to keep on doing our jobs. This is true whether you are a businessperson, a physician, a politician, a parent, the FBI director -- or a cop, in foot pursuit, in an alley, in the middle of the night.