On Friday, FBI Director James Comey told an audience in Chicago that he believes that the "YouTube effect" — that is, the heightened scrutiny police officers have faced after a series of highly publicized incidents of questionable use of force, including Freddie Gray's arrest in Baltimore — has contributed to the nation-wide rise in violent crime. This is not a new theory — it has been voiced here by the head of the police union and by the former police commissioner, who said he believed officers "took a knee" after April's riots. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently said he believed officers had gone "fetal" under the scrutiny. But given what Mr. Comey admits is a lack of any real data to support it, the theory is a damaging one to advance, as it only underscores the disconnect between police and the communities they are supposed to serve.
Mr. Comey said he has heard anecdotal evidence that officers are being told by superiors that their political leaders have "no tolerance for a viral video," and that as a consequence, officers are reluctant to get out of their cars and question suspicious people. "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 told an audience at the University of Chicago Law School. "We need to be careful it doesn't drift away from us in the age of viral videos, or there will be profound consequences."
What is so troubling about this line of reasoning is that it suggests officers have no idea about what has brought us to this point. The issue is not officers doing their jobs in an energetic, proactive way. The issue is the use of force when it's not needed, the violation of civil rights and the general dehumanization of people who live in high crime areas, usually African Americans. The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., which sparked the era of heightened scrutiny for officers, was not captured on video and proved less clear-cut than reports initially suggested. But a series of subsequent cases — the killings of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott and Sam DuBose, the arrest of Sandra Bland and others — cannot be construed as situations conscientious officers would find themselves in simply by doing their jobs.
The case of Freddie Gray serves well to highlight the distinction between what Mr. Comey and others are talking about and what motivates those now calling for greater scrutiny of police. Given the history of drug dealing and other crime in the area, few would question officers' decision to approach the corner where Gray and another man where hanging out on the morning of April 12. The officers' decision to chase after him when he ran away probably wouldn't have raised many eyebrows either.
But from that point onward, the officers' actions get harder and harder to defend. Did they need to use as much force as they did to restrain him? Was the allegedly illegal knife they found in his pocket really sufficient grounds to arrest him? Was there true justification for ignoring his reported requests for a medic? Was there good reason for not buckling him into a seat belt in the back of a police van? Is there some defensible rationale for placing him face down on the floor of the van with his hands and feet restrained, as prosecutors allege?
Whether or not all that amounts to criminal conduct remains to be seen, but how many officers would defend it as good police work? Are those who say officers are afraid of scrutiny willing to argue that actions like those are necessary — or even in any way helpful — to the cause of preventing violent crime?
If Mr. Comey and the others making the "YouTube effect" argument want to understand what's really driving the push for heightened scrutiny of officers, they should read The New York Times investigation this Sunday into the differences in police conduct based on race. The Times analyzed traffic stop data from Greensboro, N.C., and found racially disparate treatment on virtually every metric. African Americans were stopped at a rate far beyond their share of the population, but more to the point, black motorists were twice as likely to be searched as white ones — even though drugs and weapons turned up more frequently in cars driven by whites. Blacks were charged with a variety of minor offenses — from possession of small amounts of marijuana to resisting, obstructing or delaying an officer — far more frequently than whites. North Carolina keeps more detailed data on such encounters than other states, but the pattern held in other places where the Times was able to conduct a similar analysis. That kind of thing is what is prompting people to pull out video cameras when police approach.
We don't know what has caused the increase in shootings and murders in Baltimore and other cities during the last few months, but we do know the answer is not to exempt the police from public scrutiny.