In a recent speech, FBI director James Comey described “something deeply disturbing” that is “happening all across America.” He suggested that an increase in big-city crime this year may stem from police officers’ fear of being caught on video.
Comey has a “strong sense” that there is “a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement,” and “that wind is surely changing behavior.” For months, the law enforcement community has struggled to explain the cause of a sharp increase in violent crime in some major U.S. cities — Baltimore; Cleveland; Chicago; Minneapolis; Sacramento, Calif.; Tampa, Fla.; and more — while crime continues to decline in much of the country.
“Most of America’s 50 largest cities have seen an increase in homicides and shootings this year, and many of them have seen a huge increase,” Comey said. “And it’s not the cops doing the killing.” He speculated that “in today’s YouTube world,” cops may be “reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime.”
Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn agrees. “Right now, officers feel like they are being defined by everything they are working against,” he said. “National policing policy is being driven by random YouTube videos.”
Comey reported a big-city precinct whose police officers “described being surrounded by young people with mobile phone cameras held high, taunting them the moment they get out of their cars,” he said. “They told me, ‘We feel like we’re under siege, and we don’t feel much like getting out of our cars.'”
Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
Don’t get me wrong. Let’s stipulate that the vast majority of police officers are brave heroes who try their best, act honorably and respond proportionately to protect our communities from criminals. Next, let’s suppose that some genuinely try to be good cops but occasionally fail to use appropriate restraint, with sometimes tragic results. Finally, let’s suppose further that some — perhaps only a tiny fraction — are outright bad cops who routinely abuse their power in flagrant ways.
The point is that, even if cellphone video cameras are now deterring some honest-to-goodness community policing, they are also deterring abusive police tactics. This is the familiar tradeoff between liberty and security along a continuum from anarchy to police state.
No law enforcement officer wants to be the next YouTube phenomenon. Comey mentioned “a senior police leader who urged his force to remember that their political leadership has no tolerance for a viral video.”
Each video has a powerful effect. Does anyone doubt that the next school security officer called to remove an unruly student will exercise extreme caution in the process? That the next officer arresting an illegal vendor of cigarettes will think twice about using a choke hold? That fleeing suspects are less likely to be gunned down in cold blood?
Say what you want about the merits of these cases. The fact is that each new viral video makes future abuses of power less likely to occur.
That’s called deterrence. It’s a time-honored part of law enforcement. The flashing blue lights of a police stop will cause a whole line of motorists to tap their brakes. Speed cameras cause city drivers to slow down. Urban video surveillance cameras reduce and prevent crime, according to academic studies.
Comey may be right. He makes a powerful point about the unintended consequences of deterring police brutality. Good cops find it harder to do their jobs. That’s because everyone in law enforcement — from the state trooper to the school safety officer — now faces the prospect of being caught on video.
We don’t want to deter good cops. We don’t want young people with mobile phone cameras “taunting them the moment they get out of their cars.” That’s unfortunate.
But deterring bad cops is a good thing. And that deterrence is another, equally undeniable effect of the phenomenon Comey describes. The prospect of getting YouTubed has got to make the bad cops think twice.
Today, gumshoe videographers are ubiquitous. Nearly anyone can spontaneously document police brutality and broadcast it to the world. That means everyday citizens have the power to stop abusive law enforcement in its tracks. That’s happening all across America, and it’s somewhat reassuring.
First published in The Hill in November 2015