Why are the cops so camera shy?

November 12, 2015

Danny Katch looks at the faulty yet revealing logic behind claims that a "Ferguson effect" is preventing police from doing their jobs and causing a rise in violent crime.

LEADING LAW enforcement officials have been busy putting out warnings about the "Ferguson effect." Before last year, that might have sounded like a reference to a 1980s jazz fusion trio--but it's actually a reference to the supposed results of the protests that followed the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

In the wake of the most significant urban protests and rebellions since the 1960s, there are many things that could rightly be described as a "Ferguson effect": the growth of militant grassroots Black-led organizations; the dramatically increased awareness of racism and police violence among white people; a series of explosive confrontations popping up at unexpected locations across the country, from the flagpole at the South Carolina statehouse to the football stadium at the University of Missouri.

But the "Ferguson effect" that is being put in quotation marks by the media isn't about any of the actual changes set in motion last summer when that city's residents bravely held their ground against a militarized police occupation.

Filming police in Ferguson
Filming police in Ferguson

Instead, the "Ferguson effect" refers to a phenomenon that isn't actually happening (an alleged rise in crime) for a reason that makes no sense (heavily armed cops are unable to patrol neighborhoods because they are afraid of smartphones).

"I spoke to officers privately in one big city precinct who described being surrounded by young people with mobile phone cameras held high, taunting them the moment they get out of their cars," FBI Director James Comey said at the University of Chicago Law School last month. "They told me, 'We feel like we're under siege and we don't feel much like getting out of our cars.'"

Comey added that more data would be needed to prove whether or not the "Ferguson effect" was causing the "wave of violent crime and homicide"—which sounds very neutral and prudent of him until you realize that there's no evidence of any crime wave happening in the first place.

While a few cities such as Chicago and St. Louis have seen real increases in shootings, most cities across the U.S. have had either decreases in the murder rate or no statistically significant change. According to the logic of the "Ferguson effect" this would mean that media coverage of the anti-police protests hasn't yet reached sleepy little towns like New York City and Los Angeles.

EVEN IN the cities where murders are on the rise, the correlation with Ferguson doesn't hold up. In Chicago, for example, Bruce Frederick of the Marshall Project notes that the 11.3 percent increase in homicides in 2015 is just the latest in a series of fluctuations, from a 13.1 percent decrease in 2011 to a 28.5 percent increase in 2012 to a 3.4 percent decrease the next two years.

If this year's increase is the result of a "Ferguson effect," how do we explain the much bigger spike in 2012? Was that the "Gangnam Style effect"?

Similarly in St. Louis, the murder rate started climbing before the death of Michael Brown, which either means that the "Ferguson Effect" doesn't exist or that it's so terrifyingly powerful that it can travel backward in time.

This isn't the only attempt by police and their supporters in the media to fabricate evidence that protests against racist police violence are a dangerous menace. Every incidence of a police officer being killed on duty is cited as proof of a "war on police" plotted by the Black Lives Matter movement--despite the fact that police deaths are at record lows.

(Note, however, that the number of murders committed by the police remains sky high--984 according to the latest tally compiled by the Guardian and surely higher by the time you read this. Apparently at least some cops are able to overcome their fears of leaving their cars.)

But police continue to complain about being shot--in this case with cell phone cameras that they fear can unfairly make them look like bad guys.

"Rightly or wrongly, you become the next viral video," said Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) chief Chuck Rosenberg. "You can do everything right and still end up on the evening news." Added Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn: "National policing policy is being driven by random YouTube videos."

Okay, there is justified uneasiness about the way privacy is threatened in the era of social media. Bad Twitter jokes can be taken out of context and lead to international vilification. It's a brave new world for all of us.

But the videos these chiefs are worried about aren't embarrassing home movies or deceptively edited "gotcha" videos like the ones used to set up Planned Parenthood. They are recorded documentations of chilling police murders: the choking of Eric Garner, the shooting of Walter Scott in the back.

It's normal to be concerned that an embarrassing picture from a party might end up being seen by an employer via Facebook. It's not normal to be worried that a passerby might catch you in the act of killing someone without good cause.

LAW ENFORCEMENT officials like Comey and Rosenberg don't seem to realize that their "Ferguson effect" theory makes the case, more persuasively than any activist ever could, that unprovoked police violence is not an aberration, but a regular part of the job.

Top cops tend to use sanitized corporate-speak euphemisms to refer to smacking people around. Former New York City Police chief Ray Kelly, for example, says that because of the Ferguson effect, police are no longer "taking the initiative" or "engaging in proactive policing."

Or, they put forward the specter of super-criminals to justify the need for "proactive policing." Rosenberg explained to reporters that as head of the DEA, his concern was that law enforcement agents be able to "effectively confront armed or violent criminals" because "many street drugs are supplied by Mexican cartels and other violent international gangs."

Cue images of the movie version of cops, risking their lives every day in gun battles with evil criminals to save the population from even greater violence. But the two most well-known recent instances of real world cops being fired for violence caught on camera involved officers "taking the initiative" against teenaged Black girls--one at a pool party in Texas, and the other inside a classroom in South Carolina.

It is frightening to think, as Rosenberg and Comey believe, that many cops view those videos and the many others like them and feel not revulsion, but fear that they could be next to lose their jobs. If police are scared to get out of their car for fear that they could do something so wrong that they'd be fired or arrested if caught on camera, how are the people they are approaching supposed to feel?

Of course, it's not like cops are routinely getting punished these days--that's yet another fallacy of the "Ferguson effect." It's still shockingly rare for police to face serious consequences for even the most blatant acts of violence and racism caught on video.

But the growing use of video to record possible police abuses--by both organized activist patrols and spontaneous passersby--has certainly helped to undermine police credibility among a wide layer of the population and exposed how broken the justice system is when it comes to policing its own.

Those are some of the real effects of Ferguson. To build on them, we have to get our movement back into the streets to demand the justice that officials like Comey and Rosenberg have no interest in pursuing.

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