Shortly after FBI Director James Comey delivered ill-considered remarks linking increased scrutiny of police to rising crime, a cellphone video of a Columbia, South Carolina, school cop violently manhandling a teenage girl went viral. Comey’s comments were quickly overtaken by that news — which, coincidently, showed how imprudent they were.
On two occasions in late October, the FBI’s top official had the opportunity to reinforce for police officials the sacred trust at the center of their oaths, which require them to protect and serve. That sacred trust was violated — cleaved and quartered, in fact — by Ben Fields, the Spring Valley High “school resource officer” whose actions resulted in his firing and sparked a Justice Department investigation.
Instead, Comey chose to play to police officers’ paranoia and sense of isolation and victimization. In speeches at the University of Chicago Law School and to the annual convention of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, he suggested that homicides are on the rise in several cities because police officers are too intimidated to do their jobs properly.
Speaking to the police chiefs, Comey asked: “In today’s YouTube world, are officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime? Are officers answering 911 calls but avoiding the informal contact that keeps bad guys from standing around, especially with guns?”
At the law school, he’d said that “viral videos” may be contributing to a police reluctance to confront criminals.
Let’s be clear: There is absolutely no data — as Comey admitted — that links rising homicides to a new passivity on the part of police. (Violent crime continues to decline, as it has since its peak in 1991, but homicides are now rising in a handful of cities. Criminologists don’t know why, as they still don’t know why crime has declined over the last few decades.)
In fact, there is no data showing that police are less aggressive than they used to be. The FBI director, who ought to know better, is relying on anecdotes from police officials, who are in the habit of complaining when they are under scrutiny.
But that scrutiny is long overdue. The Black Lives Matter movement, a loosely organized network of activists, was sparked by police violence that has resulted in the deaths of unarmed black civilians. You know the names of many of the victims, who include Eric Garner, put in a deadly chokehold by New York City police for the crime of selling untaxed cigarettes; 12-year-old Tamir Rice, shot dead by police in Cleveland for waving a toy gun in a park; and John Crawford III, shot dead by Beavercreek, Ohio, police after he picked up a BB gun from a Wal-Mart store shelf.
If protests over such official savagery keep police from doing their jobs, they are not committed to keeping the peace, to serving or protecting. If they were, they’d welcome attention that helps to weed out the bullies, the poorly trained and the bigots in their ranks. After all, police officers need the respect and cooperation of the communities they serve in order to catch the real criminals.
Unfortunately, though, many rank-and-file officers and their superiors have assumed the mantle of victims, complaining that the Black Lives Matter movement disrespects, and even endangers, police. It keeps them from doing their jobs. It emboldens criminals, they say.
And that narrative is constantly fed by conservative media outlets, whose pundits insist that President Obama panders to criminals while blaming police for simple errors. That notion was further fueled at the most recent Republican debate by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who insisted that the president doesn’t “support police officers.”
“You know, the FBI director … has said this week that because of a lack of support from politicians like the president of the United States, that police officers are afraid to get out of their cars, that they’re afraid to enforce the law,” Christie claimed.
If you want to see fear, take another look at that disturbing video of Ben Fields flinging a teenage girl across the floor. The other students cower in their desks, some afraid to look up. That lesson is one from which they’ll likely never recover.
(Cynthia Tucker Haynes won Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)