Saturday, October 24, 2015

Blaming The Victim: FBI Chief Uses Gut Rather Than Data To Blame Protesters For Increasing Crime

Here, from the NY Times (I read it in the Alaska Dispatch), titled, "F.B.I. Chief Links Scrutiny of Police With Rise in Violent Crime":
"The F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, said on Friday that the additional scrutiny and criticism of police officers in the wake of highly publicized episodes of police brutality may have led to an increase in violent crime in some cities as officers have become less aggressive.

With his remarks, Mr. Comey lent the prestige of the F.B.I., the nation’s most prominent law enforcement agency, to a theory that is far from settled: that the increased attention on the police has made officers less aggressive and emboldened criminals. But he acknowledged that there is so far no data to back up his assertion and that it may be just one of many factors that are contributing to the rise in crime, like cheaper drugs and an increase in criminals who are being released from prison.

This is so bad.  So outrageous.  I know, I should settle down before I post this.


That's how I started this post.  Actually I wrote very indignantly about the FBI chief.  And then I stopped and decided I needed to read the whole article, not just what was on the first page.  I also decided  I needed to read Comey's whole speech to see if they reported it accurately.

Having done that I still think that Comey is mostly wrong.  And I think the NY Times is right to call him out on it.  They quote people at the Justice Department and other police chiefs who disagree with him on the impact of greater police scrutiny and they disagree that crime is even going up.  It varies among different kinds of crime and different cities.   

So, I've edited and added to what I wrote earlier today, and at the end I'll try to summarize some conclusions. 


Cops have been killing unarmed black men for years and years.   Killing unarmed black men while wearing white robes went out of style  (translation:  it was harder to get away with) in the late1960s and 70s.  But if you did it wearing a blue uniform, it was still ok.  But cell phone cameras have changed the narrative and this year the media have suddenly paid attention to the "Cops kill unarmed black men (and sometimes women)" story.

Now, Comey thinks, that geez, cops reacting to the bad press and not beating up and shooting  suspects is causing crime to go up, with the implication that people saying "black lives matter" are the problem.  And he did say 'all lives matter' several times in the speech. 

Give me a break.  The LA Times recently reported that crime had gone down in LA because the cops under-reported crimes by mis-classifiying them to lower level crimes.   Now that they are reporting them more accurately, maybe that's the cause of the increase.

OK, I understand.  There are lots of mean nasty dudes out there and there are times when the cops have to be tough.  But the last year of reporting has demonstrated that there are also lots of cops whose brains are programmed to see bad motherfuckers when they are really looking at decent, law abiding, citizens. Sometimes irritated law abiding citizens, who get pissed when, say, the cop tells them not to smoke. We've seen cops who can get mad easily and start taking it out on kids who don't obey them immediately.

Maybe there's an issue here about policing shifts that put cops under great pressure, about understaffing due to years and years of cutting budgets.  

Maybe the problem is how police recruit and train their cops.

Maybe it's the whole message the federal government sends to Americans: glorifying the military and the idea of getting 'bad guys' around the world, bringing back a lot weapon savvy, but mentally and emotionally unstable vets to the US and funneling them into police jobs,  and selling military equipment to local police departments to make the cops look like movie robo-cops rather than humans.  Maybe it's the macho cop story we see over and over again on television and movies and internet.  Maybe it's the violent video game industry which teaches kids to shoot as quickly as they can.  All these messages matter;  they infiltrate our brains and alter how we see reality.

But dammit, blaming the protesters (yes, that's what he's doing, because he's implying without them, cops would still be shooting unarmed black guys with impunity, I mean, being appropriately aggressive when needed) is just wrong.

This is like saying Americans are becoming less religious because of all the accusations and lawsuits against the Catholic church.  It's the people complaining, not the church that's the problem.  But I say, if the church hadn't tolerated priests abusing little girls and little boys, adolescents, and grown ups, there wouldn't have been any protest.

And if police violence hadn't been tolerated all these years, there wouldn't be any protests now.

And note - this is a 'theory'.  Actually, it doesn't reach the level of theory.  This is a defensive, gut reaction.  It reveals a lack of real police science and inability to break out of old policing modes so they can objectively reevaluate the role of policing in the US.  In fact policing cannot be isolated from everything else going on - particularly the fact that the US has 16 million kids living in poverty.
I know, for Ben Carson, this is a minor challenge, but for many people it is insurmountable.

These law enforcement officers' 'theory of good policing' is roughing up the 'bad guy' and making him scared of the cops.  I'm sure that's part of the thinking with all the Darth Vader riot police costumes.   When cops think in terms of good guys and bad guys, they aren't seeing people as whole human beings who have good and bad all wrapped into one person.  I know cops will tell me there really are bad guys.  And I'd respond, I'm sure there are, but they were once cute little babies.  How did they get that way?  Why do so many boys and men think their best choice is to join a gang?  It's probably because they live in dangerous neighborhoods where if you don't join a gang, your life is even more in jeopardy.  And if cops lose their cool and get violent with kids, why should we expect kids not to do the same thing? 

And Comey has the nerve to publicly voice a 'suspicion' he has that crime has gone up because cops aren't being violent enough.  Of course my tone is angry.  This is the best Obama can do for the head of the FBI?  

OK, that's when I went back to see Comey's whole speech.  It's on the FBI website here.
I wanted to see if he gave more possible causes than the protests against cops.  He does, but then he says, that for him the change in policing in response to protests is the real answer:
Maybe it’s the return of violent offenders after serving jail terms. Maybe it’s cheap heroin or synthetic drugs. Maybe after we busted up the large gangs, smaller groups are now fighting for turf. Maybe it’s a change in the justice system’s approach to bail or charging or sentencing. Maybe something has changed with respect to the availability of guns.
These are all useful suggestions, but to my mind none of them explain both the map and the calendar in disparate cities over the last 10 months.  (emphasis added)
He came to this conclusion, he says, by talking to cops.
"But I’ve also heard another explanation, in conversations all over the country. Nobody says it on the record, nobody says it in public, but police and elected officials are quietly saying it to themselves. And they’re saying it to me, and I’m going to say it to you. And it is the one explanation that does explain the calendar and the map and that makes the most sense to me.
Maybe something in policing has changed.
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?"
There is something to be said about getting on the ground and listening to what people say.  And I'm a firm believer about saying out loud what people are whispering.  But only if what they are whispering makes sense.  He talks, in his speech about getting data.  But random anecdotal accounts are not good data.  They may be useful for suggesting what data to pursue, but they reflect the biases and fears of the people who report them as much as, and often more than, the 'truth.'   I suspect if Comey had gone around the country and talked with people living in high crime areas, law abiding citizens and gang members too, he would have gotten a totally different account of why crime was going up.  Well actually, some of those folks would have agreed that they need somebody to stop the gangs and other violent characters in their neighborhoods.  And in Comey's speech he does talk about doing this in particular neighborhoods where he was in gang busting units.  But there are also neighborhoods where people are relatively safe from gangs and it's the cops they fear. 

Law enforcement has been fighting gangs seriously since at least 1982.  Maybe if the time and money spent on fighting gangs had been used for Head Start and school lunch programs, for parent training and after school programs, fewer kids would have felt they had no choice but to join a gang.

But as I say, anecdotal data, isn't any good for making policy.  And how prepared are today's police to think through complex socioeconomic and political issues to determine the causes of crime and the solutions?  The cops on the beat are too close to the problem and not really trained to do good diagnosis of the causes of crime.

Back in the 1970s the LEEP program gave police departments lots of money to send their officers to college and graduate school.  Those funds dried up long ago.  Today's police officers are not particularly well educated.  Here's from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Standards Handbook on police work:


Police and detective applicants must have at least a high school education or GED and be a graduate of their agency’s training academy. Many agencies and some police departments require some college coursework or a college degree. Knowledge of a foreign language is an asset in many federal agencies and in certain geographical regions.
Candidates must be U.S. citizens, usually be at least 21 years old, have a driver’s license, and meet specific physical qualifications. Applicants may have to pass physical exams of vision, hearing, strength, and agility, as well as competitive written exams. Previous work or military experience is often seen as a plus. Candidates typically go through a series of interviews and may be asked to take lie detector and drug tests. A felony conviction may disqualify a candidate.
Are these they guys Comey spoke to?
"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. They told me, “We feel like we’re under siege and we don’t feel much like getting out of our cars.”
These cops and these kids need to be playing basketball or pool together, like Comey said he did in law school.  They need to get past the facades of tough guy on both sides and relate as human to human.  Back to Comey's speech:
I’ve been told about a senior police leader who urged his force to remember that their political leadership has no tolerance for a viral video.
So the suggestion, the question that has been asked of me, is whether these kinds of things are changing police behavior all over the country.
And the answer is, I don’t know. I don’t know whether this explains it entirely, but I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year. And that wind is surely changing behavior."  (emphasis added)
And it should change behavior.  Cops should be going after criminals, but they shouldn't be treating law abiding citizens like criminals.  Cops now are increasingly isolated from the people they are supposed to protect.  Cops can no longer be this separate unit to take care of problems after the fact.  They need to be working with parents, with schools, with social workers, and with kids.  They need to be part of the neighborhood.  They need to part of a community health and educational team that prevents crime by helping kids stay healthy, stay fed, stay in school, stay off drugs, and get legal work that is enough to pay the bills.   We need more Mr. Rogers cops than Terminator cops.


1.  Did the Times misconstrue what FBI Director Comey said?
No, but they left a lot out which shows Comey to be a lot more sophisticated than the article suggests.  The structure of the story stacked the worst stuff in the first paragraphs and then quoted all the folks who disagreed with him.  Only then did it give more context of what he said.  But that context of other possible causes of the increase in crime were basically dismissed in favor of the 'theory' (basically what cops have been telling him they were experiencing) that crime was rising because cops were afraid of viral Youtube videos.
The Times also pointed out that in most places most crime (except for murder) has actually been dropping not rising.
 But the Times didn't mention Comey's story about integrating the neighborhood basketball team in the south side of Chicago when he was in law school.  (It would be nice to hear what his teammates thought of him.  Did he keep in touch with any of them, or is this just a good story he uses?)  They didn't mention his long discussion about how crime has dropped dramatically since 1990 and cities have been transformed.  People could sit on their porches and get on with their lives because lots of criminals had been put in prison.  He also acknowledged that many of those put in prison were black, because, he said, many of the criminals were black.  He also pointed out that many of those killed by criminals were black, so that by putting those violent criminals in prison, many lives were saved.  He talked about Richmond, Virginia in detail and also about northwest Arkansas.

2.  Is Comey's analysis of the cause of the increase in crime reasonable?
No.  I don't doubt that there are cops who tell him that they are afraid of breaking up a bunch of guys standing on the corner at 1am because the encounter might go viral.  I know college professors who were afraid to say anything about race or religion in class because they were worried about a student saying they were discriminating.  But those aren't the best cops or the best professors.  Those are people who don't get the bigger picture.  Comey says:
“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 said.
I'm sure that's true.  But too many of those folks who have been confronted this year were unarmed, ,  decent folks of the wrong color in the wrong place at the wrong time.   And they died because of the police, not because of criminals.

Comey gives stats showing increases in crime rates this year.  The Times cites other law enforcement leaders disputing the kinds of increases he mentions and disputing that increased scrutiny causes the increases.

3.  Should Comey bring to light the things cops are saying among themselves?
I think such discussions, if they are widespread, should be brought to the public and allowed to be scrutinized.  But Comey went further than that.  He essentially says he thinks the cops are right - that he can think of no other single cause for the (disputed) increase in crime.
I would argue that there probably isn't one single reason, that there is a myriad of reasons.  And that they differ from location to location.

Comey could have raised this and not taken a stand on it.  He could have said it needs to be studied further.  He did acknowledge there wasn't any data to prove this.

4.  Is Comey's characterization of crime increasing because cops are less aggressive because of the protests and fear of viral video tapes a good one?
No.  It blames the victims.  If you blacks wouldn't complain so much about police violence, there'd be less crime.  Women are being blamed for being raped too.  What was missing for me in his speech, was the acknowledgement, not just that there were some bad cops, but that the whole world view of most cops - we're the good guys fighting the bad guys - helps cops justify their bad behavior.  And even 'good' cops carry racial prejudices in their heads that lead them to be more confrontational with blacks.  And I recognize that cops often have good reason to fear people on the street.  It's not easy.  But innocent black men and women shouldn't have to fear cops and most black mothers of sons worry every time their kids go out - worry how the police will treat their sons.  That's a fact.  If cops think the mothers are wrong, well the mothers think the cops are wrong.  Maybe they should have cops and black mothers sit down and talk.  A lot.

5.  Is the media coverage of all this fair?
No.  It wasn't fair back when cops were always believed and it isn't fair now when the worst is believed of the cops.  But we really only hear the stories that are backed up with video tape.
And I think we should listen to the people of Ferguson who complained that all their peaceful demonstrations got very little press.  It was only when there was violence that the media jumped on the story.  That's a problem the media needs to deal with.
Most reporters have word limits, so they have to choose what to cover and what to leave out.  Comey's speech covered a lot more than what the Times focused on.  What they left out gives nuance to who Comey is and how much he understands about neighborhoods and crimes and getting to know people better.  But I couldn't find a link in the Times  online version to Comey's whole speech.  That's the least they could have given.
Finally, even if the reporters wrote a longer story, would the public have read it?  If they hadn't packed the most sensational parts of the story in the beginning, would anyone have read it?  I have the luxury of not worrying about selling blog posts.  That means I can be lazier about cleaning up what I write and about organizing it (like this rambling story), but I can also write longer pieces and those couple of readers who want to read the whole thing can. 

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