Editorial: Don't blame the video cameras

Published May 16, 2016

Videos of police officers battering or even killing unarmed black civilians have given the wider society a view of the world in which African-Americans have lived for a long time. President Barack Obama has referred to this history on several occasions, noting that video from cellphones and body cameras have shown the country that black Americans were not imagining the problem of police brutality or "making this up."

But the link between these videos and the racial history of the United States seems to have eluded James Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who appears to be fixated on the discredited idea that videos represent a problem in themselves — and that police are less willing to do their jobs because of them.

Comey came under intense criticism when he raised this idea in a speech last fall. He repeated the idea at a news briefing in Washington last week, when he said that speaking to police officials around the country had led him to believe that a "viral video effect" had made officers wary of confronting suspects and "could well be at the heart" of an increase in crime in some places.

Law enforcement organizations are outraged. The National Fraternal Order of Police accused Comey of saying the police officers were afraid of doing their jobs. Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, a group of more than 165 police chiefs and prosecutors, denounced the "viral video" comment as "unfounded, and frankly, damaging to the efforts of law enforcement."

Intentionally or not, Comey's remark fed into the false notion that the country is entering a crime wave that is somehow related to the public backlash against police brutality. That idea was debunked last month in a study by the Brennan Center for Justice of 2015 crime data from the 30 largest cities. The study found that crime had remained the same as in 2014 and that two-thirds of the cities had actually had drops in crime. Just three cities — Baltimore, Chicago and Washington, all troubled by high poverty rates — accounted for more than half the national increase in murders from 2014 to 2015.

Comey told reporters last week that he became concerned about a rise in crime after previewing statistics from early 2016. But less than a year's worth of data isn't sufficient to show whether crime has gone up, down or remained the same.

To his credit, Comey urged police departments to make sure that officers actually police the streets by getting out of their cruisers and engaging citizens respectfully. But when he brings up the subject of the videos, he unwittingly implies that the public would be safer had people with cellphones never circulated scenes of police violence. When African-Americans hear such comments, they understandably respond that it is police violence they fear, not video recordings of it.