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The Real Meaning of the FBI Director’s Comment on Viral Videos and Crime

The FBI Director’s comment that viral videos have led to an increase in crime may instead indicate that police are on strike.

At the University of Chicago last Friday, James Comey stated that police leaders and elected officials have been telling him in private that the spike in crime is because police have become apprehensive about being recorded and therefore have begun sitting in their cars while crimes occur. Comey indirectly suggests that communities of color can have a choice between either insecurity or injustice, peddling the idea that filming cops is causing an increase in crime, which implies that the cameras – the only form of protection from or documentation of police abuse – have to go in order to coax police out of their cars. Police leaders seem to hope that allowing crime to flourish will make citizens rethink their push for police accountability, which they mischaracterize as a “war on police,” and settle for safety. It’s a false choice, because their aggressiveness – or “proactive policing” – does not keep crime down.

The logic is fuzzy, and the NY Times editorial board was right to attack the argument, because cops refusing to do their jobs is not the fault of activists; it is the fault of those officers who have so injured trust that residents hate and fear police. Moreover, as the NYPD “slowdown” at the beginning of this year demonstrated that police making dramatically fewer arrests does not necessarily correspond to any increase in crime. Nevertheless, Comey did well to inform the public that the nation’s police are conducting an informal public sector strike, because this move flies in the face of the Justice Department’s push for “community policing” and the message from President Obama that police misconduct is something the nation must face. The message from law enforcement is “We’re having none of your reform,” despite the recent concessions on mass incarceration announced by a group of liberal police leaders.

What is the difference between what Comey calls “police restraint,” i.e. sitting in their cars as crimes take place, and a strike of safety service employees, the “blue flu” of the ’60s and ’70s? The former involves inaction while on duty while the latter involves calling in sick en masse. No one has drawn attention to the parallel of a police-orchestrated stay-in-the-car strike referred to by Comey and the “slowdown” the NYPD orchestrated during the PR war of the militant New York Patrolman’s Benevolent Association with Mayor de Blasio. This is important to note, because the role of the police unions in stalling reform has not been at the forefront of the debate on police reform, where it should be. Additionally, there was no increase in crime during the “slowdown” in New York, contrary perhaps to Patrick Lynch’s expectations.

In 1974, during a conference of the International Association of Police Chiefs, the last speaker, William P. McCarthy, former First Deputy Commissioner of the NYPD, warned against a national union, arguing:

“No union, regardless of contract, can ever totally abdicate the strike … The idea of 400,000 armed officers responsive to leaders not put in power by vote of the general public is so frightening that I hope such a union never emerges.”

Unfortunately, future leaders of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) coveted the political influence McCarthy found threatening “to the basic structure of our society,” and would work to make McCarthy’s nightmare a reality we are now living.

Comey is one of the few white law enforcement leaders who will even partially acknowledge how racist US law enforcement has been since its inception in slave patrols. He doesn’t actually say this, but he hints at it, and refers to the FBI’s harassment of Martin Luther King, Jr. What he leaves out is that today his agency is similarly harassing the Black Lives Matter movement and that far from “maniacs about the rule of law,” the FBI has conducted counterterror investigations that rely on entrapment in 95 percent of convictions. However, the FBI under Comey appears a little bit more responsive than before, regarding the FBI’s eighth (out of 10) priority of police misconduct; he promises, at least, to begin collecting data.

The FBI might also start using its data to refute the magical claims now made about a “war on police” every time an officer is shot or kills himself, because the public should know that officers are three times more likely to kill themselves than to be killed by someone else. When Officer Joseph Gliniewicz staged his suicide to look like a homicide, Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, blamed Black Lives Matter, saying, “There’s a hostile element within the community at large… And there’s this ubiquitous social-media effort to discredit all police officers because of the extraordinarily rare misconduct by a very few.”

The FOP appears to be a union, but it is also an insurer, a lobbyist and a political machine. As a private association composed of current and former administrators of the security forces of the state, the FOP has a unique status and function: It is an issue-oriented special interest group operating as an advocacy organization in lawsuits, filing amicus briefs for officers who shoot in the back, but also setting its stamp of approval on political candidates, even in judicial races.

Can US police do their work without downgrading violent felonies to misdemeanors, as police in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have been doing in order to create the appearance of a decrease in the crime rate, without secret black site detention centers like Homan Square (which was apparently devised by Chicago Police Department for torturing suspects), without stop and frisk, and without mass incarceration (which Comey defended at the University of Chicago)? There is no denying that the institution of US policing is at a crossroads, and the public is demanding transformation, not just reform.

However, the white leadership of the police unions are dead set against even small reforms and gestures of accountability. Their endorsements and campaign donations need to be repudiated by voters so that they become politically toxic. If the status quo of brutality and impunity remains, it will be time to start talking about dismantling hundreds of corrupt law enforcement agencies that survive off drug forfeitures, disparate arrests and ticketing of people of color.

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