Chiefs of some of the nation’s biggest police departments say officers in American cities have pulled back and have stopped policing as aggressively as they used to, fearing that they could be the next person in a uniform featured on a career-ending viral video.
That was the unifying — and controversial — theory reached Wednesday at a private meeting of more than 100 of the nation’s top law enforcement officers and politicians.
With homicide rates soaring inexplicably this year in dozens of U.S. cities, the group convened by new U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch concluded with a brief news conference promising a robust response to the reversal of decades of falling violent crime rates.
But for hours preceding that, mayors, police chiefs, U.S. attorneys and even FBI Director James Comey privately vented in a Washington ballroom that they don’t really understand the alarming spike in murders and applause filled the room when mayors said police officers’ sinking morale could be a factor.
Participants in the discussion were told that the meeting was closed to the news media, but the mayor of D.C. listed the event as public and a Washington Post reporter entered with her entourage and observed more than three hours of the discussion.
Could the root cause be drugs? Guns? Gangs? Perhaps a little of each, said Chuck Wexler, a former top officer in Boston and head of the Police Executive Research Forum.
Wexler tried to sum up the day-long discussion for Lynch, who arrived near the end. But there was another problem, he told her, one that hits closer to home for the nation’s top cop.
“Perhaps the most difficult to calibrate, but the most significant,” he said, “is this notion of a reduction in proactive policing.”
Police chiefs and elected leaders from Baltimore, Chicago, New York and St. Louis were more blunt:
“We have allowed our police department to get fetal and it is having a direct consequence,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel told Lynch. “They have pulled back from the ability to interdict … they don’t want to be a news story themselves, they don’t want their career ended early, and it’s having an impact.”
There is no evidence of a broad retraction of police engagement with the public in major cities, and no participant in Wednesday’s summit presented a single example of lackluster policing that somehow contributed to a violent crime.
Rather, chiefs and elected officials spoke broadly of a changed atmosphere in major city police departments over the past year amid high-profile police-involved shootings and in-custody deaths that led to riots in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore.
Chiefs said patrol officers still do their jobs, clocking in and policing their beats. But fewer take extra steps such as confronting a group loitering on a sidewalk late at night that might glean intelligence or lead to arrests, for fear that any altercations that ensued would be uploaded to the Internet.