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.
New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton called it the “YouTube effect” that has emerged for officers post-Ferguson and, in New York, after the death of Eric Garner last year after he was put in a chokehold by an officer making an arrest.
Bratton told the gathering that he thought the malaise among New York City officers would have worsened if it wasn’t for the execution-style killing of two officers last December.
“Marchers in New York, marchers in my city were chanting, ‘what do we want, dead cops, when do we want them, now.’ Well, they got them, two dead cops in December. The legacy of those two officers deaths’ have slowed down the momentum of what was started before it reached tidal wave proportions — really throwing the scales of justice out of balance,” he said.
“The challenge going forward,” Bratton said, “is to keep it in balance so that our officers feel that as we ask them to go forward that if they, in fact, do the right thing, we will be supportive.”
Comey, the FBI director, was more circumspect. He said his department lacks the needed real-time data and trend lines on violent crimes — and, especially, police-involved shootings – to understand the current spikes.
“We stare at the math, and stare at change in cities that seem to have nothing in common with one another. What’s the connection among Boston, Washington, Minneapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Houston, Dallas, other than being American cities?” he said. “Has policing changed in the YouTube era? I don’t like the term ‘post-Ferguson,’ because I actually believe the ‘YouTube era’ captures it better.
“The question I keep asking my staff is, ‘Do these hypothesis fit the map and the calendar?’ ” he continued. “Cities with nothing in common are seeing in the same degree and in the same time – dramatic increases in violence, especially homicides — does heroin explain that? I struggle with that … is it guns? Well, what’s changed with guns in the last nine months? Is it the criminal justice system? Well, I keep asking my staff, what has changed that would explain that this is happening in the first nine months of this year and all over the country?”
New Orleans Mayor Mitchell Landrieu lamented the number of homicides of African Americans happening in major cities as a “national disgrace.”
Addressing Comey, he said he hoped that the FBI director was right that more data could help.
“My assumption is if we showed the numbers, and we broke it down and showed you the faces, and we gave you the names and we showed you what they looked like before they were killed and after they were killed, the nation would rise up and say this is a matter that is a moral imperative for the country.”
Comey said he hoped so.
“There’s no doubt the job I have, the fact of life is, if a single person in Chicago is beheaded by ISIL, the world will go on fire,” Comey said, referring to the group of militants also known as the Islamic State or ISIS. “If a 2-year-old is shot in Chicago, the Tribune will write about it, the Sun-Times will write about it. I despair trying to change that world. So I think the answer is, collect the data and then do our damnedest to get smarter at what we do.”