FBI Director James Comey caught plenty of grief last year when he cited the “Ferguson effect” to explain rising murder rates in many major cities, including Las Vegas.
“There’s a perception that police are less likely to do the marginal additional policing that suppresses crime — the getting out of your car at 2 in the morning and saying to a group of guys, ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’ ” he said during a May press conference.
The White House distanced itself from his comments. A Daily Kos writer chastised Mr. Comey and called the Ferguson effect — the notion that increased scrutiny of police has led officers to pull back, emboldening criminals and leading to more violent crime — “a myth.” The Atlantic magazine described the director’s comments as “troubling.”
But now comes a Pew Research Center study finding that perhaps Mr. Comey did know what he was talking about, after all.
The national survey of more than 8,000 law enforcement personnel found that more than three-quarters were now hesitant to use force even when necessary. In addition, 73 percent said they are now less likely to stop and confront people acting suspiciously.
The study suggests that controversies and protests over police shootings — particularly of minority Americans — have had major effects on “the morale of rank-and-file police officers,” USA Today reported.
Whether this explains higher crime rates in many areas will remain a matter of divisive debate. The Las Vegas area saw its highest number of murders in 2016 — 136 — since 2006. Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo has previously said he sees no “Ferguson effect” among his officers and no doubt each jurisdiction has a number of unique factors that combine to influence the crime rate.
Nor is there anything wrong with an increased public focus on law enforcement and tactics, although context remains a critical component. Such scrutiny is vital to ensuring accountability and minimizing abuses.
But it’s no longer debatable whether fears among officers that every potentially violent encounter will end up going viral have resulted in less pro-active policing in many parts of the country that could sorely use it. While that might be keeping a few bad actors in check, it may also be stifling the many honorable and dedicated men and women simply trying to protect and serve.