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EDITORIAL: As Baltimore cops pulled back, violence exploded in the city

Before James Comey became caught in the middle of the Hillary-Trump presidential soap opera, he created controversy by citing the “Ferguson effect” in 2016 to explain increasing murder rates in many American 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.

His comments angered many on the left, who see institutional racism inherent in many police interactions with those in minority communities. But the evidence keeps mounting that Mr. Comey was on to something.

First came a 2017 Pew Research Center survey of more than 8,000 police officers. The results revealed that, in the wake of high-profile police shootings involving African-Americans — including an encounter in Ferguson, Mo. — 75 percent of those questioned said they had become more hesitant to use force. In addition, 73 percent said they were less likely to stop and confront an individual acting suspiciously.

Now comes a USA Today analysis focusing on the Baltimore police in the wake of the 2015 shooting of Freddie Gray, which sparked riots across the city. In the aftermath, “officers in nearly every part of the city appeared to turn a blind eye to everyday violence,” the paper reported this week.

“From 2014 to 2017, dispatch records show that the number of suspected narcotics offenses police reported themselves dropped 30 percent; the number of people they reported seeing with outstanding warrants dropped by half,” USA Today found. “The number of field interviews … dropped by 70 percent.

The results of a more timid police presence? Baltimore has experienced a spike in violent crime that has left it “easily the deadliest large city in the USA,” the paper reported.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with increased focus on police practices, particularly involving the use of force. Such attention heightens accountability and discourages wrongdoing.

But is really so farfetched to think that criminals will become emboldened and more aggressive if police officers worry about becoming entrapped in a “Bonfire of the Vanities” scenario every time they buckle up in a squad car?

Yes, the bad apples must be weeded out of law enforcement, and those who make deadly mistakes should be held responsible. More dialogue and outreach to disadvantaged areas via community policing might also help.

But the USA Today review of Baltimore’s predicament provides more proof that nobody wins — except the bad guys — when conscientious and dedicated law enforcement officers become reluctant to do their jobs.

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