FBI Director James Comey sounded the alarm this week over an uptick in homicides in major cities during first quarter of 2016, doubling down on his assessment that police are patrolling less aggressively over fear of ending up in a “viral video.”
Citing data from the Major Cities Chiefs Association that he was recently briefed on, Mr. Comey said he was concerned by the pace at which homicides were stacking up in “most” of the more than 40 cities that provided statistics.
“The numbers are not only going up, they are continuing to go up in many of those cities faster than they were going up last year,” said Mr. Comey on Wednesday, during a round-table meeting with reporters.
The FBI director said his assessment that crime is being affected by a change in how police and communities interact is based on anecdotal accounts he continues to hear from law enforcement officials across the country.
“It’s a perception, I don’t know if it’s true or not, that folks are less likely to tell police when they see things” Mr. Comey said. “And 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?’”
A similar assessment he made last year put Mr. Comey at odds with the White House and some law enforcement groups.
At least one group fired back Thursday, calling the assertion “unfounded” and “damaging to the efforts of law enforcement.”
“I’ve talked to police officers around the country who are deeply offended by ongoing speculation that crime is increasing because we’re scared of the public, and afraid to do our jobs,” said former New Orleans Police Chief Ronal Serpas, who now serves as the chairman of group Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration. “In fact, our country is experiencing historically low crime rates, and recent analyses show that overall crime rates in our largest cities were nearly identical last year as to previous years.”
The Major Cities Chiefs Association has not yet made available their first quarter 2016 data.
But citing homicide increases so far this year in Chicago and Las Vegas, Mr. Comey said he believes more needs to be done to understand the root cause of the increase in violence.
“From the Las Vegas Strip you can’t tell that more than 60 people have been murdered this year. From the Miracle Mile in Chicago you can’t hear the sounds of gunshots that have killed over 200 people so far this year,” he said. “A whole lot more people are dying this year than last year, and last year than the year before and I don’t know why for sure.”
While violent crime rates have been on a downward decline over the last several decades, FBI data shows violent crime rose across the country in the first six months of 2015. In particular, murders were up by 6.2 percent during the first half of 2015 compared to the first six months of 2014 — marking the first uptick in that category in four years.
Crunching data from the 25 largest cities in the United States, the Brennan Center for Justice found that while there were 471 more homicides in large cities in 2015 over 2014, an uptick in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Chicagoaccounted for half of the national increase.
Chuck Wexler, director of the Police Executive Research Forum, is among those eager to understand the reason why homicides have begun to trend upwards.
“We do know that in cities that have experienced trauma, like Baltimore and Chicago, it is unmistakable that it has an impact on crime,” said Mr. Wexler. “How that impact happens and what it means, that is what we have to figure out.”
He agrees law enforcement leaders have become concerned that viral videos are making police less proactive, though he said there isn’t data yet to prove or disprove the theory.
Instead he offered alternative theories he’s also heard from law enforcement, including a quicker escalation of violent gang beefs as a result social media.
Insults can be flung between gang members around the clock online, creating an “accelerant” that triggers retaliatory violence more often than face-to-face encounters, Mr. Wexler said.
He also points to one of the driving factors of the crime increase in the 1990s, drugs, as a potential cause. While crime in the 1990s was fueled by crack cocaine wars, Mr. Wexler notes the heroin and opioid epidemic that’s more recently taken root in communities across the country.
“Are we seeing drugs, specifically heroin, cheap heroin that has a purity of 90 percent, fueling some of the violence we are seeing in some cities?” he said. “It’s an area that is worth examining.”