from the it's-not-about-accountability,-it's-about-control dept
FBI Director James Comey didn't dig into his bag of "Ferguson Effect" rhetorical devices during his comments to a law enforcement conference on Sunday, but he came close. Under that theory, the possibility of being held accountable by citizens and their recording devices has apparently been holding officers back from enforcing laws, making arrests, or otherwise earning their paychecks.
The problem now is a lack of data, Comey claims. Law enforcement has lost control of the narrative, he stated, as if a one-sided portrayal of every police use of excessive/deadly force was somehow beneficial to the nation.
Dramatic videos of deadly law enforcement encounters and the absence of reliable data about how often police use force contribute to a regrettable narrative that "biased police are killing black men at epidemic rates," FBI Director James Comey said Sunday.
That story line has formed amid a lack of comprehensive, national data about how many citizens are killed or injured at the hands of police officers.
Thanks to the DOJ and FBI's active disinterest in collecting this data (until just recently), the "narrative" is no longer law enforcement's to control. Comey at least admits the FBI -- which was charged with collecting this data but somehow believed voluntary reporting would result in a comprehensive dataset -- is partly to blame.
We do not know whether number of black, brown or white people being shot by police is up because we have not collected data.
The problem with Comey's comments is that he apparently believes data on excessive force and killings by police officers will be ultimately exculpatory.
We need to show people what American law enforcement is really like, because if they see what we see, the chasm will close.
But the data collected by the public of its own initiative shows exactly what Comey claims it doesn't: that law enforcement officers are killing black men at "epidemic rates." Worse, Comey believes data collected and disseminated well after the fact will somehow be able to defuse immediate reactions to released video of officers killing or abusing citizens.
Videos of fatal police encounters that capture the public's attention and are shared broadly across the internet can fuel the perception that "something terrible is being done by the police," even if the data aren't there to back it up.
Given the audience, Comey probably didn't feel comfortable pitching the truth: that policing in America is every bit as bad as it's portrayed to be. Comey thinks data will give law enforcement control over the narrative, but that seems to be his only concern. The culture of American policing needs to change before the data start matching law enforcement's narrative.
Almost without fail, DOJ investigations of law enforcement agencies find two things: routine use of excessive force and biased policing. These aren't anomalies or "bad apples." This is how policing in America works.
As for the narrative, law enforcement still largely controls it. The corpse of the recently killed is barely on the way to the city morgue before law enforcement officials are dumping criminal records and officers' "feared for their safety" claims into the hands of reporters. No amount of pointing to stats is going to change the fact that far too many interactions are needlessly escalated by responding officers, or that biased police tactics are generating far too many interactions in the first place.
While it's good to know the FBI is finally going to push for better data collection on police use of force, the fact that it did nothing for nearly two decades counts against any goodwill it might hope to generate by finally doing its job. Unfortunately for those hoping this might lead to better policing, Jim Comey has made it clear it's really about controlling the narrative and pushing the American public to view law enforcement the way Comey feels they should be viewed: as good people in tough jobs who rarely, if ever, screw up. We'll just have to see what sort of spin is applied when Comey realizes the numbers aren't going to add up to his preconceptions.