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A bum rap for FBI Director James Comey on the 'Ferguson effect'

A bum rap for FBI Director James Comey on the 'Ferguson effect'
FBI Director James Comey responds to a question during a discussion on race and policy at the University of Chicago Law School on Oct. 23.

"The Ferguson effect," which sounds like the title of a Robert Ludlum thriller, is the name some use for the theory that increased scrutiny of police conduct, particularly as it affects African Americans, has led some officers to become less aggressive in doing their jobs.

The debate about whether the effect is real supposedly pits FBI Director James B. Comey, who served as deputy attorney general in the George W. Bush administration, against his nominal superiors in the White House and the Justice Department.

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But there is less to the schism than meets the eye, and it's ridiculous to suggest that Comey was blaming a spike in crime on those who want to hold police accountable.

In a speech at the University of Chicago Law School, Comey posed a couple of questions:

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"In today's YouTube world, are officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime?" he asked. "Are officers answering 911 calls but avoiding the informal contact that keeps bad guys from standing around, especially with guns?"

He then answered his own questions: "I don't know whether this explains it entirely, but I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year. And that wind is surely changing behavior."

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest quickly took issue with the idea of a Ferguson effect. "The available evidence at this point does not support the notion that law enforcement officers are shying away from fulfilling their responsibilities," Earnest told reporters.

President Obama himself told a meeting of the International Chiefs of Police that "we do have to stick with the facts. What we can't do is cherry-pick data or use anecdotal evidence to drive policy or to feed political agendas."

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On Tuesday, Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch chimed in, telling a House committee that, though "certainly there might be anecdotal evidence there, as all have noted, there's no data to support it."

These comments are being interpreted as a smackdown of Comey for speaking out of turn. But there's no contradiction between his comments and the fact that there are no data quantifying the effect he speculated about. And it's hard to see what's wrong with Comey, who is in frequent contact with police officers, sharing their perception that greater scrutiny of police conduct (and misconduct) has made some officers less proactive.

The FBI director wasn't justifying such skittishness, nor was he saying that civilians should stop paying attention to what police are doing.

The idea that some police might not be giving 100% isn't far-fetched. Last December, a New York Times editorial titled "When New York City Police Walk Off the Job," criticized members of the NYPD for "essentially abandoning enforcement of low-level offenses" to protest comments by Mayor Bill de Blasio -- including the mayor's revelation that he had told his biracial son to "take special care" in encounters with police.

If there's a De Blasio effect, it's certainly possible that there's a Ferguson effect – and both deserve to be criticized.

But wasn't Comey injudicious in suggesting that such an effect exists without being able to document it? Not really.

Again, Comey wasn't condoning such underperformance. And he admitted that the "chill wind" of public scrutiny of the police had had positive effects too. "Part of that behavior change is to be welcomed," he said, "as we continue to have important discussions about police conduct and deescalation and the use of deadly force."

In a subsequent speech to the police chiefs, he was even clearer: "We have to improve the way we do law enforcement, the way we police."

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If that's a "political agenda," it's one Comey's colleagues in the administration ought to embrace.

Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3

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