The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Forget the ‘Ferguson effect’ on crime

FBI director James Comey says cops are doing less because they're afraid of being featured on the evening news. He's wrong.

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Last week, FBI Director James Comey joined anti-reform advocates in asserting that the recent crime rise in certain cities should be attributed, at least in part, to the “Ferguson effect.” Officers, he said, are withholding their services because they’re resentful of reforms and afraid of being featured on the evening news.

He’s wrong. While murders this year are up 16 percent nationwide, that pattern is not uniform across all urban areas. Some cities, in fact, have seen a dramatic drop in deaths. In Boston, for example, murders are down 43 percent; in Raleigh, N.C., they’ve dropped 23 percent; and in Las Vegas, 15 percent. FiveThirtyEight found that “most cities have not shown a significant increase in homicides over the last year,” and “there are some big reasons not to assume that crime is on a long-term increase.”

But even if crime is on the rise, we must not slow reform of police practices and accountability efforts. The tension between police and the communities they serve is not new. It stretches back decades, and is baked into our local, state and national policies.

In the summer of 1967, inner cities across the country experienced unrest, rebellion and rioting. In response, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, later known as the Kerner Commission. Their report, issued a year later, examined the effect of police practices, housing and employment discrimination, and racial segregation on black Americans. The country’s criminal justice practices were held up for special scrutiny. The commission famously warned that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal,” and wrote that to many, police had come “to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression.”

Rather than heed the warning, governments doubled down to devastating effect. In 1968 (the year the Kerner Commission issued its report), there were fewer than 190,000 prisoners in the United States, the majority of whom were white. The rate of incarceration was the lowest it had been since the 1920s — 94 persons incarcerated per 100,000 in the population.

The “War on Drugs” and other punitive measures soon changed the face of prisons. Today, 2.3 million people are in a prison or jail and nearly 7 million under some form of correctional supervision. For every 100,000 people, more than 400 are incarcerated. African American men are 10 times more likely to be incarcerated than white men. The United States has 4.4 percent of the world’s population and 22 percent of its prisoners.

At the same time, police powers have expanded. During the 1960s and early 1970s, the Supreme Court issued opinions that gave meaning to the protections provided by the Bill of Rights. The court found that lawyers were required for defendants facing imprisonment, that confessions could not be coerced and that people had a right to be free from unreasonable searches or physical abuse by police or prison guards.

But those decisions were a high watermark for individual rights in encounters with the criminal justice system. In nearly each term since, the court has eroded protections, limiting the rights of the accused and expanding the authority of police and guards to use force, to conduct searches and to detain.

This new, harsher criminal justice system has had devastating effects. Nearly 1 in 5 African-American men is missing from his family and community because of incarceration. Families have been destroyed, leaving a legacy of generational poverty and poor prospects for children. Once released, formerly incarcerated persons face often insurmountable barriers to employment, education and housing. They have often lost the right to vote, and their health outcomes and life expectancy is dramatically reduced. By criminalizing a large segment of the community and depriving African American men of opportunity and the chance for success, public safety has been placed at risk. Communities must believe in the legitimacy of the justice system to partner with police to prevent and solve crime.

The Black Lives Matter movement and the emerging coalition to end mass incarceration have highlighted unfairness in the criminal justice system. The extraordinary work of activists, advocates and academics has begun to force changes in policy and practice. Police conduct is coming under greater scrutiny, accountability measures are being put in place, and serious conversations on the role of police and community relationships have begun. I saw this firsthand as a lawyer with the Department of Justice Civil Rights division. Between 2010 and 2015, we conducted more than 20 investigations of police departments, including Ferguson, Mo.

Much of America has awoken to a reality over the last year that is well known in communities of color and in communities of poverty — the effects of bias are real and devastating. Though 50 years have passed since the Kerner Commission report was issued, the need for reform remains as urgent today as ever.