The "Ferguson Effect" Is Most Likely BS

Causation, as trial lawyers know, is a notoriously difficult subject. We're taught, for example, what scientists know: two events apparently related in time may not be related as a matter of fact. Thus the old maxim: post hoc ergo propter hoc, loosely translated as "after this, therefore because of that." It is a logical fallacy.

Correlation is not causation.

Politicians aren't bound by the canons of science or the rigors of legal doctrine; the political class are tethered to the interests they serve. Beware the assertions politicians make about causation. Often, their claims are concerned less with the truth than with seeking what they want.

James Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is a politician; so is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Both men recently advanced claims that enhanced scrutiny of policing has led to an increase in violent crime. Law enforcement officers call this the "Ferguson effect," naming it after the public reaction to the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2009.

Comey made his remarks at a recent speech at the University of Chicago Law School. "Viral videos," often taken by members of the public, intimidate police officers, who are now less inclined to get out of their cars and do their jobs when they know they will be filmed. Christie has gone so far as claim that President Barack Obama's support of the "Black Lives Matter" movement is causing crime to increase.

I've talked to a lot of police officers, including police chiefs, since the Michael Brown shooting. There is a broad sense of demoralization among law enforcement officers. They are the ones putting their lives on the line in countless encounters with members of the public each day. Many officers complain that the public does not understand the risks they face.

But there's little evidence to suggest that this demoralization has led police to stand down in the face of violence. Even Comey has conceded as much. So why would he and Christie suggest the linkage?

It's all about politics.

Comey ought to wither and die of shame. He's one of the nation's top lawmen; he ought to be a transparency hawk, promoting public understanding of policing. Instead, he's playing "blame-the-victim."

The FBI has for decades kept crime statistics, but it has resolutely refused to publish statistics on police violence. It is not that deaths caused by police officers leave no paper trail – these events are investigated and, no pun intended, papered to death. A law enforcement community anxious to police itself could, if it had the will to do so, easily gather and publish data on police violence. (Two news organizations have taken the task on themselves: The Washington Post publishes daily an update on police shooting deaths; Britain's Guardian publishes daily an update on deaths of all kinds caused by police. Both are accessible online.)

What explains Christie's blather? His faltering presidential ambitions. The war on crime worked for Nixon. Christie wants to appeal to fear. It's folly. The war on crime is a war we declare on ourselves. Giving police officers a pass when they shoot to kill guarantees more violence.

The federal courts bear some responsibility for this permissive culture. Qualified immunity, giving the benefit of the doubt to police officers in what judges perceive as close cases, deprives the public of any meaningful opportunity to learn about police procedure; it also deprives the community of a chance to provide police officers with guidance about what ordinary people regard as "reasonable" behavior by police.

We're missing an opportunity to have a meaningful discussion about police use of violence. The world is watching just now. Instead, we get the likes of Comey and Christie playing politics, and courts playing hide the ball.

Whose interests are served by this obfuscation? Certainly not those of the man on the street, the folks stopped by police, and too often killed. •


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