Chiefs of some of the nation’s biggest police departments are pulling back in American cities. Their officers are not aggressively policing the streets, out of fear they are the next officer to have a career-ending viral video.  This is the controversial consensus among 100 of the nation’s top law enforcement officers and politicians in a private meeting Wednesday.  With homicide rates growing this year in dozens of U.S. cities, the group convened by the new U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch concluded at a brief news conference following the meeting that there will be a robust response. Previously, homicide rates had been falling for several decades.

Mayors, police chiefs, U.S. Attorneys, and FBI Director James Comey privately vented their frustrations in a Washington, D.C. ballroom. They said they really don’t understand the alarming, sudden spike in violent crimes, but many put forward the theory that officers have sinking morale following several high-profile police incidents that have caused a rift between the public and the law enforcement community. This distrust has led to calls for reform and police accountability, protests, hashtag activism, and even riots.

Participants at the discussion were told the meeting was closed to the public and the media, but the mayor of D.C. listed the event as public and the Washington Post put a reporter in the room to observe the 3-hour meeting.

The meeting posited the possibility that drugs, guns, and gangs are to blame, but former top officer of Boston and Police Executive Research Forum head, Chuck Wexler told U.S. A.G. Lynch that “perhaps the most difficult to calibrate, but the most significant is this notion of a reduction in proactive policing.”  Police chiefs and elected leaders from Baltimore, NYC, Chicago, and St. Louis, put it another way,

“We have allowed our police department to get fetal and it is having a direct consequence,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel told Lynch, “They have pulled back from the ability to interdict … they don’t want to be a news story themselves, they don’t want their career ended early, and it’s having an impact.”

No participant in the summit put forth any evidence of a broad retraction of police or that this diminished policing is contributing to the rise in violent crime. Rather, the leaders spoke broadly about the atmosphere they feel at work and how it has changed over the past year amidst high-profile police incidents involving in-custody deaths and unarmed shootings that led to riots in two cities in the U.S.  Chiefs said they’ve noticed that police still do their jobs, but fewer take extra steps like confronting loiterers late at night that they once did like second nature. These moments of going above the job description often led to intelligence or arrests that solved cases, but now, the fear of an altercation that is uploaded to social media stops the officers.

NYCPD Commissioner William Bratton called it the “YouTube Effect”, which emerged post-Ferguson and in New York, post-Eric Garner. An officer choked Eric Garner to death last year in New York City while he was attempting to arrest him for selling cigarettes without permission.  Bratton told the group that he thought the malaise was just in New York, but that he feels the tide is turning after the execution-style murders of two officers late last year.

“Marchers in New York, marchers in my city were chanting, ‘what do we want, dead cops, when do we want them, now.’ Well, they got them, two dead cops in December. The legacy of those two officers deaths’ have slowed down the momentum of what was started before it reached tidal wave proportions — really throwing the scales of justice out of balance,” he said, “The challenge going forward is to keep it in balance so that our officers feel that as we ask them to go forward that if they, in fact, do the right thing, we will be supportive.”

Comey said his department lacks the real-time data necessary to track the trend lines of violent crimes, especially police-involved shootings to understand them better and their root causes.

“We stare at the math, and stare at change in cities that seem to have nothing in common with one another. What’s the connection among Boston, Washington, Minneapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Houston, Dallas, other than being American cities? Has policing changed in the YouTube era? I don’t like the term ‘post-Ferguson,’ because I actually believe the ‘YouTube era’ captures it better. The question I keep asking my staff is, ‘Do these hypothesis fit the map and the calendar?’ Cities with nothing in common are seeing in the same degree and in the same time – dramatic increases in violence, especially homicides — does heroin explain that? I struggle with that … is it guns? Well, what’s changed with guns in the last nine months? Is it the criminal justice system? Well, I keep asking my staff, what has changed that would explain that this is happening in the first nine months of this year and all over the country?”

New Orleans Mayor Mitchell Landrieu said that the number of African American homicide victims is a “national disgrace.”

“My assumption is if we showed the numbers, and we broke it down and showed you the faces, and we gave you the names and we showed you what they looked like before they were killed and after they were killed, the nation would rise up and say this is a matter that is a moral imperative for the country.”

“There’s no doubt the job I have, the fact of life is, if a single person in Chicago is beheaded by ISIL, the world will go on fire,” Comey said referring to the Iraq and Syria-based extremist group, “If a 2-year-old is shot in Chicago, the Tribune will write about it, the Sun-Times will write about it. I despair trying to change that world. So I think the answer is, collect the data and then do our damndest to get smarter at what we do.”

Overall, criminologists say they aren’t sure what is causing the increase in violent crimes, they call it the “Ferguson Effect”, the notion that police are avoiding aggressive policing out of fear.  Others say that the controversial police shootings and in-custody deaths have led criminals to become bolder as the public loses trust in law enforcement.  Violent crime began to creep upwards in St. Louis following the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed man who was shot by a police officer.  Except for the first few months after Brown’s death, when violent protests and riots were raging, arrests have remained constant. That’s left everyone to wonder what is causing this sudden increase.  After decades of falling crime rates, several major metropolitan areas have seen their violent crimes, especially homicides go up, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Milwaukee, are among 25 cities where homicides are up 20%.

“We have not seen what we are seeing right now in decades,” said D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, who summoned big-city chiefs to the summit to discuss the problem.

Criminologists are advising caution, saying that the rise in violence isn’t necessarily what we are in store for in the long run. It doesn’t necessarily mean a new era of rising crime.

“I know there is a tendency to look at any type of crime increase and say the sky is falling,” said Eric Piza, a professor of criminology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, “It’s going to take a little bit of time before we’re able to digest what is happening.”

Franklin E. Zimring, author of “The Great American Crime Decline” and director of criminal justice studies at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law, noted that killings are up slightly in New York, but the city is still on pace to end the year with one of its lowest homicide rates in modern history.

Zimring said that the public is “quite comfortable” with the levels of crime currently.

The public in isolated pockets like St. Louis might disagree, there were 159 murders last year an increase of 39 from the year before.  Daniel Fuller, a billboard company owner, holds regular safety meetings with his employees and they talk about the “murder report”. Two women were recently shot to death under one of his billboards. Fuller said in another location, he couldn’t work on his billboard until “they washed the blood…” away. A man had been shot outside a barbershop there.  Fuller staged a protest last summer against the violence increase. He vowed to live on one of his billboards until the city went without a homicide for a full week. He slept in a hammock, took bucket showers, and comforted crime victims’ families.

“My brother, he was number 62,” Fuller recalled one woman telling him.

“They shot at him 100 times with an AK-47,” another woman said.

Fuller spent 24 days up on his billboard.  Funeral directors in the area are equally distraught and angry over the bloodshed, they see it firsthand. They staged a protest last summer as well. The funeral directors all drove their hearses through the streets flashing their lights and honking their horns.

“Many people would think I marvel on the number of homicides, like I’m a profiteer,” said Ronald L. Jones, a St. Louis funeral director. But “it disheartens me…”

He recalled young people coming in to his showroom to pick their final arrangements before something happens to them.

Ferguson is a separate city, but close enough that the violence is poring over. Last summer, there was a protest to mark the anniversary of Brown’s death and the night fell into violence, looting, and gun battles. Three people were shot and wounded that night. Two of them were shot in a drive-by shooting in the same neighborhood Brown was killed in. Tyrone Harris Jr., 18, was shot and wounded by police after he allegedly opened fire on them after a shootout between two rival groups fighting over a looted television. Businesses were burned and lives ruined.

“There are no real pathways for [youth] to become productive members of society,” said Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis chapter of the NAACP, “They’re caught up in an environment in which our people are cannibalizing each other.”

St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, who founded the nonprofit group Heal STL said that many people are wary of police and some of the relations have turned hostile.

“We’ve had incidents where police have shown up to a scene where a child, a toddler, was shot,” French said, “When they showed up to help the child, they were booed.”

Sources:  Washington Post 1  |  Washington Post 2

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