The “Ferguson Effect”—the claim, cited by some law enforcement officers, that the current spike in violent crime was sparked by the movement against police violence—is not real. But despite a lack of social science evidence to support this theory, FBI Director James Comey would have you believe that the Black Lives Matter movement is responsible for the increase in tragic violence.
In an address to the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s annual convention in Chicago, Comey described police and minority communities as two lines in parallel. “Each incident that involves real or perceived police misconduct drives one line this way. Each time an officer is attacked in the line of duty, it drives the other line this way. I actually feel the lines continuing to arc away from each other, incident by incident, video by video, more and more quickly,” he said. “Just as those lines are arcing away from each other–and maybe because they are arcing away–we have a crisis of violent crime in some of our most vulnerable communities across the country.”
Drawing a false equivalency between the amount of police-enacted violence and violence directed at police, Comey traces a growing divide between the community and the police force due to increased awareness of police violence. That divide, he contends, results in the police pulling back their crime-fighting resources from communities most affected by violence.
As activist and data scientist Samuel Sinyangwe points out, this position rests on a few different fallacies: first, that police are being less aggressive out of fear of being the next cop to have their tactics publicly scrutinized, and secondly, that aggressive policing leads to a reduction in violent crime. There is no evidence to support this, and if a nationwide decrease in police aggression is indeed underway, someone should tell the girl who was body-slammed and dragged by Officer Ben Fields at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina, for her refusal to give her cellphone to a teacher. If aggressive policing, which includes the kind of violence recently caught on film, led to less crime, that would mean that the only thing law-enforcement agencies have come up with to reduce violence is the use of more violence, and the violation of people’s rights. In other words, the only way to prevent violent crime is martial law.
Instead, invoking the “Ferguson Effect” is an attempt to discredit the newly revived grassroots movement for racial justice. Governor Chris Christie, for instance, recently accused the movement of supporting “lawlessness” and “calling for the murder of police officers.” But this isn’t new. In some ways, it’s a twist on the way in which “black-on-black crime” has been used to deflect our attention from the ways in which police have been used to subjugate and dehumanize black communities. People who would rather not talk about that point to violence within those communities as the “real” issue. That further pathologizes blackness—as if there is something uniquely abhorrent about black people killing other black people. In fact, because America is highly segregated, it is more likely that a person of any race will commit violence against a person of the same race than a different one. More often than not, violent crimes are committed where a person lives and against someone the person knows. If there is “black-on-black crime,” there is also “white-on-white crime.” This is not unique to black people.