Jim Comey Describes the Dangerous Chilling Effect of Surveillance (But Only for Cops)

For at least the second time, Jim Comey has presented himself as a Ferguson Effect believer, someone who accepts data that has been cherry picked to suggest a related rise in violent crime in cities across the country (I believe that in Ferguson itself, violent crime dropped last month, but whatever).

I have spoken of 2014 in this speech because something has changed in 2015. Far more people are being killed in America’s cities this year than in many years. And let’s be clear: far more people of color are being killed in America’s cities this year.

And it’s not the cops doing the killing.

We are right to focus on violent encounters between law enforcement and civilians. Those incidents can teach all of us to be better.

But something much bigger is happening.

Most of America’s 50 largest cities have seen an increase in homicides and shootings this year, and many of them have seen a huge increase. These are cities with little in common except being American cities—places like Chicago, Tampa, Minneapolis, Sacramento, Orlando, Cleveland, and Dallas.

In Washington, D.C., we’ve seen an increase in homicides of more than 20 percent in neighborhoods across the city. Baltimore, a city of 600,000 souls, is averaging more than one homicide a day—a rate higher than that of New York City, which has 13 times the people. Milwaukee’s murder rate has nearly doubled over the past year.

Yesterday, Comey flew to Chicago and repeated something its embattled Mayor recently floated (even while Bill Bratton, who is a lot more experienced at policing than Rahm Emanuel, has publicly disputed it): that cops are not doing their job because people have started taking videos of police interactions.

I’ve also heard another explanation, in conversations all over the country. Nobody says it on the record, nobody says it in public, but police and elected officials are quietly saying it to themselves. And they’re saying it to me, and I’m going to say it to you. And it is the one explanation that does explain the calendar and the map and that makes the most sense to me.

Maybe something in policing has changed.

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

I spoke to officers privately in one big city precinct who described being surrounded by young people with mobile phone cameras held high, taunting them the moment they get out of their cars. They told me, “We feel like we’re under siege and we don’t feel much like getting out of our cars.”

I’ve been told about a senior police leader who urged his force to remember that their political leadership has no tolerance for a viral video.

So the suggestion, the question that has been asked of me, is whether these kinds of things are changing police behavior all over the country.

And the answer is, I don’t know. 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.

Let’s, for the moment, assume Comey’s anecdote-driven impression, both of the Ferguson Effect and of the role of cameras, is correct (to his credit, in this speech he called for more data; he would do well to heed his own call on that front). Let’s assume that all these cops (and mayors, given that Comey decided to make this claim in Rahm’s own city) are correct, and cops have stopped doing the job we’re all paying them to do because they’re under rather imperfect but nevertheless increased surveillance.

We’ll take you at your word, Director Comey.

If Comey’s right, what he’s describing is the chilling effect of surveillance, the way in which people change their behavior because they know they will be seen by a camera. That Comey is making such a claim is all the more striking given that the surveillance cops are undergoing is targeted surveillance, not the kind of dragnet surveillance (such as the use of planes to surveil the Baltimore and Ferguson protests, which he acknowledged this week) his agency and the NSA subject Americans to.

Sorry, sir! Judge after judge has ruled such claims to be speculative and therefore invalid in a court of law, most recently when T.S. Ellis threw out the ACLU’s latest challenge to the dragnet yesterday!

I actually do think there’s something to the chilling effect of surveillance (though, again, what’s happening to cops is targeted, not dragnet). But if Comey has a problem with that, he can’t have it both ways, he needs to consider the way in which the surveillance of young Muslim and African-American men leads them to do things they might not otherwise do, the way in which it makes targets of surveillance feel under siege, he needs to consider how the surveillance his Agents undertake actually makes it less likely people will engage in the things they’re supposed to do, like enjoy free speech, a robust criminal defense unrestricted by spying on lawyers, like enjoy privacy.

Comey adheres to a lot of theories, including the Ferguson Effect.

But as of yesterday, he is also on the record as claiming that surveillance has a chilling effect. Maybe he should consider the implications of what he is saying for the surveillance his own agency has us under? If the targeted surveillance of cops is a problem, isn’t the far less targeted surveillance he authorizes a bigger problem?

15 replies
  1. JohnT says:

    Looks like another case from “When the FBI director just makes shit up files”

    Michael from Muckrock writes, “Before rock legends KISS embarked on their 1980 ‘Unmasked’ Tour of Europe, then FBI Director William H. Webster put out a request to field offices for information regarding instances of ‘civil unrest’ associated with the band’s concerts, particularly an incident in Texas which escalated to open attacks on police. The field officers’ response was unanimous – they had no idea what the Director was talking about. That and more details await in the FBI’s files on KISS.”


  2. Terry Karney says:

    What I noticed is Comey saying that the normal performance of their duties is something they are afraid will be filmed. The implication is they are engaging in brutal tactics and behaviors, as a matter of course.

    • bmaz says:

      Yes, trust me, that is precisely their fear. Even when not battering people, cops are very often simply authoritarian assholes as a matter of course. They get off on it. Not all, of course, some are quite noble. But FAR too many are not.

      • bloopie2 says:

        And they’re tricky bastards. The expressway I drive in the AM has a cut-through in the median where the cop normally sits with his radar. After we pass that, we all speed up to 75 again. Yesterday he was sitting off to the other side of the road, farther down (after the point we speed up), in a black Charger with no lights on, invisible until you’re almost on him, shooting at us. Works for him, now that the days are getting shorter and the mornings darker. On a road that never has any accidents, just a bunch of people trying to get to work on time. Just wonderful. And the cops wonder why people hate them.

  3. orionATL says:

    the ferguson effect is an urban myth a-growing.

    the concept itself ls more than muddled; it is a logical pretzel that is surely fallacious.

    before being allowed to get away with charm-propagandizing the media, comey must say, specifically, what the ferguson effect is.

    and why does it have the name “ferguson effect”, why ferguson? let me answer: police union and followers-on propaganda, that’s is why.

    what is the ferguson effect: is it

    crime increases because police are more cautious about doing the roughing-up, intimidating, physical violence, shooting people part of their job because they know they will a) be observed or photographed b)might have legal charges brought against them for blantly illegal behavior?

    atbsurd propaganda!

    break what police do into consituent parts and tell me how video recording would have any imolpact whatsoever. then realize what bullshit jim “big-scare”comey is peddling this time around. maybe its “big-scare” comey who ought to be knicknamed “grassy knoll” instead of sidney blumenthal.

    what citizen videoing of police involves is videoing a few extraordinary, unprofessional, often blatantly illegal actions by a few police – several thousand actions per year at the most, out of millions upon millions of police-citizen interactions.

    i’m absolutely certain 95% of policemen give no thought whatsoever to “being photographed or up before a grand jury on charges” as they are working because the way they go about doing their jobs is entirely within the well-accepted rules of police engagement with citizens, and almost entirely nonviolent: will traffic stops, non-moving tiicketing change? theft investigations, including bike, lawnmower, construction materials, auto, robbery change? white collar and sex crimes change? domestic dispute policing change? property destruction? accident investigation? security services and funeral escorts? court appearances? chang? of course not. these folks are pros; they DO their job because it’s part of their life. they are not going to modify any part of their normal, trained, experienced behavior because some pin-headed fbi director or union boss descided to propagandize and disrupt knives to change patterns police violence.

    nobody understands the inappropriateness of excessive police violence better than police pros who reject its use.

    it is a near-certain that, barring a covert job-action or work-to-rule action by certain unions, (entirely posdible in nyc, chicago, la) police being photographed engaged in extra-judicial wounding or killing with guns has had little to no effect on the very large part of the day-to-day work of police and of police-citizen interaction (which is non- or low- violence and thus on the measurement of crime data.

    i’ll add here, though it doesn’t quite fit at the moment, that i consider it a foregone conclusion that most of the police extra-judicial killings are due to loss of temper (the great majority), or psychological unfitness/loss of composure, or sadism (as in albuquerque and ga.).

    i can tell you where comey is going with this – a federal law forbidding photographing police, thus, for example, making it difficult to understand what happened or to prosecute an instance like the fbi shooting murder of a black man activist in boston recently. not to mention, evaluating and prosecuting the hundredscof police extra-judicial killings of citizens each year.

    so now we know why the fbi keeps fumbling its police extra-judicial killings (and woundings) but keeps close tabs, for propaganda purposes, on police killed and injured stats. those numbers would be bad for the political games the fbi likes to play with congress. it serves to break the prosecuyors’ hold on the u.s. congresd. this supprresion vital information is the ssme as the nra pushing the congressgoobers to prohibit the u.s. centers for disease control from collecting data on gun deaths.

  4. orionATL says:

    before we let “big-scare” comey slouch along with describing the spurious propaganda he calls “the ferguson effect”,

    let’s ask him about:

    – fbi hair analysis fraud

    -fbi fibres analysis fraud

    -fbi labororatory techniques fraud

    – fbi “radicalization” theory fraud

    – don’t know for sure aboit handwriting, but it is inadmissable i believe

    you’ll get the drift of the fbi’s long history of purposeful gullibilty from this:


  5. orionATL says:

    james “big scare” comey spouts some propaganda:

    [… I spoke to officers privately in one big city precinct who described being surrounded by young people with mobile phone cameras held high, taunting them the moment they get out of their cars. They told me, “We feel like we’re under siege and we don’t feel much like getting out of our cars.”
    I’ve been told about a senior police leader who urged his force to remember that their political leadership has no tolerance for a viral video. …]

    – the officers officers said … we don’t much feel like getting out of their cars?”… what?? what pansies! what would these shrinking violet, er, pansies do in a riot?
    of course they would get out of their cars; they’re professionals. and, riot or no, of coarse they would engage the taunting kids; they’re professionals; they know how to handle crowds. and of coarse, the cops would have a keen-eyed look around; they’re professionals.

    if i were a cop proud of my comptence at very dangerous work (similar, say, to that of ironworkers on 63rd floor), i’d be pissed at comey.

    ” I’ve been told about a senior police leader who urged his force to remember that their political leadership has no tolerance for a viral video.” here, astonishingly, comey is directy undermining senior police leadership who are trying to deal with inappropriate individual police officer actions. directly, deliberately undermining senior police leadership trying, we can assume, to change what it knows to be improper behavior.

    if i were a senior police commander trying to train-out some unnecessary violence, i’d be pissed as hell as “big scares” demagoguery.

    who is comey trying to kid with this crap?

    actually, deceive with this crap – this fbi behavioral lab scripted propaganda?

    that’s easy? congressgoobers and folks who watch teevee news, while sending a politicos pandering message back to big city police.

    make no mistake. comey is heading directly for legislation forbidding citizens taking pictures of police in action.

    i must say, i am severely negatively impressed by this rhetorical journey of comey’s.

    if i understand one thing with absolute clarity from this ew post, it is that comey has the soul and the tongue of a demogogue.

  6. orionATL says:

    the phrase “the ferguson effect” needs to be taken apart and analyzed to see just how eccentric and propaganda-oriented it is.

    briefly, because i’m busy –

    – consider the phrase “the ferguson effect” as an entity, a whole. it refers to a well-known, unjustified extra-judicial execution by a police officer in ferguson, missouri of an 18 yr old kid; and, then, to the angry rioting response of black community both to that kiling and then still to the angry, unprofessional police repression of that community anger.

    for all this detail, the television take-away messsage of “the ferguson effect”, acquired over the course of numerous15-minute news casts listened to over supper, implies “blacks gone wild”.

    the phrase “the ferguson effect”, and the use of that phrase by “big scare” comey is unambiguously racist.

    comey, comes out of this not just a demagogue to police, but a racist demagogue.

    • orionATL says:

      see various orion comments on “the ferguson effect” at emptywheel:

      Loretta Lynch’s Hot and Cold Running Data-Sharing

      Published October 5, 2015 | By emptywheel

  7. orionATL says:

    the term “ferguson effect” has many meanings that can be taken from it. therein lies its utility in political speeches.

    most specifically, it (should) connect the white police shooting to death of black men (mostly), with a subsequent protest by black citizens that can be violent – aftef all, that’s what happened in ferguson, missouri in august 2014.

    but more generally, it seems to mean something like “police will not be willing to do their jobs when cellphone videos of them are being made and as a consequence murders (and by sly inference, crime in general) will increase.

    curiously, in the light of comey’s comments about videos of police, there were no compelling videos involved in the shooting of teenager michael brown by ferguson police officer daren wilson.

    what is compelling, however, is the fact that brown was stopped and harrassed by ferguson police officer wilson for walking in the street instead of on the sidewalk. all that unfolded next, and since that time, has been as a consequence of the type of policing (broken windows policing) comey seems to support when he says:

    “… are officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime? Are officers answering 911 calls but avoiding the informal contact that keeps bad guys from standing around, especially with guns?…”

    in short, daren wilson’s broken windows, harassing the guys hanging out at the corner about trivial matters, is precisely what started the protest against pllice brutality in this country

    and it is precisely what started the use of videos taken by citizens with their cellphones for the absolutely necessary purpose of

    1) documenting details of police actions that cannot be refuted in a “he said-she said” manner by police officials and district attorneys, and

    2) to counter routine police lying, including lies by multiple officers and police officials, following inappropriate and sometimes deadly police activity.

    so “the ferguson effect” could, and rightly, should, be taken to mean something like “what happens when broken windows policing results in inappropriate (including murderous) police behavior in a time of cellphone videos.

    it means no such thing.

    it means something like, “the public will pay a price in increased crime due to police refusal to do their job adequately because the police are afraid cellphone videos will clearly show them behaving inappropriately or illegally in a manner in which cutomary police lying is ineffective.”

  8. orionATL says:

    stopping michael brown for walking in the street isn’t the only “broken windows” policing that has fed the current outrage at murderous police behavior and extra-judicial executions.

    a cigarette seller in new york city, eric garner, was placed in a choke hold and piled on by nyc police. he died of asphyxiation due to the chokehold, illegal by police rules and applied to garner by a police officer previously reprimanded for using the hold.

    in baltimore, freddie grey was arrested for jaywalking then shackled and placed in a paddy wagon without being strapped in. after a rough ride in a deliberately tortuous route, grey was found to have severe spinal injuries and died days later. a riot ensued.

    certainly, it would have been better for three citizens in ferguson, new york city, and baltimore if, in fact, to quote “big scare” comey, police in those cities had, indeed, avoided “the informal contact that keeps bad guys from standing around, …?” seeing as how the police contact with these three men (unarmed as it happened) for a trivial matter resulted in their deaths and chaotic consequences for the police departments and cities.

    “big scare” can hold their hands and offer hankies to sobbing police (and their politically useful unions) all he wants, but he needs to get his history, his facts, and his thoughts straight about the “ferguson effect” hocus-pocus he’s peddling.

  9. Bill Michtom says:

    This is the schmuck who doesn’t think that Dylann Roof’s slaughter was not terrorism even though Roof specifically left a survivor to tell people what happened.

    • bmaz says:

      Uh, yeah, for charging purposes, he was right about that. There is a definitional clause that makes Roof’s crimes look like terrorism, but the actual crimes contained in Title 18 do not match up nearly as well. People get far too hung up on semantics. Frankly, as horrendous as this crime was, it should be prosecuted under the state murder statutes by state authorities. Terrorism and hates crimes bullshit are feel good side shows for the lay public and glory whoring DOJ assholes. The strongest and cleanest prosecution is for capital murder by the state.

Comments are closed.