Viral videos and "today's YouTube world" could be leading a wave of scrutiny and doubt on police nationwide, affecting how cops do their jobs and possibly explaining a rise of crime in some cities, FBI Director James B. Comey said Friday.
The prevalence of viral videos and high-profile incidents of police brutality, Comey said in a speech at the University of Chicago, might be having a chilling effect on how cops do their jobs, reducing their interaction with the public and making cops less aggressive.
"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," Comey said. "And that wind is surely changing behavior."
The FBI director's comments come after a series of high-profile cases of police brutality and alleged racial bias, many of which have been captured on video and spread quickly online, adding pressure to police departments to investigate their own and emboldening activists calling for reforms.
Comey's remarks also bore a strong resemblance to a theory some law enforcement officials have referred to as the "Ferguson effect" — that increased scrutiny on police departments makes officers less pro-active and increases crime.
"They told me, 'We feel like we're under siege and we don't feel much like getting out of cars,'" Comey said, referring to police officers he's met.
The FBI director spoke of officers being taunted by "young people with mobile cameras held high" and directives that rank-and-file receive from their superiors when another incident of police violence is captured on video.
Superiors have told their officers they'll have "no tolerance for a viral video."
The "Ferguson effect" theory has been rejected by some law enforcement and Comey acknowledged there isn't enough hard data to know if its real or not. But he said the added scrutiny on law enforcement with the help of videos has helped drive a wedge between law enforcement and communities they serve, particularly those of color.
"Each incident that involves real or perceived police misconduct," Comey said, has driven communities and police officers away from each other "incident by incident, video by video."
The comments, from one of the country's top law enforcement leaders, carried a much different tone from a speech he made in February, where he called on police to recognize their "unconscious biases" and that the history of law enforcement when it came to racial awareness "is not always pretty."
Comey's comments are likely to embolden the debate over use of force and criticism of police officers, who are increasingly being recorded by cell phone videos or body cameras provided by their own departments.
Comey asked for more data on crime as well as police use-of-force incidents to be able to assess problems within law enforcement agencies, as well as identify how to address increases in crime.
That, along with questioning police behavior and debate on sentencing laws and disparities are "essential discussion and law enforcement will get a better result," he said.