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Have American Police Become More Cautious?


Let's pursue a question that's often asked but very hard to answer. It is whether police are becoming more cautious. Some police have said they are responding to protests from Ferguson, Mo., to New York. In a speech on Friday, FBI director James Comey said he thinks police are backing off, and he thinks that might be allowing more crime. Comey was speaking in Chicago, and that city is a good place to test the evidence for Comey's view. NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Comey isn't the first one to say something like this. This idea that the cops are holding back has been floating around law enforcement circles since Ferguson. Earlier this month, the mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, said he worries about officers becoming reluctant to take action.


RAHM EMANUEL: I met with officers from the 10th District, and one officer said explicitly when I'm driving by, I have to think about whether I want be on the news and what it means to my career.

KASTE: This subject is especially urgent in Chicago because gun violence has jumped here lately. September was the city's deadliest month since 2002. At the same time, Chicago police are under pressure to dial back how often they stop and frisk people. The ACLU threatened a lawsuit over racial disparities, and the department agreed to keep closer track on who's being stopped and why. Some officers say that kind of scrutiny makes them less likely to follow their instincts. The people on Chicago's South Side state they're not seeing that.

MEKAZIN ALEXANDER: Well, I - I don't know what instincts those would be.

KASTE: Mekazin Alexander is a resident of Englewood, where gun crime has been especially bad. The police are out in force here, and she says they stop people all the time, often for the wrong reasons.

ALEXANDER: More people who have dreadlocks are, you know, targeted and pulled over. So if your hair is a certain way and you're black, and you're a black male, you're pulled over, you're targeted.

KASTE: Outside a barbershop at 69th and Ashland, Duer Jones says police stop him a lot.

DUER JONES: You know, just at random. If there are three or more of us walking, we're going to get stopped and frisked for no reason.

KASTE: This intersection saw a lot of violence over the summer, which seems to have earned it extra police attention. It doesn't take more than a minute or two to see a marked squad car roll by. And residents say unmarked cars with plainclothes police are also around. People here don't seem to be very happy about these extra patrols. Jones says that's because nobody knows the cops.

JONES: We ain't got no beat officer. We've got a bunch of officers. There ain't no beat officer around here.

KASTE: And on this point, there's actually some common ground between the people of this neighborhood and the cops - or at least this cop, Sgt. Chris Taliaferro, who's currently serving as a city alderman.

CHRIS TALIAFERRO: If you were to ask the average citizen or resident of Chicago who their beat officer is, they wouldn't be able to tell you.

KASTE: When he started out in the '90s, Taliaferro says Chicago police spent a lot more time making personal connections in the neighborhoods. But now that era is over.

TALIAFERRO: Under community policing, there was a trust between the community and the police. And with the recession and laying off of a lot of community policing advocates and laying off a lot of the civilian employees or the liaisons, we're losing that.

KASTE: These days, cash-strapped cities like Chicago rely a lot more on crime stats to deploy police where they seem needed. It's an efficient system, but it also means a lot of saturation patrols by cops who don't really know the neighborhood and who made to decide whether to stop someone based on instinct or to play it safe and drive on by. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.

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