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FBI Director Connects Heightened Police Scrutiny To Violent Crime Spike

ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: FBI director James Comey today described a dangerous divide between police and communities of color.


JAMES COMEY: I spoke to officers in one big city at a precinct (unintelligible) who described being surrounded by young people with mobile phones, video cameras rolling as they step out of the car taunting them, asking them what they want and why they're there. They described a feeling of being under siege and were honest and said, we don't feel much like getting out of our cars.

SIEGEL: Speaking to a gathering of police chiefs from around the country, Comey suggested that the tension along with recent protests is linked to an increase in crime. NPR's Martin Kaste is in Chicago for the speech today, and he joins us now. And Martin, the FBI director seems to be wading into some controversial waters here. Tell us more about what he said today.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: He certainly is. Well, he's doubling down on this notion that he's already floated before in smaller venues that there's - really is what's called a YouTube effect. This is something police chiefs and police talk about quite a bit since Ferguson - this feeling of being under scrutiny that if you make a wrong move or a move that looks wrong, it'll end up as a viral video, and you're going to lose your career - that that fear is driving police to look past potential problems, to not get out of their cars as much and not have the kind of contact they need in communities that good police work depends on.

And here's the contentious thing that he raised. He believes that there's no other explanation that he can see for the current spike in violent crime in big cities around this country. The overall crime rate doesn't necessarily seem to be going up, but big cities are seeing spikes in violent crime - places like Chicago, where I am right now. And he thinks it's the only real explanation here for this simultaneous rise in crime.

SIEGEL: Is the director of the FBI blaming the spike in crime on protests, on the Black Lives Matter movement, for example?

KASTE: Well, it's a very problematic and sensitive issue he's raising here. And he's - was very careful in his speech to try to portray this as a tale of two communities - the police community and communities of color being sort of driven apart. He says every time there's a viral video about a policeman not doing his job correctly, that drives the Black Lives Matter hashtag, as he put it, away from the police. And every time police feel they're being prejudged by a community, that drives them away from communities of color. And he sees this as a crisis situation where these two lines are arching apart, as he put it.

SIEGEL: What does FBI director Comey suggest that police chiefs do about it?

KASTE: Well, one thing he'd like to see is better data. He said right after Ferguson, he asked his staff for a breakdown on just how many black people were shot by police, and they couldn't give it to him. He says he'd like to see the local jurisdictions deliver better statistics not just on crime but also on police behavior, police encounters with the public so that you can have some real data to backup perceptions of police bias.

He also called for more community policing. That's this ideal that the police should get out of their cars and get to know people better. And you know, when you know a community better, it's - there's more of a sense that police actions are based on real information as opposed to bias. But all those things are expensive. And you put that on top of this new push for body cameras. A lot of the police chiefs say, yeah, that's a great idea, but we can barely afford to do what we're doing right now.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Martin Kaste in Chicago today. Martin, thank you.

KASTE: You're welcome. 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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