FBI director James Comey lent credence to a controversial theory Friday when he said during a speech in Chicago that violent crime has spiked in many big U.S. cities this year because police officers are worried that performing their policing duties puts them at risk of being accused of a crime themselves.
“I don’t know whether that explains it entirely, but I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is a chill wind that has blown through American law enforcement over the last year,” Comey said at a forum held at the University of Chicago Law School, according to news reports.
Violent crime — including homicides — have increased dramatically in many large cities, Comey said, pointing to Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Washington and Baltimore by name.
The cause of the spike is the center of intense debate. Some have dubbed the phenomenon the “Ferguson effect” — a reference to the fatal police-involved shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. on Aug. 9, 2014. The shooting sparked mass protests and violence in the St. Louis suburb.
The Black Lives Matter movement organized around the case and has drawn attention to other police-involved incidents. Recording police encounters with cell phone videos and posting them to social media has become a common practice as well.
“I’ve been told about by a senior police leader who urged his force to remember that their political leadership has no tolerance for a viral video,” Comey said, according to The New York Times.
Of the crime spike in major cities, Comey asked: “Why is it happening…all over and all of a sudden?”
He cited cheaper heroin, guns falling into criminals’ hands and street gangs’ turf battles as plausible theories but circled back to the explanation he hears from police officers. They tell him of the “taunting” they receive from youth when answering police calls, he said.
“They told me, ‘We feel like we’re under siege and we don’t feel much like getting out of our cars,'” Comey said, according to the Associated Press.