The real Ferguson Effect: Police accountability at last

Bring the change.
Bring the change. 

The police missed their chance to police themselves. The politicians missed their chance to police the police. And for three weeks, the people have taken to the streets to hold the politicians and the police to the decades-overdue accounts that they failed to honestly keep for themselves.
This is the real Ferguson Effect.
Before he was the guy posting Zen kōans and pictures of himself gazing wistfully at the horizon on Twitter, before he was the guy who Donald Trump fired and before he was the guy who put Trump in a position to fire him with his Inspector Clouseau investigation of Hillary’s emails, Jim Comey was The Man.
The FBI director, appointed by Barack Obama, amplified talk about an alleged “War on Cops” or “Ferguson Effect,” with a “chill wind blowing through American law enforcement” as “policing has changed in today’s YouTube world,” leaving “officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime” and no one to protect the rest of us from “bad people standing on the street with guns.”

Comey concluded that 2015 speech, full of anecdotes but without any hard numbers to back them up, by declaring that “We have to resist stereotypes. We have to look for information beyond anecdotes. And we must understand that we need each other.”

And there things stood, with American policing and protest stuck in the same groove they’ve been in for 50 years or so, a forever war at home to go along with our overseas ones.

Or at least that’s how things felt to me, weary after Occupy Wall Street, after Sandy Hook, after Eric Garnerafter Ferguson, and then after the 2016 election and the collapse of confidence in nearly every American institution that Trump benefited from as a candidate and accelerated as president.

Institutions go bankrupt the same way as people, gradually and then all at once. The last three weeks have been all at once.

As a plague has killed more New Yorkers in a matter of weeks than have been murdered here so far this century, it was police violence that brought people back out into the streets (and with the effective blessing of the mayor and the governor, despite their own public health emergency rules, with still unknown consequences). Police responded to people protesting the police by busting heads, in what looked locally and nationally more like cops at war than a war on cops.

People are sticking it to The Man, and The Man has hit back with sticks, tear gas, rubber bullets and even helicopters to “dominate the battlespace,” all of that leading to more videos drawing more people out to the streets.

The real Ferguson Effect is the end of 50-a, the despicable law that Mayor de Blasio essentially created after Eric Garner’s killing to make a state secret of police disciplinary records. It’s a statewide database in New Jersey, to keep bad cops from just bouncing from department to department. It’s cities banning chokeholds, tear gas and rubber bullets. And it’s real pressure on police departments — whose budgets go mostly to payroll and pensions — to account for what they provide in exchange for those spoils.

This isn’t happening because the feds started collecting that information that Comey said they needed, or because of the Department of Justice’s halting attempts to reform a few local forces after particularly high-profile policing disasters.

Instead, Washington, always reluctant to look too closely at local police practices, backed off almost entirely after Trump’s election. Until now, ignorance has been bliss from law enforcement’s perspective.

This is happening because of the videos Comey was complaining about, on behalf of law enforcement, as elected “leaders” race to catch up with the national sentiment, as expressed in the streets and in opinion polls.

It turns out people still respond to what their eyes show them, even when their president or their mayor or their police commissioner insist otherwise.

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