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Editorial: FBI chief has troubling views on police

In this photo made from video taken by a Spring Valley High School student, Deputy Ben Fields tries to forcibly remove a student who refused to leave her high school math class, in Columbia, S.C. Fields flipped the student backward in her desk and tossed her across the floor.
In this photo made from video taken by a Spring Valley High School student, Deputy Ben Fields tries to forcibly remove a student who refused to leave her high school math class, in Columbia, S.C. Fields flipped the student backward in her desk and tossed her across the floor. The Associated Press

A violent incident caught on cellphone video Monday in a Columbia, S.C., high school – in which a large sheriff’s deputy threw a female student around like a rag doll – instantly triggered a national uproar and led to the deputy’s firing Wednesday.

At the news conference announcing the firing, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said Deputy Ben Fields should never have escalated the incident in which he dealt with the allegedly disruptive student. Lott twice thanked the Spring Valley High School student who documented the deputy’s atrocious behavior.

“As in any incident, videos are very useful to us, and we are glad the student filmed Fields,” Lott said. “We welcome people to video us. … Our citizens should police the police.”

Unfortunately, elsewhere this week, another law enforcement official had a different, more troubling take. FBI Director James Comey gave a speech Monday in Chicago to the International Association of Chiefs of Police in which he warned that cellphone scrutiny left police officers feeling “under siege,” and that “incident by incident, video by video,” public hostility toward officers was building. Comey said what he called the “YouTube effect” was making officers less aggressive and leading to a surge in crime in large cities: “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.”

This is a deeply disturbing claim – the idea that cracking down on police misconduct creates crime. In fact, decades of police misconduct has created huge divides between officers and some of the minority neighborhoods they patrol, especially African American ones, enabling predatory criminals. This is one reason law-enforcement training so emphasizes professionalism, courtesy and following the rules.

Yes, there is no question that police in Baltimore – furious over what they see as an outrageous, politically inspired decision to charge six officers with murder in the April death of a man while in police custody – have pulled back, leading to a huge surge in homicides. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel believes that his officers are more cautious as well. But as the White House press secretary pointed out – in a rare direct rebuke of a top administration official – Comey’s claim that officers feeling “under siege” is having a national effect on crime rates is not broadly backed up by actual numbers.

Also taking exception to the idea that accepting abusive police behavior is somehow important to keeping the public safe was James O. Pasco Jr., executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union. Pasco said Comey “generalizes about a segment of the population that he knows nothing about. He has never been a police officer. … They swear him in as the director of the FBI and all of a sudden he’s an expert on what police officers are thinking.”

We hope Pasco is right. If a substantial number of police officers believe that technology that makes it easier to hold officers accountable for misconduct is a bad thing, that’s awful news.

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