The Creationist Style of Crime Control

When the director of the FBI questions public scrutiny of policing, he sends a profoundly anti-democratic message.

Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

Yesterday, and last Friday, FBI Director James Comey asserted that scrutiny of police officers and the Black Lives Matter movement might be driving an increase in violent crime. Despite this theory being bandied about by law enforcement, there is no real evidence that it is true. It is neither clear that violent crime is increasing, nor that such an increase reflects a long-term trend. It is even less clear that police scrutiny is affecting crime at all. Comey admitted as much:

With his remarks, Mr. Comey lent the prestige of the F.B.I., the nation’s most prominent law enforcement agency, to a theory that is far from settled: that the increased attention on the police has made officers less aggressive and emboldened criminals. But he acknowledged that there is so far no data to back up his assertion and that it may be just one of many factors that are contributing to the rise in crime, like cheaper drugs and an increase in criminals who are being released from prison.

This is creationism, or crime-fighting on a hunch. But creationism is a respected tradition in America, extending from “draeptomania” to “they’re raping our women” to “negro cocaine fiends,” to “crack babies,” to “super-predators,” to “wilding,” to “the knock-out game” and now to “the Ferguson Effect.” There is something of a trend here—the creationist-style of crime control takes a special and discriminating interest in black communities. This is our heritage.

It worth considering what manner of America Comey’s creationism would have us build. On Monday a black student in Columbia, South Carolina, refused to move out of her seat. She was then assaulted by a police officer. The officer then told the other students in the class, “I’ll put you in jail next.” The officer has been the subject of two civil-rights suits. In James Comey’s America, the actions of this officer are not recorded, and not scrutinized. The creationist style of crime control renders the beating of Marlene Pinnock invisible. Policing on a hunch allows that Walter Scott was resisting arrest and that his killer feared for his life. Indeed it asserts, implicitly, that Scott’s murder wasn’t the problem, so much as the fact that citizens saw it.

Creationist crime-fighting may take special interest in black communities, but its effects have always been widespread. James Comey was not simply indicting scrutiny of the police in black neighborhoods. Police serve on behalf of the public. If that public is discouraged from healthy scrutiny, who is actually working for whom? A theory of government which tells citizens to invest agents of the state with the power to mete out lethal violence, but discourages them from holding those officers accountable is not democracy. It is fascism.

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