The White House Smacks Down Its DEA Chief on the 'Ferguson Effect'

Chuck Rosenberg is the second administration appointee to break ranks with the president over whether police are “chilled” by scrutiny.

Chuck Rosenberg (Charles Dharapak / AP)

If you think Barack Obama has trouble getting Congress to do what he wants, just look at the trouble he has with his own administration.

About two weeks ago, FBI Director James Comey argued for the “Ferguson effect,” the idea that increased scrutiny of the police has had a chilling effect on law enforcement, in turn leading to a spike in violent crime in some cities. Last week, the acting chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration said he thought Comey was “spot on.”

“I think there’s something to it,” said Chuck Rosenberg. “Rightly or wrongly, you become the next viral video ... Now you can do everything right and still end up on the evening news.”

As I wrote when Comey made his remarks, there are two serious flaws in this analysis. The first is that there’s no real evidence for the Ferguson effect, as Comey himself acknowledged. It’s disappointing to hear any leaders falling for the fallacy that the plural of anecdote is data, but especially in this case, since Comey has been an important voice calling for better data tracking of police. The second problem is that if law-enforcement leaders are correct about the Ferguson effect, the implication is that the U.S. police regime as it’s constructed today can’t provide security under scrutiny—which is to say, it can’t provide security without widespread violation of the rights of citizens and especially black men.

The White House and Justice Department didn’t take kindly to Comey’s remarks and pushed back on them quickly. Yet Rosenberg said much the same thing, adding his own fallacy to the mix: “When you get criticized from the right and the left, you probably hit it just about perfectly.” The DEA chief also played coy when asked about the administration’s feeling. “The White House is a building, so I’m not sure what the White House thinks,” he said.

On Friday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest made it very clear what the White House thinks:

Mr. Rosenberg, as you pointed out, is the second administration official to make that kind of claim without any evidence.  And the fact is the evidence does not support the claim that somehow our law enforcement officers all across the country are shirking their duties and failing to fulfill their responsibility to serve and protect the communities to which they’re assigned. So I guess you’d have to ask him exactly what point he’s trying to make. You might also ask him if there’s any evidence to substantiate the claim that he’s made.

That would be an aggressive brushback from the press secretary targeting anyone, much less an appointee in Obama’s own executive branch. As Earnest said, there’s a notable split within the administration—with Obama and Attorney General Loretta Lynch speaking supportively about police-reform efforts, while officials at the FBI and DEA contradict them.

Not that splits between the White House and the Justice Department, or between Main Justice and its constituent agencies, are new. Take the famous incident during the George W. Bush administration in which Alberto Gonzales, the White House counsel, went to stricken Attorney General John Ashcroft’s hospital bed, seeking his sign-off on a surveillance program. Gonzales was blocked by two men: then-FBI Director Robert Mueller, and Ashcroft’s deputy—James Comey. Further back, generations of presidents fought with (and often lost to) FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the acting chief of the DEA shuns scrutiny. The anti-drug agency is a caricature of a poorly functioning law-enforcement organization. Rosenberg has led the agency since Administrator Michele Leonhart was forced to step down earlier this year over her mishandling of a sex scandal in the agency. For years, the DEA has been accused of abuses, revealed to be circumventing laws, and been chastised by inspectors general. Meanwhile, a majority of Americans as well as a sitting drug czar have described the War on Drugs as a failure. The question is not why Leonhart was forced out, but why it took so long. It’s no wonder that DEA wouldn’t welcome closer public scrutiny.

More broadly, the remarks from Comey and Rosenberg show the challenge that the White House has in trying to encourage police reform from above. After all the people in law enforcement tend to be, well, people in law enforcement. Even when, like Comey, they recognize failings in the ranks, there are tribal ties that lead them to give fellow police the benefit of the doubt. There’s only so much the president can do to push back on them. As one reporter asked Earnest, “At some point, does the president haul them in and say, shut up?” The spokesman’s answer basically admitted Obama’s lack of leverage, while implying that Comey had been called on the carpet. (“I think your newspaper reported that the president had the opportunity to meet with the FBI director last week where they talked about these issues. And as I relayed to you, I’m not going to get into the details of their conversation.”)

That leaves Obama to try to marginalize the views of people like Comey and Rosenberg on police reform, using tools like inviting more sympathetic police chiefs to the White House for a discussion of criminal-justice reform. But just a week after that panel, Obama was in Chicago, speaking to a conference of chiefs, and his comments there—lamenting that police were often “scapegoats” for societal failures—suggest the ways his speech is circumscribed. Police-reform proponents can’t rely on top-down pressure from the president to change the status quo.

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