The mayor of Gary, Ind., acknowledged Thursday that police in some cities may be stepping back because of a rise in public scrutiny of their actions, a controversial phenomenon known as the Ferguson effect.
"We don't see it in our city but I know it is happening in some communities," Karen Freeman-Wilson said at a breakfast meeting on mass incarceration and guns convened by The Atlantic. "That really does point to a lack of leadership. At some point, chiefs have got to say, 'I know this might be your inclination ... but there are a lot of other solutions rather than just laying back.'"
Freeman-Wilson adds a new voice to the national debate over policing and a rise in violence and homicides in some major cities this year. Freeman-Wilson and other members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors have been meeting since July to try to understand the causes, which she said include loosely formed criminal groups and an increase in domestic violence between romantic partners and between parents and their children.
In the past month, FBI Director James Comey and acting Drug Enforcement Administrator Chuck Rosenberg both said they had heard from state and local law enforcement that their officers sometimes stayed in their patrol cars rather than risk confrontation and video recordings of their actions that might go "viral" on YouTube and other sites.
Their comments earned the wrath of senior officials at the Justice Department and the White House. Interestingly, Freeman-Wilson is a longtime friend, Harvard classmate and sorority sister of Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
"The evidence we've seen so far doesn't support the contention that law enforcement officials are somehow shirking their responsibility, and in fact you've seen law enforcement leaders across the country indicating that's not what's taking place," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said last month.
Freeman-Wilson's comments came hours before the U.S. Conference of Mayors called on Congress to embrace "quick passage" of legislation that would overhaul the criminal justice system. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved one bill by a 15-5 vote in recent weeks; a House panel has yet to act.
"The bipartisan bill that is moving in the Senate would address decades of serious inequities in federal sentencing for certain drug offenders, target violent criminals, and grant judges greater discretion at sentencing for lower-level drug crimes. It also includes provisions intended to curb recidivism by helping prisoners successfully re-enter society," said Baltimore Mayor and Conference President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.