The Ferguson effect is the Bigfoot of American criminal justice: Fervently believed to be real by some, doubted by many others, reportedly glimpsed here and there, but never yet attested to by any hard evidence.

On Friday, FBI Director James Comey professed himself at least open to believing that the phenomenon—the idea that scrutiny of police since the death of Michael Brown in August 2014 has emboldened criminals and made police reluctant to effectively fight crime—is real. While there are plenty of experts who disagree, what makes Comey’s comments so rattling is that if there is an observable Ferguson effect, it may suggest that many law-enforcement agencies have come to rely on abusive or questionable practices, rather than developing other crime-control strategies that could be successful even under public scrutiny.

“The question that has been asked of me, is whether these kinds of things are changing police behavior all over the country,” Comey said during a speech at the University of Chicago Law School. “And the answer is, I don’t know. I don’t know whether this explains it entirely, but I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year. And that wind is surely changing behavior.”

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