By Fiona Ortiz
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Murder rates are soaring this year in many U.S. cities partly because police are holding back from aggressive tactics, fearful of being taped on smartphones and accused of brutality, FBI Director James Comey said on Friday.
"Something deeply disturbing is happening in places across America. Far more people are being killed in many American cities, many of them people of color, and it's not the cops doing the killing," Comey told a group of students at the University of Chicago Law School.
He said the spike in murders across the country, in cities from Sacramento, California to Chicago to Washington, D.C., comes after homicides fell to historic lows in 2014.
"Part of the explanation is a chill wind that has blown through law enforcement over the last year and that wind is surely changing behavior," Comey said. "In today's YouTube world, are officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime?"
Officers have told him they feel besieged and are taunted by people holding smartphones, Comey said.
He said there are other possible reasons for the jump in crime, but the one that seems to fit best is a change in police behavior.
Comey said part of the change is positive after a national uproar over police killings of unarmed black men. The nation must talk about how and why police use lethal force, he said.
But he also said killers must be confronted by a strong police presence involving officers who go out at night and deal with men with guns standing on street corners.
"All of us, civilian and law enforcement, white, black, and Latino, have an interest in that kind of policing," Comey said. "We need to be careful it doesn't drift away from us in the age of viral videos, or there will be profound consequences."
It makes sense to debate the causes of dropping crime rates over recent decades, but people cannot lose sight of the role of law enforcement in saving lives, he said.
Falling crime has led to debate over lengthy sentences for some non-violent criminals and the huge numbers of African-American men in prison.
Comey said that sentencing reform should be debated but questioned rhetoric about "mass incarceration."
"Yes we put a lot of people in jail, but at the same time lives were transformed and lives were saved," he said.
(Reporting by Fiona Ortiz; Editing by Eric Walsh)