For today’s Critical Issues Report, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with FBI Director Christopher Wray about some of the issues facing police, including increases in homicides, shootings, and many forms of cybercrime.

Chuck Wexler: Have the past eight months been as crazy for you as they have been for local police chiefs and sheriffs?

Director Christopher Wray: It has been crazy. We have a lot of the same concerns that they do, and we have our own share of concerns as well.

I said to somebody recently that if a year ago somebody had said they had an idea for an episode of the show FBI that included a global pandemic and a wave of unrest and violence, you would’ve said they needed to come up with a more credible plotline. And yet here we are now at the end of October having lived it.

Wexler: And we’re hoping for a Hollywood ending. Many local agencies are seeing an increase in homicides and shootings. Are you seeing anything on the national level that may be driving this?

Director Wray: The first thing I would say is that it’s been hard to get definitive data or information that explains the dramatic increase over the last few months. But we have talked about a lot of things internally. Anecdotally and based on our conversations with our partners, we have observed some things.

As we all know, historically shootings and homicides have increased during the spring and summer. But there’s obviously more than that going on here.

There are a few things that have come to the fore for us. COVID has led to the reality that a lot of correctional facilities have had to release prisoners who they probably otherwise would not have released. That’s on top of jurisdictions around the country that have engaged in different attempts at bail reform and releases that have occurred in jails too. At least anecdotally there does seem to be people out on the street who otherwise would not be out, committing crimes that otherwise would not have occurred.

I think another factor is the effect COVID has had on police departments. They’re out doing their jobs, but they have a higher positivity rate because they are exposed to greater risks. Then you have people sidelined in departments that may already have been struggling and somewhat understaffed. And you have to manage your workforce in a way that’s mindful of social distancing, quarantines, and everything else. So that may have created at least a perception and, in some places, maybe a reality of a less visible law enforcement presence out on the streets, which may have created a perception of a window of opportunity for violent criminals.

Wexler: There are reports that gun sales have increased. Is that a concern for the FBI?

Director Wray: We have had a dramatic increase in NICS checks. I think the seven busiest NICS periods in history have all been this year. That would be consistent with an increase in gun sales.

Wexler: Are you seeing an increase in cybercrime?

Director Wray: Again, it’s a little bit challenging to get reliable data. But I think there have been a number of ways in which COVID has caused some troubling trends, at least anecdotally.

Take crimes against children, for example. Kids are much more online today, and in many cases much less supervised online. So there’s a real concern about victimization of kids online by predators. While I don’t have the full picture in terms of data, I know that in the first few months of the pandemic, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children saw a huge uptick in the number of tips they were receiving. You add onto that some of the “Zoom-bombing” with images of abuse, and you have kids who are victimized online that way. So that’s been a source of concern.

Businesses have had to shift more and more to virtual work and tele-working, and I think that has understandably created more incentives for ransomware. Organizations are being targeted and are viewed as more vulnerable.

And then there’s a whole new swath of COVID-related fraud, which is often internet-enabled. We had a huge wave of schemes involving hoarding and price-gouging of PPE and medical equipment at the beginning of the pandemic. Then throughout COVID we’ve had a consistent phenomenon of health-care fraud online, basically peddling false promises of vaccines or some other form of treatment, which comes along with the massive increase in telemedicine.

Now, with the Paycheck Protection Program and the Unemployment Insurance Fund, we’re seeing a lot of fraud schemes trying to tap into the stimulus funds. There’s a whole new world of online fraud that exists in this environment.

Wexler: Are there any other thoughts you’d like to share with American police chiefs?

Director Wray: We value our partnership with chiefs more than ever. We are grateful for the work of their workforces more than ever. And we stand with them.

This profession is hard enough under normal times, and this year has certainly not been normal times. I think the need for us to work together and stand with each other is as great as it has ever been. It takes an incredibly special person to be willing to get up every morning and put his or her life on the line for a complete stranger. A lot of people aren’t wired like that. The American people ought to be grateful for that.

We’ve committed significant resources on our end to assist our partners with some of the challenges that they’re facing. One of my real points of emphasis on the new FBI strategy is partnership, partnership, partnership.

Wexler: What is the best part of your job?

Director Wray: What really keeps me going is the people in law enforcement. There’s nothing like sitting down with a group of young agents to talk about a case they’re working on and see how excited they are about it. It reminds me of why I got into this business in the first place.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.