FBI director James Comey spoke to a group of Georgetown University law students on Thursday afternoon, and made some remarks that are sure to ruffle feathers in the law enforcement community.
In the speech, Comey talks frankly about the tensions between law enforcement and minorities. He references the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, NYPD Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, saying “we are at a crossroads.”
Comey says that in many areas of the country, there is a “disconnect” between law enforcement and citizens, mainly in “communities of color.” He acknowledges that, for much of the country’s history, law enforcement was engaged in maintaining the status quo, which in many cases and in many areas, meant that police were responsible for enforcing unjust laws meant to keep the minority population in a subservient role.
But, Comey adds, he doesn’t believe that racial bias is any more prevalent among those who choose law enforcement as a profession than it is among people in any number of other professions. Rather, he believes that law enforcement largely attracts “people who want to do good for a living—people who risk their lives because they want to help other people.”
“Something happens to people in law enforcement.”
Comey then turns to the thing that concerns him about police behavior. He observes that police often become cynical about people, thanks to the nature of their job. “Something happens to people in law enforcement,” he says.
[P]olice officers on patrol in our nation’s cities often work in environments where a hugely disproportionate percentage of street crime is committed by young men of color. Something happens to people of good will working in that environment. After years of police work, officers often can’t help but be influenced by the cynicism they feel.
Comey says that cynicism leads to “mental shortcuts.” He explains,
The two young black men on one side of the street look like so many others the officer has locked up. Two young white men on the other side of the street—even in the same clothes—do not. The officer does not make the same association about the two white guys, whether that officer is white or black. And that drives different behavior.
What causes so many young men in communities of color to wind up dealing with police? Conservatives are certain to be unhappy with Comey’s conclusion.
So many young men of color become part of that officer’s experience because so many minority families and communities are struggling, so many boys and young men grow up in environments lacking role models, adequate education, and decent employment—they lack all sorts of opportunities that most of us take for granted.
Wow. And failed vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan said it was because they were lazy.
What are the solutions?
One thing that James Comey thinks will help all sides in the discussion, is better data on police shootings. He says that after rioting began in Ferguson, he asked his staff to tell him how many people shot by police were African-American. They couldn’t give him that data, because reporting of officer involved shootings is voluntary. Accurate data, he believes, is the first step towards opening everyone’s eyes on police shootings.
Comey’s remarks contain a number of things that will annoy one side or the other in the debate over policing. But it is hard to imagine that anyone would disagree with the quote he offers from Martin Luther King: “We must learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.”
The complete text of James Comey’s remarks can be found on the FBI website.
Here is a video excerpt from the speech, via the Washington Post: