FBI Director James Comey took on the issue of police and race relations Thursday challenging police to avoid “lazy mental short-cuts” that can lead to bias in the way they treat blacks and other minorities.
While he asked minority communities dealing with issues of high crime to also recognize the inherent dangers officers face in trying to keep them safe, Comey was also critical of the history law enforcement in the country, which he described as “not pretty,” but also the racial tensions have plagued American society as a whole.
“I worry that this incredibly important and difficult conversation about race and policing has become focused entirely on the nature and character of law enforcement officers when it should also be about something much harder to discuss,” Comey said. “Debating the nature of policing is very important but I worry that it has become an excuse at times to avoid doing something harder.”
Comey also name checked the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown as well as slain police officers NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, a reference to what has been a bloody and tumultuous year between minority communities and law enforcement.
The speech before students at Georgetown University was unusual for Comey and the FBI, which usually only narrowly discusses race issues when dealing with civil rights investigations.
This agency in particular for decades had a conflicted relationship with African Americans, spending years monitoring and investigating civil rights leaders including Rev. Martin Luther King on suspicion of ties to communism. At the same time, the FBI played an integral role in federal probes of racist domestic terrorist attacks by those opposed to the civil rights movement.
Upon taking office in 2013, Comey ordered that new FBI recruits visit the MLK Memorial in Washington as way to remind agents of the dangers of excessive power. With the same aim, the bureau has required agents to visit the U.S. Holocaust Museum.
Comey, in his speech, drew laughs by invoking lines from a song in the Broadway musical Avenue Q, titled “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” He said police officers aren’t inherently prone to bias, any more than the rest of society.
Officers “don’t sign up to be cops in New York or Chicago or L.A. because they want to help white people or black people. They sign up because they want to help all people. And they do some of the hardest, most dangerous policing to protect people of color.”
He blamed problems with bias on “lazy mental short-cuts” that cops sometimes take. “Police 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,” Comey said.
As a result, he said, officers often treat young black men, who may look like others they have locked up, differently from young white men walking down the same street.
“We need to come to grips with the fact that this behavior complicates the relationship between police and communities they serve,” Comey said.
Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama have addressed the issue in similar terms and received criticism for appearing not to sufficiently back police officers. Comey attempted an even-handed tone, raising the issue that minority communities also needed to get to know police officers working in their communities.
Comey suggested some fixes to the help the relationship.
For one, he said, police departments need to report all shootings by officers so the FBI can produce reliable nationwide statistics. He noted that while he can check Amazon.com to see exactly how many copies a book title has sold, “It’s ridiculous I can’t tell how many people were shot by police.”
He also called for better training for police departments, particularly small jurisdictions, to help officers have better judgment in dealing with the communities they serve.