FBI Director James B. Comey delivered an unusually candid speech Thursday about the difficult relationship between the police and African-Americans, saying that officers who work in neighborhoods where blacks commit crimes at higher rates develop a cynicism that shades their attitudes about race.
Citing the song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” from the Broadway show “Avenue Q,” he said police officers of all races view black and white men differently. But, Comey said in an address at Georgetown University, men and women in law enforcement more closely scrutinize African-Americans using a mental shortcut that “becomes almost irresistible and maybe even rational by some lights” because black men are arrested at much higher rates than white men.
In speaking about racial issues at such length, Comey used his office in a way that none of his predecessors have. His remarks also went beyond what President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. have said since an unarmed black teenager was killed by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in August.
Comey said his speech, which was well-received by law enforcement officials, was motivated by his belief that the country had not “had a healthy dialogue” since the protests began in Ferguson and that he did not “want to see those important issues drift away.”
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Previous FBI directors had limited their public comments about race to civil rights investigations, like murders committed by the Ku Klux Klan and the bureau’s wiretapping of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But Comey tried to dissect the issue layer by layer.
He started by acknowledging that law enforcement had a troubled legacy when it came to race.
“All of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty,” he said. “At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups.”
Comey said there was significant research showing that all people have unconscious racial biases. Most cannot help their instinctive reactions, he said, but law enforcement officers need “to design systems and processes to overcome that very human part of us all.”
“Although the research may be unsettling, what we do next is what matters most,” Comey said.
He said nearly all police officers who have joined the force do so because they want to help others. Speaking in personal terms, Comey described how Irish immigrants like his ancestors were initially viewed by most Americans “as drunks, ruffians and criminals.”
“Law enforcement’s biased view of the Irish lives on in the nickname we still use for the vehicle that transports groups of prisoners; it is, after all, the ‘Paddy wagon,’” he said.
But he said what the Irish went through was nothing compared with what blacks have faced.
“That experience should be part of every American’s consciousness, and law enforcement’s role in that experience — including in recent times — must be remembered,” he said. “It is our cultural inheritance.”
Unlike Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York and Holder — who were roundly faulted by police groups for their critical remarks about law enforcement — Comey, a former prosecutor whose grandfather was a police chief in Yonkers, was praised for his remarks.
Ron Hosko, the president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund and a former senior FBI official, said that while Holder’s statements about policing and race after the Ferguson shooting placed the blame directly on the police, Comey’s remarks were far more nuanced and thoughtful.
“He looked at all the sociological pieces,” Hosko said. “The director’s comments were far more balanced because it wasn’t just heavy-handed on the cops.”
Although officers have received most of the blame in episodes like the Ferguson shooting and the death of an unarmed black man in Staten Island who was placed in a chokehold by an officer, Comey said the police are “not the root cause of problems in our hardest-hit neighborhoods.” In many of those areas, blacks grow up “in environments lacking role models, adequate education and decent employment.”
Comey laid out several measures he said could ease the tension, including more interaction between the police and those they are charged to protect.
“It’s hard to hate up close,” he said.
He said law enforcement agencies across the country must be compelled to report shootings that involve police officers so that there is a way to quantify the problem.
“It’s ridiculous that I can’t tell you how many people were shot by the police last week, last month, last year,” Comey said.
He added, “Without complete and accurate data, we are left with ideological thunderbolts.”
Ronald E. Teachman, the police chief in South Bend, Indiana, said Comey, whose main responsibility is to protect the country from terrorists and cyberattacks, did not need to take on the issue.
But now that he has done so in such a public manner, Teachman said it would be far easier for him to continue the discussion with Indiana community leaders and his officers.
“It helps me move the conversation forward when the FBI director speaks so boldly,” he said.
Comey concluded by quoting King, who said, “‘We must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.’
“We all have work to do — hard work to do, challenging work — and it will take time,” he said. “We all need to talk, and we all need to listen, not just about easy things, but about hard things, too. Relationships are hard. Relationships require work. So let’s begin. It is time to start seeing one another for who and what we really are.”