FBI Director Comey’s Truths about Policing and Race

FBI Director Comey ‘s speech is notable for many reasons.  It is most notable for his directness in referencing and qualifying racism in a way few in public service have dared show in recent memory. For that, I thank and commend him. It is clear that this is a subject near and dear to his heart.

While this speech has the potential to re-frame a dialog that has devolved of late, it isn’t without problem assumptions.  It is also given by the head of an agency that has no power to initiate or effect needed change.  So, let us not be overly dazzled. We still have a very long way to go, and this speech doesn’t move us an inch down that road.

By all accounts, Comey’s speech has been very well received by law enforcement officials around the country, in spite of expressing some of the very same things Mayor de Blasio has expressed, and going a lot further than Commissioner Bratton ever has when referring to race. I suppose we should interpret that, cautiously, as progress.

That said, I take great exception to this passage in Comey’s speech. It belies the same fundamental flaw in the thinking of law enforcement professionals.

“But as a country, we must also speak the truth to ourselves. Law enforcement is not the root cause of problems in our hardest hit neighborhoods. Police officers—people of enormous courage and integrity, in the main—are in those neighborhoods, risking their lives, to protect folks from offenders who are the product of problems that will not be solved by body cameras.”

Hardest hit neighborhoods are not war zones and the people who live in them are not the enemy. Police officers are city and state employees who are hired and trained for their skills. “Enormous courage and integrity” are part and parcel of what’s expected of public servants, including police, emergency and military personnel. Certain jobs come with risks that don’t exist in other professions. The courage and integrity come in when the risks of the job are tackled courageously, with integrity, and the community and its members are served with respect. More than courage and integrity, compassion and understanding of the human condition are the requisite qualities to serve the public well.

The problem isn’t who lives in those neighborhoods. The problem is how they’ve had to live and what we, society, have done to make it possible for them improve their living conditions. While Comey is correct that body cameras are not the solution to these problems, he is incorrect in assigning the blame to those who are being policed. If police are not the root cause of the problems in certain  neighborhoods, neither are its people. The root cause is whatever has kept city halls, states, and the federal government from doing the right thing and ensuring that the people who live there have a chance to thrive economically.

Comey then goes on to describe what he sees as a side-effect to exposure of officers to the people they police.

“Likewise, 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. After years of police work, officers often can’t help but be influenced by the cynicism they feel.

A mental shortcut becomes almost irresistible and maybe even rational by some lights.”

Here is another example of flawed thinking that is common among law enforcement professionals. Logic dictates that if you work in a predominantly poor, predominantly Black neighborhood, you will predominantly be exposed to predominantly Black criminals. That should not, predominantly, change your view of all Blacks. The notion that this exposure engenders cynicism is a false one. It doesn’t explain the behavior of police officers with middle class Blacks wherever they encounter them. It doesn’t explain their behavior with fellow officers who happen to be Black. 25 Black officers recently admitted in an interview that they feel threatened by fellow white officers. They admitted that they are racially profiled when shopping or engaged in normal daily activities while off-duty, stopped and mistreated, some even after they identify themselves as officers. There is no mental shortcut here. The cynicism is a product of bias that existed in these officers from the beginning.

Comey on Black Lives Matter:

“With the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, the ongoing protests throughout the country, and the assassinations of NYPD Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, we are at a crossroads. As a society, we can choose to live our everyday lives, raising our families and going to work, hoping that someone, somewhere, will do something to ease the tension—to smooth over the conflict.  We can roll up our car windows, turn up the radio and drive around these problems, or we can choose to have an open and honest discussion about what our relationship is today—what it should be, what it could be, and what it needs to be—if we took more time to better understand one another.”

Again, Comey mixes issues together. There is no connection between the murder of officers Liu and Ramos to the underlying cause of the Black Lives Matter protests. Officers Liu and Ramos were murdered by a person who was diagnosed with a mental disorder years ago. The fact that the trigger for his murderous rampage was police brutality doesn’t connect it to the protests in any way, shape, or form. There is no public discussion that would have prevented the murders of the two police officers.

“Is it because cops, prosecutors, judges, and juries are racist? Because they are turning a blind eye to white robbers and drug dealers? The answer is a fourth hard truth: I don’t think so. If it were so, that would be easier to address. We would just need to change the way we hire, train, and measure law enforcement and that would substantially fix it. We would then go get those white criminals we have been ignoring. But the truth is significantly harder than that.”

There is no easy answer to this except that it is, at least in part, that cops, prosecutors, judges, and juries are racist. In part, it is the way our society has set up certain segments of our population for failure by ensuring that there are are few to no economic opportunities in certain communities and that the resources allocated to them are chronically insufficient to lift them out of the endemic conditions they are in. But there is no doubt, whether we are talking about white collar crimes like bank fraud or small-time sales of marijuana, fewer whites who engage in them are arrested than their Black or brown counterparts.

Why are people protesting? Comey addresses only a part of that here:

“Not long after riots broke out in Ferguson late last summer, I asked my staff to tell me how many people shot by police were African-American in this country. I wanted to see trends. I wanted to see information. They couldn’t give it to me, and it wasn’t their fault. Demographic data regarding officer-involved shootings is not consistently reported to us through our Uniform Crime Reporting Program. Because reporting is voluntary, our data is incomplete and therefore, in the aggregate, unreliable.”

Well, he’s right. We don’t know how many times a police officer in any given jurisdiction has discharged a weapon. We don’t know how many times a civilian, in any city, has been shot. We don’t know how many civilians have died at the hands of a police officer, at the city, county, state, or national levels. While the vast majority of police shootings that are investigated return an exoneration, we don’t know how many more incidents should have been looked into, and how many, in all, really should have been referred to the courts for trial. In the vast majority of cases, the police are in charge of investigating themselves and their investigations typically result in exoneration. When police don’t do the investigating, local prosecutors and district attorneys are reluctant to bring cases to trial and, as a result, few prosecutions are initiated.

So, what that quote leaves out is the fact that all police departments have to report are crimes. As long as police shootings are cleared as justifiable shootings, they will not be considered as crimes and, therefore, will not be reported.

The FBI doesn’t have a mandate to keep data on police shootings. No agency does.  There is no mandate for police departments to collect and maintain the data in any fashion and then report to some federal agency at regular intervals. What happens to a shooting statistic when a police shooting is deemed justified? Potentially, that’s pretty much every incident. For as long as exonerations are arrived at in the way they are, the data reported by most police departments would still be worth very little.

But most of these points still don’t get to the heart of the matter: police shoot people first now. It has almost become the accepted norm and that is what, in essence, Black Lives Matter and other groups of protesters have been trying to convey. More than keeping statistics, more than making sure each case is known, we need to make sure there are no new cases. Since police brutality seems to have generalized to most police departments, we need to understand what has changed in the last ten to fifteen years that has made shooting the first resort. Is it a certain profile of police recruits? Is it something about training that has changed?  Why are police more violent and far less patient in their approach now?

On protests:

“Every American should feel free to express an informed opinion—to protest peacefully, to convey frustration and even anger in a constructive way. That’s what makes our democracy great. Those conversations—as bumpy and uncomfortable as they can be—help us understand different perspectives, and better serve our communities.”

Back in early December, after Chief Bratton spoke publicly, I wrote about the double meaning of his statements. I am sad to say that I wasn’t wrong. From all his talk about community policing, talking to – not past – each other, we now find ourselves with even more police deployed specifically to deal with protesters of police violence.

In the last month, it seems, Mayor de Blasio has embraced the police state with both arms with the creation of two new forces to police protests. With nothing else changed, doubling down on policing Black Lives Matter or other protests is hardly what will cure the underlying cause. Come spring, this increase in police presence will likely be yet another irritant in an already sore situation. There has been a lot of pressure from police unions and departments for mayors to ramp up militarization. The number of brutality cases has not abated. There has been little to no real dialogue – let alone action – about how we go about implementing real community policing reform, the way the city of Cincinnati has. It’s been a difficult road for them, but with effort, patience, and a whole lot of love and mutual respect, the reforms are generally viewed as successful. There is no reason why other cities shouldn’t follow suit. They should.  They need to. There is every reason to believe they too would succeed.

Director Comey Discusses Race and Law Enforcement


James B. Comey
Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Georgetown University
Washington, D.C.
February 12, 2015