Simmering tensions between law enforcement and minority communities reached alarming new levels in recent months, in the wake of tragic deaths of unarmed civilians. And as the national discussion about these crises has unfolded, Americans have heard from a variety of leaders, including President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder.
But it was a thoughtful, engaging speech yesterday from FBI Director James Comey that stood out as especially important, in part because of its substance, but also because of the reaction to it. Trymaine Lee reported yesterday:
In a rare move by a top Justice Department official, FBI Director James Comey on Thursday addressed the tenuous relationship between law enforcement and many African Americans, acknowledging “hard truths” about the current state of race relations and policing.Comey, during a speech at Georgetown University, drew largely on the lessons of Ferguson, Missouri, saying that police must come to terms with a longstanding culture of racial bias.
If you missed it, a full transcript of the FBI director’s speech is online, and no matter what one’s perspective about the larger debate, this is well worth your time. Comey’s remarks were candid and personal, and we don’t usually hear speeches like these from officials in positions of authority.
In one especially memorable moment, he even quoted the song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” from the Broadway show: “Avenue Q”: “Look around and you will find, no one’s really color blind.. Maybe it’s a fact we all should face. Everyone makes judgments based on race.”
There was also a substantive element to Comey’s remarks, with the FBI director calling for better data collection to improve biases in the system. “Not long after riots broke out in Ferguson, I asked my staff to tell me how many people shot by police were African American. They couldn’t, and it wasn’t their fault,” he said. “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.”
But nearly as interesting as the speech was the reaction to it – or more accurately, the lack of a reaction.
The point of Comey’s speech was to address what he called “hard truths,” and he did exactly that. In fact, the FBI director was quite candid in talking about how racial biases sometimes take root in law enforcement, despite individuals’ best intentions.
“[S]omething happens to people in law enforcement. Many of us develop different flavors of cynicism that we work hard to resist because they can be lazy mental shortcuts. For example, criminal suspects routinely lie about their guilt, and the people we charge are overwhelmingly guilty. That makes it easy for folks in law enforcement to assume that everybody is lying and that no suspect, regardless of their race, could be innocent. Easy, but wrong.‘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. 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. The officer turns toward one side of the street and not the other. We need to come to grips with the fact that this behavior complicates the relationship between police and the communities they serve.”
It’s a compelling point. Comey wasn’t casually throwing around accusations, so much as he was describing his take on the process through which biases materialize, and the consequences for communities once they exist.
And while this is obviously a multi-faceted debate that can and should continue, I’m curious about one specific thing: where was the backlash yesterday?
Comey’s sentiments seemed quite similar to remarks I’ve heard from Obama and Holder, but their speeches drew spirited condemnations from the right. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he talked to his son about racial biases in law enforcement and it led to ugly tensions between the mayor’s office and the NYPD.
As best as I can tell, though, Comey’s remarks didn’t face any denunciations at all. Maybe it’s because of Comey’s background – he’s career law-enforcement, from a law-enforcement family – or maybe it has something to do with partisanship – Comey was Obama’s choice to lead the FBI, but he’s a lifelong Republican.
Whatever the reason, yesterday’s speech was a welcome contribution to the conversation about race and law enforcement, and I’m glad the right didn’t respond with calls for the director’s resignation.