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FBI director calls out 'hard truths' about race and policing

FBI Director James Comey delivered a rare, blunt conversation on race and policing on Thursday, calling on law enforcement to confront "hard truths."

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.

"America isn’t easy. America takes work."'

Comey said that much of the consternation drummed up between many minorities and the police is due to neither group knowing each other and some people not seeing cops for what most of them are -- officers who “overwhelmingly do the right things for the right reasons.” He urged police officers to literally and figuratively get out of their cars to build stronger relationships with the communities they patrol and called for greater empathy.

“It’s hard to hate up close,” Comey said.

Comey called for better training of officers and a deeper evaluation of officers’ “unconscious biases.” But he also pushed back against broad demilitarization of police departments, an issue highlighted by the optics in Ferguson of police with military-grade weapons, mine-resistant armored trucks and officers peering through scopes of sniper rifles.

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“It’s not about the stuff,” Comey said, calling the gear neutral and necessary when confronting people with high-powered weapons who want to kill innocent people. “The issue is how we use that stuff and how do we train people to use that stuff. Do we use that stuff to confront people who are protesting in a community? Do we use a sniper rifle to see closer in a crowd? That’s where it breaks down.”

Comey, just 18-months into his tenure as FBI director, spoke bluntly and candidly, calling for the nation’s law enforcement community to do a better job at training its officers, collecting data about police-involved killings and saying that police and the communities they serve need to learn to see each other more clearly.

“America isn’t easy. America takes work,” he said, adding that law enforcement has historically played a role in society’s mistreatment of blacks.

Part of remedying the mistrust that has developed between law enforcement and many of the communities they serve -- and adequately responding to concerns over police involved violence -- is collecting reliable demographic data on those encounters.

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The FBI. collects data on police-involved killings, but the reporting is voluntary and the agency has very little power to compel individual departments to submit data. The result is just a glimpse of how many Americans are killed each year by police. Of the more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies across the country, just hundreds regularly report to the FBI how many “justifiable homicides” are committed by police on the state and local level. According to FBI data, those agencies in recent years have reported an average of about 400 African American deaths per year.

“The first step to understanding what’s really going on in our communities and in our culture is gather more reliable data,” Comey said, adding that law enforcement officials had no idea “whether the Ferguson police shot one person a week, or one a year, or one a century.”

“Without complete and accurate data,” he added, “we are left with ideological thunderbolts, and that helps spark unrest and distrust and does not help us get better.”

Comey’s speech and Q&A session that followed was highly unusual for an FBI. director, a role whose occupants have rarely if ever waded so deeply into tough matters of race. Comey’s boss, Attorney General Eric Holder, has for the better part of two years taken on the role of the administration’s lead race conversationalist, acting as something of a proxy for President Obama on the issue.   

As Comey was speaking to an audience at Georgetown, Holder was at the White House delivering opening remarks at a national meeting of the president’s My Brother’s Keeper Challenge, Obama’s hallmark initiative aimed at bolstering the lives of young men and boys of color.

“One of the key components of this initiative is building and maintaining relationships of trust between law enforcement officers and the citizens that these brave men and women are sworn to serve and protect,” Holder said. “Especially in recent months, with the heart-rending tragedies our country has witnessed, we’ve seen long-simmering divides, and deep distrust, rise to the surface of our national consciousness. And these terrible incidents have opened a profoundly important national conversation.”

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It has been six months since the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by former Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson. The shooting set off wide-spread protests and clashes with heavily armed police in the community. Those protests spread from Ferguson across the nation following a grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer who shot Brown, and the unrest grew as a number of other unarmed black men were killed by cops in other cities.

Noting the murders of two minority NYPD officers— Rafael Ramos and Wen Jian Liu—by a suicidal man who referenced wanting to kill cops as revenge for Brown’s death and the chokehold killing of Eric Garner by a cop on Staten Island, Comey said the pair were “minority officers standing watch in a minority neighborhood.”

“As a country we must also speak the truth to ourselves, that law enforcement is not the root cause of the problems in our hardest hit communities,” he said, adding that many of the conditions beset poor communities “will not be solved by body cameras.”

“we all have 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 thing but hard things too.”