“At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups.”
It was the first time Comey made public remarks on the issue of policing and race relations in the country, a subject of national debate after unarmed black men who died at the hands of white police officers last year in in Ferguson, Mo. and Staten Island, New York City.
Comey gave a forthright assessment of the problems driving tensions between police and the communities they serve, one that top law enforcement officers rarely address—including that police, like everyone in our majority-white society, possess racial bias against blacks.
He said that many police officers, when patrolling neighborhoods where most street crime is committed by young men of color, develop “lazy mental shortcuts” assuming all black men are potential criminal suspects.
“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 sinister association about the two white guys, whether that officer is white or black,” Comey said at the event hosted by Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy in Washington, D.C.
He urged law enforcement across the country to work hard at reducing racial bias, and to treat communities of color with “respect and decency.”
“We must better understand the people we serve and protect—by trying to know, deep in our gut, what it feels like to be a law-abiding young black man walking on the street and encountering law enforcement. We must understand how that young man may see us,” he said.
Comey also described law enforcement’s “legacy” of bias, referencing the FBI’s surveillance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during his leadership of the civil rights movement. To let new FBI agents understand the agency’s past mistakes, Comey said he requires them to study the FBI’s interactions with King. He also keeps a copy on his desk of the document that approved FBI’s wiretap of King.
Problems and Solutions
In regards to police use-of-force, Comey said local police departments should do a better job of collecting demographics data on fatal police shootings, police arrests, and any time an officer uses force.
After riots and protests erupted in Ferguson in reaction to unarmed teenager Michael Brown’s death, Comey recalled asking staff how many people shot by Ferguson police were black, but he was unable to get an answer because local police were not mandated to report those numbers to the FBI.
“Without complete and accurate data, we are left with ‘ideological thunderbolts’ that spark unrest and distrust,” he said.
During the Q-and-A session with Georgetown students, the FBI director also offered his evaluation of problems that prevent police from getting to know the local residents better, including local police departments losing funding for initiatives that allow interactions between them—such as police athletic leagues and citizen academies.
“Police need to get out of their cars, literally and figuratively, to get to know people, and have people get to know them,” Comey said. He explained that when police see residents up close and vice versa, they will develop empathy and understanding—thereby fostering trust.
He also highlighted the importance of recruiting people of different backgrounds into the police force so officers reflect the diversity of their neighborhoods, lamenting his own agency’s overwhelmingly white and male make-up.