Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

To FBI Director James Comey: Thank you

In a speech in Washington today, FBI Director James Comey offered a heartfelt, candid assessment of the often strained and dangerous relationship between America's law-enforcement community and those it is supposed to protect and serve, particularly in minority communities.

James Comey … as American as they come?

The contrast between his statements and those of thuggish police union officials in New York City, Cleveland and St. Louis on the same issue could not be more stark. It was a brave, thoughtful effort all too rare in American public life, an effort to try to see painful conflicts through the eyes of those on the other side, and to try to bridge the chasm that divides them.

The entire speech is available here, but let me cite some of the core excerpts:

"First, all of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty. At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups ...

There is a reason I require all new agents and analysts to study the FBI’s interaction with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to visit his memorial in Washington as part of their training. And there is a reason I keep on my desk a copy of Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s approval of J. Edgar Hoover’s request to wiretap Dr. King. The entire application is five sentences long, it is without fact or substance, and is predicated on the naked assertion that there is “communist influence in the racial situation.” The reason I do those things is to ensure that we remember our mistakes and that we learn from them.

Of course, it is always easier to admit to mistakes that were made in the past, by other people in other times. It is more difficult and more rare to admit to ongoing mistakes, particularly in the midst of controversy and confrontation, when the human instinct is to raise the defensive shields. But Comey presses on, acknowledging the reality of racial bias, which can be a very different thing than racism.

"Much research points to the widespread existence of unconscious bias. Many people in our white-majority culture have unconscious racial biases and react differently to a white face than a black face. We all—white and black—carry various biases around with us. I am reminded of the song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” from the Broadway hit "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.'"

It's not everyday that you see the nation's top law-enforcement official cite "Avenue Q". But Comey also wants to make it clear that despite claims to the contrary by some, "racial bias isn’t epidemic in those who join law enforcement any more than it is epidemic in academia or the arts."  To the contrary, most people are drawn to law enforcement by the opportunity to help others, regardless of their race or background.

"But that leads me to a third hard truth: something 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."

In one sense, Comey isn't revealing anything that common sense and a basic knowledge of human nature didn't already tell us. The news is that he acknowledged it, and by acknowledging it, he makes it possible to talk about in terms of human failing rather than intentional evil. As he acknowledges, it must be resisted. Bias and prejudice must be resisted, and law enforcement has to do a better job at that.

"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. We must resist the lazy shortcuts of cynicism and approach him with respect and decency."

Fair enough. But Comey then dares to take the conversation a level deeper still, into root causes. If a disproportionate share of those arrested by police are young men of color, why is that? Isn't that too worth talking about?

"So many young men of color become part of that officer’s experience because so many minority families and communities are struggling, so many boys and young men grow up in environments lacking role models, adequate education, and decent employment—they lack all sorts of opportunities that most of us take for granted.

A tragedy of American life—one that most citizens are able to drive around because it doesn’t touch them—is that young people in “those neighborhoods” too often inherit from that dysfunction a legacy of crime and prison. And with that inheritance, they become part of a police officer’s life, and shape the way that officer—whether white or black—sees the world. Changing that legacy is a challenge so enormous and so complicated that it is, unfortunately, easier to talk only about the cops. And that’s not fair."

Cops, like public school teachers, attempt to deal with the consequences of a string of failures -- failure of community, failure of family, failure of the individual -- that began long before the moment at which law enforcement and suspect interact. And as Comey points out, cops have a tough job. If law enforcement must work harder to avoid cynicism and easy answers, if it must redouble its efforts to try to see through the eyes of the community in which it serves, it is not too much to ask that the community do the same.

" ... the “seeing” needs to flow in both directions. Citizens also need to really see the men and women of law enforcement. They need to see what police see through the windshields of their squad cars, or as they walk down the street. They need to see the risks and dangers law enforcement officers encounter on a typical late-night shift. They need to understand the difficult and frightening work they do to keep us safe. They need to give them the space and respect to do their work, well and properly.

If they take the time to do that, what they will see are officers who are human, who are overwhelmingly doing the right thing for the right reasons, and who are too often operating in communities—and facing challenges—most of us choose to drive around."

As a law enforcement professional, Comey also wants to measure. In discussions afterward with the press, he talked about the fact that the Centers for Disease Control can tell us how people were treated for the flu last week in emergency rooms across the country, but we have no real idea how many Americans, and how many African-Americans ,are shot and killed by law enforcement. “It’s ridiculous I can’t tell you how many people were shot by police — last week or last year,” he said.

"I recently listened to a thoughtful big city police chief express his frustration with that lack of reliable data. He said he didn’t know whether the Ferguson police shot one person a week, one a year, or one a century, and that in the absence of good data, 'all we get are ideological thunderbolts, when what we need are ideological agnostics who use information to try to solve problems.'"

And why don't we have that data? I suspect because we have not wanted to have that data. It is inconvenient to have that data. Once you know the number, pressure will grow to reduce it. People start looking over other people's shoulders, asking uncomfortable questions. But Comey committed himself to uncovering and reporting that data. "I intend for the FBI to be a leader in urging departments around the country to give us the facts we all need for informed discussion and to make sound policy," he said in his speech.

But most of all, "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, but they are worth it." Quoting Dr. King, he said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools."

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.