FBI Director Speaks About Relationship Between Police and Blacks

James B. Comey, the director of the F.B.I., made a speech at Georgetown University in which he called for an honest discussion about race and the attitudes of law enforcement. (PHOTO CREDIT: Cliff Owen/Associated Press)
James B. Comey, the director of the F.B.I., made a speech at Georgetown University in which he called for an honest discussion about race and the attitudes of law enforcement. (PHOTO CREDIT: Cliff Owen/Associated Press)

The F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, on Thursday delivered an unusually frank speech about the relationship between the police and black people, saying that officers who work in neighborhoods where blacks commit crimes at higher rates develop a cynicism that shades their attitudes about race.

He said that officers — whether they are white or any other race — who are confronted with white men on one side of the street and black men on the other do not view them the same way. The officers develop a mental shortcut that “becomes almost irresistible and maybe even rational by some lights” because of the number of black suspects they have arrested.

“We need to come to grips with the fact that this behavior complicates the relationship between police and the communities they serve,” Mr. Comey said in the speech, at Georgetown University.

While officers should be closely scrutinized, he said, they are “not the root cause of problems in our hardest-hit neighborhoods,” where blacks 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,” Mr. Comey said.

Mr. Comey’s speech was unprecedented for an F.B.I. director. Previous directors have limited their public comments about race to civil rights investigations, like those of murders committed by the Ku Klux Klan and how the bureau wiretapped the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The surveillance of Dr. King is considered one of the F.B.I.’s greatest overreaches of power. Mr. Comey, who has led the F.B.I. for about 18 months, has said that as part of his job, he wants to foster a national debate about law enforcement issues that state and local authorities across the country are facing.

He said that he decided to give the speech because he felt that in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., the country had not “had a healthy dialogue,” and that he did not “want to see those important issues drift away.”

One remedy, Mr. Comey said, would be for the police to have more interactions with those they are charged to protect. “It’s hard to hate up close,” he said.

Mr. Comey said there was significant research that says all people have unconscious racial biases. Although people cannot help their instinctive reactions, law enforcement needs “to design systems and processes to overcome that very human part of us all,” he said.

“Although the research may be unsettling, what we do next is what matters most,” Mr. Comey said.

He said that law enforcement agencies across the country needed to be compelled to report shootings that involve police officers so there can be a baseline to measure the issue.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Michael S. Schmidt

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