Invoking the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Detectives Weijan Liu and Rafael Ramos, FBI Director James Comey gave a speech at Georgetown University today in which he recognized that law enforcement in America struggles to cope with a history of enforcing "a status quo that was often brutally unfair" to people of color.
"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," Comey said. "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."
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.
Comey, who is perhaps best known for keeping J. Edgar Hoover's request to wiretap Martin Luther King, Jr. on his desk as a reminder of the corruptive influence law enforcement can have, also quoted a song from Avenue Q ("Everyone's A Little Bit Racist"), and stressed his "transparent…affection for cops" before adding, "I’m not looking to let law enforcement off the hook."
"Those of us in law enforcement must re-double our efforts to resist bias and prejudice. 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."
Comey also admitted that his agency neglected to collect enough data necessary to study the issue of race and policing: “It’s ridiculous that I can’t tell you how many people were shot by the police last week, last month, last year."
The only other member of the Obama administration who has been willing to speak so frankly about race was Comey's boss, outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder.
Of course, the fact that the headline above is in fact news, is indicative of the problem. A speech is just a speech.