FBI Director James Comey gave an unprecedented speech yesterday [full text] on law enforcement and race relations, giving a thoughtful — though at times frustrating — take on the relationship between police and communities of color.
David Graham of The Atlantic wrote: “[Comey] seemed genuinely concerned about the tensions between the two groups.” And I agree: much of the speech thoughtfully decried the far-too-frequent circumstances that bring young Blacks and Latinos in contact with police, the lack of consistent annual data collection around how many African Americans are shot by police, and the ugly history of law enforcement serving as an enforcer of the racist status quo in the United States. (I wish I wasn’t surprised when an FBI Director says thoughtful things.)
The best parts of Comey’s speech made me consider that I need more of an open heart and mind when it comes to members of law enforcement, especially as someone who is not frequently targeted by them. As an anti-war organizer from 2003-2009, I often heard the phrase “love the warrior, hate the war.” For me, this means directing criticisms at institutions rather than individuals when relevant.
But it’s the solutions he posed that missed the mark in some places. According to Graham, “[Comey] placed a heavy burden on communities of color to solve the problem, while deflecting police responsibility […] [B]lack men can do everything right and still end up on the wrong side of an encounter with the police.”
There were a few other things that irked me about the speech. For one, Comey insisted that “…racial bias isn’t epidemic in…law enforcement any more than it is epidemic in academia or the arts.” This comment felt like speculation. Has anyone seen research about this?
And I didn’t like Comey’s assertion that “officers had rescued [Bedford Stuyvesant] from the grip of violent crime.” For one, “rescue” is a very loaded term, but there are also many more factors at play in that changing neighborhood (where I used to teach).
Still, as Graham wrote: “Comey’s speech is a milestone in the conversation springing out of Ferguson and Staten Island and Cleveland […] The question is whether he will confine his search for such solutions to communities of color, or shift his focus to address the systemic problems with law enforcement itself.” I, for one, am hopeful that smart pressure by activists and writers and thoughtful reactions from elected and appointed officials can lead to reform of our criminal justice system.