In a blunt, brave and widely noted speech this month about race, cops and “hard truths,” FBI Director James B. Comey said he was worried.
Comey told an audience at Georgetown University that he feared the “incredibly important and incredibly difficult conversation about race and policing” America has been having in recent months — following incendiary fatal encounters in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City — “has become focused entirely on the nature and character of law enforcement officers, when it should also be about something much harder to discuss.”
“Debating the nature of policing is very important,” Comey went on, “but I worry that it has become an excuse, at times, to avoid doing something harder.”
Comey is right to worry about this, judging from much of the considerable media attention his speech received. Fulfilling his concerns, a lot of that coverage focused heavily — if not “entirely” — on Comey’s frank admissions about racial bias influencing the conduct of cops. It often glossed over the “something harder” Comey had dared to name — the reason he believes cops have a racial bias.
“FBI director acknowledges ‘hard truths’ about racial bias in policing,” read a typical headline in the Washington Post.
“FBI chief: Cops have race issue” read a front-page teaser in the Star Tribune.
The stories themselves, to varying degrees, noted Comey’s broader themes. But the “news” that likely reached most Americans about Comey’s address was simply that the FBI director had admitted that “some cynical officers view black men differently,” as the Star Tribune’s summary headline put it.
It’s worth dwelling on the way Comey’s speech was covered because it is such persuasive evidence that he is right — right to fret that a truly “open and honest discussion” of these issues is painfully difficult in America today. Even when a major public figure is reckless enough to discuss his view on the “something harder,” much of the press finds it hard even to repeat plainly what he said.
What did Comey say? He said that a lot of cops develop a racial bias as a result of their firsthand experience with the disproportionate criminality of young minority males.
“[P]olice officers on patrol in our nation’s cities,” Comey said, “often work in environments where a hugely disproportionate percentage of street crime is committed by young men of color. Something happens to people of goodwill working in that environment …
“A mental shortcut becomes almost irresistible and maybe even rational by some lights,” Comey continued. “The two young black men on one side of the street look like so many others the officer has locked up. Two 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.”
Hard truths? Perhaps. Heresy? For sure. In this one passage, Comey broke two rigid rules that render most discussions of this issue safely unreal.
Rule one is that no defender of law and order — and the police — is ever supposed to admit that cops, as a group, treat young black males differently than they treat anyone else. Rule two is that absolutely no one, period, is ever supposed to suggest that cops may have an understandable, even “rational,” reason for behaving that way.
Yet Comey’s illustration, in itself, is instructive. It apparently goes without saying that “young men” (as opposed to old women, say) are cops’ main focus of concern. This sort of “profiling” would only seem sensible, since young men (of all races) commit the great bulk of street crime.
Do we truly expect police, with their lives on the line, to be oblivious to other patterns they may detect out on the street?
Comey, at any rate, rejects the notion that cops have this “life-shaping experience” of locking up “so many young men of color” simply because the whole law enforcement system is “racist.”
Of course, Comey insisted quite properly that cops must strive all the same to “redouble our efforts to resist bias and prejudice … 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.”
But he also challenged civilians “to see what police see through the windshields of their squad cars … to see the risks and dangers … on a typical late-night shift …”
Comey acknowledged that the underlying “tragedy” of too many young men of color growing up “in environments lacking role models, adequate education and decent employment” and inheriting “a legacy of crime and prison” confronts America with a baffling and daunting challenge — “so enormous and so complicated that it is, unfortunately, easier to talk only about the cops.”
But “law enforcement is not the root cause of problems in our hardest hit neighborhoods,” Comey said — places where we expect “cops to protect folks from offenders who are the product of problems that will not be solved by body cameras.”
“We simply must speak to each other honestly about all these hard truths,” Comey said.
On that score, the FBI chief has certainly done his part. We should at least unflinchingly hear him out.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.