New Eyes at the FBI

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James Comey“We must learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools,” were the words FBI Director James Comey said at the end of his speech on Thursday, one that suggests he is not a fool and a speech that is a radical departure from all of his predecessors, most dramatically J. Edgar Hoover.

Although the quote above from Dr. King came toward the end of his speech at Georgetown University, the earmarks of his concern and criticism were apparent almost from the very start when he began addressing the nature of policing and referencing the significance of Patrick Francis Healy, the university’s first African American president.

“Given Georgetown’s remarkable history, and that of President Healy, this struck me as an appropriate place to talk about the difficult relationship between law enforcement and the communities we are sworn to serve and protect,” Comey said, with the same clarity he brought to the funeral service of Officer Wenjian Liu in Brooklyn.

He quickly warmed to his topic by citing the names of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, along with the slain officers.  “As a society, we can choose to live our everyday lives, raising our families and going to work, hoping that someone, somewhere, will do something to ease the tension—to smooth over the conflict,” he said. “We can roll up our car windows, turn up the radio and drive around these problems, or we can choose to have an open and honest discussion about what our relationship is today—what it should be, what it could be, and what it needs to be—if we took more time to better understand one another.”

Clearly, he opted for an open and honest discussion about this relationship between the law enforcement agencies and the minority communities, particularly the Black community in urban areas.

Seeking to place his remarks in historical context, Comey recounted his own Irish background and the tough times his people experienced as immigrants, even noting the bias that remains when prisoners are transported in a “paddy wagon.”  That history also included how the FBI, since its inception, has dealt with the African American community.  He said he required all new agents and analysts to study the FBI’s interaction with Dr. King and to visit his memorial 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,” he said, and it’s hard here not to think of the film Selma.  “It is a single page. 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.”

This was a stunning hard truth, and it was followed by another when he observed the extent of racism in America.  “In fact, we all, white and black, carry various biases around with us,” he said. “I am reminded of the song from the Broadway hit, Avenue Q: ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.’ Part of it goes like this: ‘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.’  You should be grateful I did not try to sing that.”  It brought the expected laughter from the audience. 

A third hard truth, he explained, occurs when a person becomes a police officer.  “Many of us develop different flavors of cynicism that we work hard to resist because they can be lazy mental shortcuts,” he said.  “For example, criminal suspects routinely lie about their guilt, and nearly everybody we charge is guilty. That makes it easy for some folks in law enforcement to assume that everybody is lying and that no suspect, regardless of their race, could be innocent. Easy, but wrong.”

Are all white cops, judges, prosecutors racists, he asked rhetorically?  “I don’t think so,” was his fourth hard truth. “If it were so, that would be easier to address. We would just need to change the way we hire, train, and measure law enforcement and that would substantially fix it. We would then go get those white criminals we have been ignoring. But the truth is significantly harder than that.”

One of the routes to solving this dilemma he said was to “simply must find ways to see each other more clearly. And part of that has to involve collecting and sharing better information about encounters between police and citizens, especially violent encounters.”

He emphasized a need for complete and accurate data or “we are left with ‘ideological thunderbolts.’  And that helps spark unrest and distrust and does not help us get better. Because we must get better, I intend for the FBI to be a leader in urging departments around this country to give us the facts we need for an informed discussion, the facts all of us need, to help us make sound policy and sound decisions with that information.”

Comey concluded his speech by summoning the words Abraham Lincoln made during his Gettysburg Address about a “new birth of freedom,” and Comey’s words and views certainly provide the nation with a breath of fresh air from the FBI.