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Voices on policing: FBI director's remarks bring calls for data, specific actions

Former FBI Director James Comey

On Feb. 12, FBI director James B. Comey spoke at Georgetown University and his words have engendered a lot of comment. While the full text of the speech is available on the FBI website; some key elements follow. Below these bullet points are comments from Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Carol Camp Yeakey of Washington University. They responded to a request St. Louis Public Radio sent out to eight people, including law enforcement, asking for approximately 250 words addressing one of Director Comey's points.

From the Comey speech

  • I worry that this incredibly important and incredibly difficult conversation about race and policing has become focused entirely on the nature and character of law enforcement officers, when it should also be about something much harder to discuss.
  • Much research points to the widespread existence of unconscious bias. Many people in our white-majority culture have unconscious racial biases and react differently to a white face than a black face.
  • … if we can’t help our latent biases, we can help our behavior in response to those instinctive reactions, which is why we work to design systems and processes that overcome that very human part of us all.
  • A tragedy of American life … is that young people in “those neighborhoods” too often inherit a legacy of crime and prison. And with that inheritance, they become part of a police officer’s life, and shape the way that officer—whether white or black—sees the world.
  • Those of us in law enforcement must redouble 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 resist the lazy shortcuts of cynicism and approach him with respect and decency.
  • We must work—in the words of New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton—to really see each other.
  • Not long after riots broke out in Ferguson late last summer, I asked my staff to tell me how many people shot by police were African-American in this country. I wanted to see trends. I wanted to see information. They couldn’t give it to me.
  • Citizens also need to really see the men and women of law enforcement.

From Richard Rosenfeld

FBI Director Comey’s important remarks on race and policing contain two statements that contradict one another. He says, “Serious debates are taking place about how law enforcement personnel relate to the communities they serve, about the appropriate use of force, and about real and perceived biases, both within and outside of law enforcement.”

Richard Rosenfeld
Credit University of Missouir-St. Louis
Richard Rosenfeld

But then he adds, “Not long after riots broke out in Ferguson late last summer, I asked my staff to tell me how many people shot by police were African-American in this country. I wanted to see trends. I wanted to see information. They couldn’t give it to me, and it wasn’t their fault. Demographic data regarding officer-involved shootings is not consistently reported to us through our Uniform Crime Reporting Program. Because reporting is voluntary, our data is incomplete and therefore, in the aggregate, unreliable.”

Both statements cannot be correct. We cannot have a “serious” debate about race and police use of force, if we know next to nothing about police use of force. In such a debate, literally, no one knows what he or she is talking about.

How many persons die from police gunfire each year? Even though the FBI collects this information from local police departments, the figures have been shown to undercount the total number by a large margin. But that is not the worst of it.

Several studies, including one conducted in St. Louis, have shown that police shootings in which no one dies far outnumber lethal incidents. The FBI does not even try to collect that information. Nor does any other federal agency. 

If we really want to have a meaningful discussion about police use of force and race, we have to move beyond our evidence-free assumptions about the nature and circumstances of violent encounters between police and citizens of all races. And to do that, we need information about these incidents.  It is up to Director Comey to ask local police departments to send the information to the FBI. And it is up to local residents to make sure their police department responds.

Richard Rosenfeld is Founders Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

From Carol Camp Yeakey

I commend the FBI director, James Comey, for attempting to address the disconnect between law enforcement and the communities they are employed to serve. Clearly the recent Ferguson unrest is just one of a long series of the most recent responses to the highly questionable behavior of not only police, but judges and prosecutors involved in the justice system, who display a callous disregard  of the lives of marginalized  young men and women of color.

Carol Camp Yeakey
Credit Provided by Washington University
Carol Camp Yeakey

Comey articulates what he calls hard truths we as a society must face. In his remarks, Director Comey displays his “affection for cops,” while at the same time displaying less affection for the victims of disproportionate deadly force, who are judged to be guilty, without the benefit of a trial.

The problem with Director Comey’s remarks is that he does not go far enough.

In 1964, President Johnson’s War on Poverty and his subsequent authorization of the Kerner Commission detailed the multi-faceted nature of the varied forms of social, political and economic inequalities as part of the root causes of the growing cleavages in American society. However, it becomes the personal and professional responsibility of an enlightened citizenry to root out racial animus and bias, wherever it may be found.

Researchers have detailed, for centuries, through massive data sets, the collateral damage of racial animus, racial profiling, and the intransigence of class distinctions to one’s life opportunities. Director Comey speaks to our cultural inheritance of racial bias as though it were a fixture of the past as opposed to being a part of present day reality.

He suggests that we need to ‘see each other’ as people. This point is where  Director Comey’s remarks fail us. Beyond the need to ‘see each other,’ as director of the FBI, he never articulates deliberate corrective actions to resist and eradicate racial animus in the ranks of law enforcement. Nor does he articulate or provide a transparent system of repercussions for those in law enforcement who serve as both judge and jury.

What are the repercussions to law enforcement who do not use measured judgment commensurate with the legal infraction? Comey suggests that he needs more data. History serves us well here. I submit that the deaths of far too many marginalized persons of color, over decades, at the hands of law enforcement are data enough.

Carol Camp Yeakey is professor and founding director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Urban Studies & Center on Urban Research & Public Policy at Washington University.