Claire Carter and Daniel Bates, Daily Mail, February 12, 2015
Police can make ‘sinister associations’ when dealing with black men and American police are facing a ‘crossroads’ in race relations, the director of the FBI has warned.
James Comey made an unprecedented speech about policing and race issues at Georgetown University today–becoming the first director of the FBI to speak at length about the issue.
Mr Comey made the speech, called ‘Hard Truths: Law Enforcement and Race’, at a time when racial tensions with police in America are high, following the police shootings of Michael Brown in Ferguson in August and Eric Garner in New York.
Mr Coney admitted that officers had to acknowledge that ‘much of our history is not pretty’ and that they had to change.
He said police officers who work in neighborhoods where most street crime is committed by young black men may hold unconscious biases which means they can be tempted to take a ‘mental shortcut’ in dealing with suspicious situations.
‘The two young black men on one side of the street look like so many others the officer has locked up,’ he said.
‘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 sinister association about the two white guys, whether that officer is white or black.’
He acknowledged the shortfalls of police who may take particular approaches based on their past experience or if they are working in an area where black people make up the majority of perpetrators of crime.
‘Something happens to people in law enforcement,’ he added.
‘Many of us develop different flavors of cynicism that can be hard to resist because they become shortcuts. Something happens to people working in that environment . . . that mental shortcut becomes almost irresistible.’
Mr Comey said America is at a crossroads when it comes to race relations and law enforcement, and the ‘hard truths’ must be confronted.
He added: ‘All of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty.
‘At many points in American history law enforcement has enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavoured groups’.
The director said it was also important to break a cycle that means often ethnic minorities in poor neighborhoods too often inherit a ‘legacy of crime and prison,’ a cycle he said must be broken to improve race relations with police.
However he said that racial bias was not endemic in the force and most officers were committed to doing the right thing.
He also said that citizens needed to do more and had to ‘give (police) the respect and space they need to make their job possible’ and that body cameras on officers was not the answer.
Mr Comey has been praised for tackling race when previous directors of the bureau have made limited comments.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, told the New York Times: ‘Not to take anything away from the previous directors, but it was almost as though they thought, ‘This is something we shouldn’t weigh into.”’
Comey is best-known for a 2004 standoff at the hospital bedside of Attorney General John Ashcroft over a no-warrant wiretapping program.
Comey rushed to the room of his bedridden boss to physically stop White House officials from trying to get Ashcroft to reauthorize the program.
He later described the evening as one of the most difficult of his life.
During the speech, Comey said he keeps on his desk a copy of the order John F Kennedy signed authorising the wiretapping of Dr King as a reminder of what not to do.