Who would have predicted that the head of the FBI could give a speech about cops and racial bias that would be so thoughtful and so balanced that it was embraced by both law-enforcement officials and those who have protested police tactics and have grievances about brutal racial discrimination. Certainly it was a surprise to most of us who have watched the intense animosity build, particularly since the deaths of blacks at the hands of white cops in Ferguson, Missouri, Staten Island, New York, and Cleveland. The nation has been split into seemingly irreconcilable camps on either side of the “thin blue line,” both sides shouting past each other.
Enter James Comey, director of the FBI, which is itself a federal police force carrying some baggage of a mixed history in its own dealings with minorities. But there he was, speaking at Georgetown University and addressing head-on the charge that far too many cops are biased against citizens of color. Despite bitter denials from many in law enforcement, Comey argued that it was time to face reality: “Police officers on patrol in our nation’s cities often work in environments where a hugely disproportionate percentage of street crime is committed by young men of color. Something happens to people of good will working in that environment.”
That something, he went on to say, is that racial bias becomes a “shortcut” in the mind of the frontline cops who become conditioned to seeing more danger potential from blacks than whites. Even so, Comey went on, “I believe law enforcement overwhelmingly attracts people who want to do good for a living — people who risk their lives because they want to help other people. They don’t sign up to be cops in New York or Chicago or L.A. to help white people or black people or Hispanic people or Asian people. They sign up because they want to help all people. And they do some of the hardest, most dangerous policing to protect people of color.”
The answer, says Coney, is to acknowledge that this is a real problem for police and then for people of good will to work on solutions. That’s obvious, but also very difficult. It couldn’t possibly happen quickly given the decades of tension between blacks and cops. It means that not only will a hostile relationship have to be faced dispassionately and ultimately replaced by respect, but that communities will have to be willing to support the cops who earn this respect by using proportional methods when taking on lawbreakers. It also will require weeding out from the police forces the bullies and genuine bigots who go beyond their authority, particularly when it comes to dealing with African-Americans. Most of all, it will involve establishing a line of communication. As cliche as that is, it’s vital. Comey says it’s imperative that cops will need to be accessible if they’re going to be trusted. “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.”
It’s going to take a change in thinking from police departments who now use heavy-handed tactics and heavy armor to enforce their orders instead of starting with reason. It’s also going to require a different thought process from those who must realize that their personal safety can be guaranteed only if the threats to that safety are to be removed from their neighborhood. Law enforcement and the law-abiding will need to understand that they’re on the same side. All too often today, they’re not.
What we have had instead is a confrontation where both sides are trying to beat the other down. When that happens, everyone loses. That spiral must be stopped. A good start is to replace the toxic rhetoric with constructive honesty — like what we heard from FBI Director Comey.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.