Many leaders try to keep the struggles of the civil rights movement right in front of them — literally. President Obama has a framed program from the March on Washington in the Oval Office. Apple CEO Tim Cook, who became the first Fortune 500 CEO to publicly come out as gay, keeps photos of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in his office.
And on the desk of FBI Director James Comey, there is a copy of then-Attorney General Kennedy's approval of J. Edgar Hoover's request to wiretap King.
That detail was just one of the personal and reflective anecdotes that Comey offered Thursday at Georgetown University during a speech about law enforcement and race. He shared that under his leadership, all new agents and analysts must visit the Martin Luther King memorial in Washington as part of their training. He talked about the prohibition-era police leadership of his grandfather, who made the call to ax fire hoses that were running beer between Yonkers and the Bronx.
And he spoke openly both about the painful calls he makes to local police chiefs when an officer is killed in the line of duty and about the "hard truths" law enforcement must confront regarding race. These include law enforcement's legacy of poor treatment toward African Americans, the unconscious biases that all Americans inevitably hold, the "cynicism" police must try to avoid, and this country's underlying issues like poverty and education gaps that reinforce racial disparities.
"A tragedy of American life — one that most citizens are able to drive around because it doesn’t touch them — is that young people in 'those neighborhoods' too often inherit from that dysfunction a legacy of crime and prison," Comey said in the speech. "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."
Observers called the remarks a significant departure for an FBI director, and likely the most extensive ever made about race by someone in that role. "I think it’s a leadership speech," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based police think tank. "It’s a speech that at least puts him in the bully pulpit position as FBI director. He’s recasting the role."
Comey's most striking remarks called out the "mental shortcuts" that become "almost irresistible" in cops' day-to-day work. He said that "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. After years of police work, officers often can’t help but be influenced by the cynicism they feel."
For an agency whose leadership legacy includes J. Edgar Hoover, who tried to destroy Martin Luther King's credibility and the civil rights movement, the speech was "really significant," said historian Kenneth O'Reilly. Agency leaders have traditionally been more cautious about speaking out on civil rights, he said, and Comey's comments Thursday were "pretty aggressive compared to just about anything" said by past directors.
O'Reilly said the remarks were also notable because the FBI, compared with metropolitan police departments, is relatively small and therefore relies heavily on local law enforcement during investigations. Were Comey to antagonize them — as New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio inadvertently did in remarks he made about race — it could potentially make things more difficult for his agents in their daily work. "People forget the FBI is heavily dependent on the local police," he said. "So for an FBI director to come out and say what he said is pretty remarkable."
Comey did take pains to laud the work of police, and was careful to say law enforcement was not the root cause of the problems. Were that the case, he said, "we would just need to change the way we hire, train, and measure law enforcement and that would fix it." Still, he added, he would not let cops "off the hook": "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."
One way Comey is trying to help FBI agents better understand the black experience in America, or at least its history, is through requiring all new agents and analysts to study how the FBI treated King. Wexler applauded this move, calling it analogous to former D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey's training program for officers and cadets at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, a tradition Ramsey has continued as police commissioner in Philadelphia.
That kind of symbolic and experiential training forces recruits to confront uncomfortable truths. "It's coming face-to-face with what the FBI did wrong in the past," Wexler said.
It's hard to project what impact Comey's speech will ultimately have on the simmering debate over the relationship between law enforcement and racial minorities in this country. But Wexler posits that Comey intended it to be significant. "By giving this kind of speech he has repositioned the FBI for the future," Wexler said. "You get the sense that what he is trying to do with this speech is make a statement."