FBI Director James B. Comey told a gathering of police chiefs that despite a wave of protests prompted by fatal police shootings of black men and boys, “Americans actually have no idea” about how often police use force because nobody has collected enough data.
Comey praised police officers who he said were serving during “a uniquely difficult time,” but said that the steady stream of videos showing police officers using deadly force — a series of widely seen recordings that have stretched from the death of Eric Garner in New York two years ago to the killing, last month, of Keith Scott in Charlotte — has helped fuel a bleak perception of law enforcement.
“It is a narrative that has formed, in the absence of good information and in the absence of actual data, and it is this: Biased police are killing black men at epidemic rates,” Comey told the International Association of Chiefs of Police on Sunday at the group’s annual conference in San Diego “That is the narrative. It is a narrative driven by video images of real misconduct, possible misconduct, and perceived misconduct.”
However, Comey once again decried the lack of information gathered nationally about police encounters with civilians, saying that in the absence of better data, Americans who see such videos “over and over and over again” take them as “further proof of nationwide police brutality.” And he again linked these videos and the unrest to the increasing homicide numbers in many major American cities.
“In a nation of almost a million law enforcement officers and tens of millions of police encounters each year, a small group of videos serve as proof of an epidemic,” he said, according to a transcript of his remarks released by the FBI.
Comey’s speech was delivered three days after the Justice Department announced that it would move forward with plans to collect better data about fatal police encounters as well as other times police use force. And his remarks come as a years-long debate over policing has continued to grip the country, surging to the forefront of national headlines again and again following fatal incidents in Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland, Chicago, Baltimore, Baton Rouge and Charlotte.
These protests show little sign of abating, flaring up over the summer and again last month with tense, sometimes violent demonstrations in Charlotte. They also tend to be viewed very differently by black and white Americans.
Law enforcement officers, meanwhile, have said they are increasingly anxious amid the demonstrations and feel as though they are facing increasing dangers as well as unfair criticism, a tension that was supercharged over the summer following fatal shootings of and by police in Texas, Minnesota and Louisiana.
Comey said law enforcement officers have told him that they are facing unique challenges and that many in policing have called this “the hardest time” in their careers. He said that “the narrative that policing is biased and violent and unfair” threatens the future of American law enforcement, even as he acknowledged that there are officers or agencies who act improperly.
“There are bad cops,” he said. “There are departments with troubled cultures. Unfortunately, people are flawed. In any large group, there will be bad ones. All professions want to find and root out the bad ones.”
But he went on to add: “Police officers are overwhelmingly good people. They are overwhelmingly people who took exhausting, dangerous jobs because they want to help people. They chose lives of service over self, lives of moral content, because that’s who they are.”
Comey also said that Americans “actually have no idea whether the number of black people or brown people or white people being shot by police” has gone up or down, or if any group is more likely to be shot by police, given the incomplete data available. (He highlighted a recent paper from a Harvard economist on the issue that has sparked some controversy.)
“There were 10.7 million arrests in this country last year, and many times that number of encounters between officers and civilians,” he said. “Out of those tens of millions of encounters, how many people were shot? What did they look like? What were the circumstances? Is deadly force use trending up or down? Where is it worst and where is it best? Nobody knows.”
Some data is available on at least a recent, limited set of encounters. The Washington Post’s database tracking fatal shootings by police found that black people are being shot at 2.5 times the rate of white people this year, about the same as last year. This database tracks only deadly shootings, and so it does not account for any other deaths or uses of force.
During his speech, Comey also again connected the ongoing protests over police to a recent increase in homicides nationwide. The FBI found that violent crimes and homicides went up last year, fueled by a surge in homicides in a number of major cities, an increase that is continuing in many of these areas this year.
Comey has said multiple times that he is concerned that police officers are acting less aggressively amid the flood of videos and protests, an idea that he has expressed despite pushback from some law enforcement officials, civil rights activists and the White House.
The idea that police are stepping back amid the increased scrutiny is generally known as the “Ferguson effect,” taking its name from the Missouri city where a white police officer fatally shot a black 18-year-old in 2014. This has also been called the “YouTube effect” because of video recordings of police actions that can spread online.
Comey has said he resists the term “Ferguson effect” during remarks to reporters earlier this year about the surge in homicides. He instead called it a “a sort of viral video effect” that he believed “could well be at the heart of this or could well be an important factor” in the increase in killings.
On Sunday, Comey again said that he is was concerned about whether officers are becoming less likely to make proactive moves such as approaching a group of kids on a street corner at midnight.
“Or, as you have told me, do they first ask themselves, ‘Could this get me famous or dead?’ ” he said to the police chiefs. “And the answer changes policing and changes neighborhoods.”
He also questioned whether a lack of public trust in police could make witnesses withhold information that could help officers solve crimes, saying that “into the gap of distrust fall more dead young black men.” In a report released this summer, criminologist Richard Rosenfeld put forward a similar theory while saying he believes there is a connection between crime levels and criticism of police.
Even as demonstrations against police shootings have recurred from coast to coast, the Post database found that police are on pace to fatally shoot the same number of people this year as last year, showing that the intense focus has done little to affect the overall rate of these incidents. At the same conference where Comey spoke, a new training program aimed at de-escalating incidents and reducing shootings was being rolled out to police chiefs.
The Post began its database last year to fill a void left by the incomplete federal data, which relied on police departments voluntarily reporting shootings. As a result, the FBI never recorded more than 460 fatal police shootings in a single year over the past four decades; The Post’s database found more than double that number last year.
Comey has criticized the lack of data before and called it “unacceptable.” The FBI plans to start a pilot program early next year to begin collecting use-of-force statistics nationwide and create the first online national database on both deadly and nonfatal interactions the public has with law enforcement, to try to better track overall uses of force.
However, while Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch can impose financial penalties on law enforcement agencies that fail to report cases where people die in police custody or during interactions with officers, there is no similar penalty for agencies that do not report nonfatal encounters, so the database will again rely on voluntary reporting.