Comey said officers have told him privately that they respond to calls only to find themselves surrounded by civilians with cellphones. The people are there to record their every move. These cellphone-equipped masses are hoping, in essence, to catch them violating someone's rights.
Comey also said during his Friday speech that too many public officials have taken to incorrectly describing the disproportionate way that police scrutiny, arrests, convictions and long stretches of jail time have become a part of the black and Latino American experience as "mass incarceration." According to Comey, what really happened were a series of individual cases, prosecutions and convictions. Defendants had what Comey seems to presume were fair trails, were represented by what he presumes were zealous attorneys with all the resources and incentives needed to mount a real defense. And the many bits of by now well-known evidence to the contrary are apparently irrelevant or misunderstood.
It is an understatement to say that the White House and officials inside the Justice Department reportedly weren't happy.
Then on Monday, Comey made a strikingly similar speech, also in Chicago, at the International Association of Police Chiefs. This one put less emphasis on the issue of mass incarceration, according to the Times. But the general message was the same.
Comey, the head of the nation's most respected law enforcement agency -- the one responsible for, among other things, gathering data on crime and policing -- seemed to be giving real credence to a set of ideas most readily embraced by conservative news commentators and think tanks, police unions with a vested interest in helping their members avoid prosecutions, and those who believe that aggressive, even unconstitutional and sometimes-deadly law enforcement in communities of color is an acceptable or even required norm.
This all comes at a pretty inopportune time; the White House is knee-deep in an effort to encourage a range of criminal justice reforms. The Obama administration and the Justice Department have been vocal over the past couple years about everything from the way that cities are policed to what sort of data is collected about the way that police do their jobs, which crimes are most aggressively perused and prosecuted, and what kind of prison time people face if convicted.
Even Comey said earlier this month that the lack of accurate or even close-to-accurate data on the number of police-involved shootings in the United States is "ridiculous and embarrassing."
And back in February, which just so happens to be Black History Month, Comey gave a speech at Georgetown University in Washington saying that police officers across the country need to face some hard truths. One of them: Police officers sometimes take "lazy mental shortcuts," fueled by bias, in the course of their work. The speech also made mention of Michael Brown, Ferguson, Mo., and the Rev. Martin Luther King -- you know, the whole I'm-concerned-about-race-matters (at least in the month of February) tool kit.
And this happens to be one of the rare areas of bipartisan agreement, where the Obama administration would appear to have both some support from Republicans in Congress and a broad swath of the American public. The reasons for each group's concern and involvement in these issues might vary, but the effect is this: It's not likely that the Obama administration wants to ease off this work or face the difficulty that comes with a public dispute with one of the nation's chief law enforcement officers.
So, the administration hasn't minced words. White House press secretary Josh Earnest told the press corps during his daily briefing Monday.
"The evidence we have seen so far doesn't support the contention that law enforcement officials are shirking their responsibilities," Earnest said when asked directly about Comey. "In fact, you hear law enforcement leaders across the country indicating that that’s not what’s taking place."
And so it seems that Comey's comments represent a real and political challenge. His words either constitute an admission that police officers are not doing their jobs due to increased scrutiny -- thus almost willfully allowing crime to rise and public health and safety to grow increasingly imperiled. Or they convey that efforts by groups and individuals to draw attention to police misconduct are partially responsible for a rise in crime.
But here is what is missing and must also be said.
The FBI director's comments aren't just a bit of public relations problem for the administration or a moment where a law enforcement officer decided to stand with others who wear uniforms and insist that they are unfairly besieged. The problem here is that Comey, and those who agree with him, appears to be saying that police officers in a democratic society cannot, or will not, do their actual jobs if and when they are going to be required to themselves abide by the law or face the consequences if evidence exists that they did not.