James Comey, the Director of the FBI, spoke on the issue of biases of law enforcement (and all Americans) at Georgetown University recently. His comments are refreshingly candid. He began by explaining that law enforcement has a legacy of racism. For example, the nickname “paddy wagon” comes from law enforcement’s bias against Irish immigrants “as drunks, ruffians, and criminals.” Although “[t]he Irish had tough times,” he continued, “[their experience] little compares to the experience on our soil of black Americans.”
Comey then noted that “[m]uch research points to the widespread existence of unconscious bias.” He then quoted the Broadway hit, Avenue Q:
Look around an you will find,
No one’s really color blind.
Maybe it’s a fact
We all should face
Everyone makes judgments
Based on race.
His talk then turned to the specific affect of such “unconscious bias” on law enforcement officers, saying, “something happens to people in law enforcement. [They] develop different flavors of cynicism . . . , lazy mental shortcuts. For example, [they come to believe that] criminal suspects routinely lie . . . , and the people [they] charge are overwhelmingly guilty. That makes it easy for folks in law enforcement to assume that everybody is lying and that no suspect . . . could be innocent. Easy, but wrong.”
As for race, he recognized that the same type of cynicism develops in police officers who “work in environments where a hugely disproportionate percentage of street crime is committed by young men of color. . . . After years of police work, officers often can’t help but be influenced[by unconscious bias.]”
He then explicitly acknowledged the developed racial bias of officers working in urban areas, saying, “A mental shortcut becomes almost irresistible . . . . The two young black men on one side of the street look like so many others the officer has locked up. 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 association about the two white guys . . . , [a]nd that drives different behavior.”
After acknowledging what we’ve all known, he moves on to discuss how he sees law enforcement moving forward despite these “latent biases.” He says that law enforcement “must . . . [try to know] what it feels like to be a law-abiding young black man walking on the street and encountering law enforcement. . . . We must resist the lazy shortcuts of cynicism [i.e. the assumption that he is a liar and criminal] and approach him with respect and decency.” This is obvious, but instructive. “We must work . . . to really see each other. Perhaps the reason we struggle as a nation is because we’ve come to see only what we represent, at face value, instead of who we are. We[, law enforcement,] simply must see the people we serve,” he says.
We have spent the 150 years since Lincoln [ ] making great progress, but along the way treating a whole lot of people of color poorly. And law enforcement was often part of that poor treatment. That’s our inheritance as law enforcement and its not all in the distant past. [Law enforcement] . . . must confront the biases that are inescapable parts of the human condition. We must speak the truth about our shortcomings as law enforcement, and fight to be better.
FBI Director Comey’s speech was refreshing in its honesty. Recognition is the first step toward reaching a solution. And for too long, racial bias has been an off limits topic. The statistics show that black men are discriminated against by the criminal justice system. Now the top official at the FBI, our nation’s premier investigative agency, has recognized that the racial bias of police officers has been one of the causes of this discrimination.
We certainly have a long way to go. But this is an important first step.