In unusually frank terms, FBI Director James Comey today indicted Americans across the country for the “peculiar indifference” he says they’ve shown to what’s happening in many cities across the country, where “parents are afraid to let their kids play outside, where good education is an uphill battle, and the street corners are becoming a war zone.”
“Something is happening in America," with “cities that have nothing in common with each other experiencing [an] uptick” in violence, Comey said at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, an icon of the civil rights movement.
"A whole lot more people are dying,” and “too many people” will continue to die in the years ahead. “We have to talk about it now,” Comey said as part of the annual Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s conference, this year titled “Race and Law Enforcement: It’s More Than Just Black and White.”
So far this year, 216 people have been slain in Chicago alone, and more than 70 have been killed in Las Vegas, Comey noted. “And I can tell you this, people are not dying on Chicago’s Miracle Mile. Homicides are not up along the Las Vegas strip.”
Comey said that when most Americans can drive around and “escape” the “cities within cities” suffering such spikes in violence, everyday citizens “so often show the peculiar indifference to something that is not immediately part of their reality.”
“We are all guilty of that,” he said, insisting that despite this indifference, “It is our problem. Not just the police, not just teachers or city council members or community leaders, but everyday citizens.”
Comey said it’s hard to pinpoint a single cause for the uptick in violence, but he said among a likely “combination of factors” is a growing “disconnect between communities and law enforcement.”
At a news conference later in Birmingham, Comey cited the viral video effect as one possible factor.
"Is there something about those [viral videos] that is affecting law enforcement at the marginal proactive policing edge? That is, are officers in some places more reluctant to get out of their cars and engage in the kind of community policing that helps reduce crime," he said.
"I’m not against videotaping police. I’m not against scrutiny. We get better that way. But what I’m asking is there something unintentionally affecting our communities that’s affecting the spike in violent crime? I don’t know for sure, but I know we’ve got to talk about it."
As he has before, he called on both sides in his speech to “understand and stare at four hard truths”: the civil-rights record of law enforcement in past eras is “not pretty;” “research points to the existence of unconscious bias in nearly all of us;” “something can happen to people in law enforcement,” whereby years of police work in high-crime areas “can lead to mental shortcuts, to assumptions, all of which can tear us apart;” “and, last, we have to understand the truth that the problems we face are greater than the divide between law enforcement and the communities we serve.”
Comey also urged both sides to see things from the each other’s perspective.
“For those of us in law enforcement … we have to work to imagine what it is like to be a law-abiding young man of color walking home from the library late at night and encountering one of us in law enforcement. How does he feel? How does he see us? We have to understand what it’s like to be a citizen who might worry that calling police will make things worse, who might actually fear us,” Comey said.
Meanwhile, “citizens really need to see and imagine what police officers see through the windshields of their cars. What they feel as they approach a car with tinted windows during a late-night car stop. … They need to feel an officer’s heart race as she walks up to a door answering a domestic disturbance call, not knowing what she might encounter on the other side of that door. They need to see officers who are quietly and professionally helping the most vulnerable members of this community.”
Comey added: “The truth is, the cops are not the root cause of our problems in so many of America’s neighborhoods, and a whole lot of people don’t want to talk about that because it’s so hard, the problems are so complicated and difficult. ... [The problems] are about education and employment and opportunity and communities and safe streets and drug treatment and families and role models. It’s about … finding opportunities that most of us just take for granted, so that those young men never become part of a police officer’s life experience.”