James B. Comey
Federal Bureau of Investigation
International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference
Chicago, Illinois
October 26, 2015

Keeping Our Communities Safe Through Shared Perspectives, Information, and Understanding

Listen: Director Comey’s Remarks at 2015 IACP Conference. Download

Remarks as delivered.

Good morning, IACP. It is great to be back with you, back with friends.

It’s also great to be back in the amazing city of Chicago, where I spent three years in the early 1980s going to law school on the South Side. I’ve been doing a lot of reminiscing as I’ve been here this week.

I tried to study when I was in law school, but I also played a fair amount of basketball, maybe too much basketball as I look back through the lens of time. But when I would need a break from my studies, I would go play hoops. And the South Side of Chicago was my community in those days. And so I would play basketball wherever they would have me.

And I was reminiscing this week that in 1983 I became the first white player in the Ogden Park basketball league at 65th and Racine. My teammates joked that I had integrated the league, which I guess is true, but they weren’t focused so much on integration as they were on winning. And they knew that you cannot teach height. I remember hearing them say, “He doesn’t really jump well, but he sure is tall.” And that’s why they wanted me.

And the next season I brought the second white player ever. And with a group of people, not us, with a group of people who played the game beautifully, we actually won a championship.

My teammates taught me a lot about basketball. They also taught me a lot about life, and to see life through different eyes and different experiences. We had different histories and different perspectives, and we learned from each other, not just about basketball.

In 1985 when I was getting ready to leave Chicago to go work for the government in New York, there were ominous changes in this city and around the country. Because it was then that crack cocaine was starting to spread like a cancer all across America. It was the beginning of a period in America when American cities and minority neighborhoods in particular were experiencing historic and horrific levels of violent crime. It was a time when I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to choose a career in the government, trying to do something useful for my country and my fellow citizens. A choice I’m very glad that I made and I’m very glad that you have made.

Now I stand in this great city as an old guy, hoping to share some thoughts about new challenges that I see and that you see in law enforcement and in our communities. And the challenges are complicated, layered, and painful to be honest.

I imagine two lines. There’s the line of law enforcement and there’s a line of the communities we serve, especially communities of color in the hardest hit neighborhood in this great country of ours. And I actually feel those two lines arcing apart.

Each incident that involves perceived or actual misconduct by police that is captured on video and spreads around the world bends this line this way. Each incident that involves an attack on a member of law enforcement bends our line that way. I have seen those lines arcing apart in a lot of different ways.

I actually see an example and a demonstration of that arcing through hashtags, through the hashtag #blacklivesmatter and the hashtag #policelivesmatter. Of course each of those hashtags and what they represent adds a voice to an important conversation.

But each time somebody interprets the hashtag #blacklivesmatter as anti-law enforcement, one line moves away. And each time that someone interprets the hashtag #policelivesmatter as anti-black, the other line moves away. I actually feel the lines continuing to arc away and maybe accelerating, incident by incident, video by video, hashtag by hashtag. And that’s a terrible place for us to be.

And just as those lines are arcing away from each other, and maybe, just maybe, in some places because those lines are arcing away from each other, we have a crisis of violent crime in some of our major cities in this country, and in those cities, in some of our most vulnerable neighborhoods spread across this country.

Here in Chicago last month, 50 people or more were shot in a single weekend and the next weekend the numbers rose even higher. An 11-month old boy was shot in the hip. His mother and grandmother were shot and killed right next to him. Real people, good people are dying on our streets in 2015.

In many cities across the country violence is the same as last year, and in some places, thank goodness, even lower. But in many others we are seeing an explosion of senseless violence. We must stare at this problem to figure out why it’s happening and what we can do about it.

After leaving this great city, as I said, I went to New York and had the opportunity to become a prosecutor and I worked, in the 1980s and ‘90s, alongside a whole lot of folks in law enforcement who were trying to save lives. Many in New York City, where I first worked as a prosecutor, believed that we were destined to have 2,000 murders each year. That was the baseline level of violence. And law enforcement’s goal had to be to push the slaughter down, as close as we could, to 2,000. That was so wrong.

Last year, 2014, 328 people were murdered in New York. That’s 328 too many, but it’s a number that was simply unimaginable 25 years ago.

When I worked in Richmond, Virginia, in the 1990s, that city, like so much of America, was experiencing horrific levels of violence. But to describe it just that way obscures an important truth. For the most part white people weren’t dying, black people were dying.

Most white people could drive around the problems of Richmond and so many other cities in America. If you were white in Richmond, and not involved in the drug trade, as either a buyer or a seller, you could escape the violence, you could avoid the problem. But if you were black and poor, it didn’t matter whether you were a player in the trade or not, because violent crime dominated your life, your neighborhood, your world.

Like so many in law enforcement in the 1980s and ‘90s, we worked hard to save lives in those neighborhoods in Richmond, by rooting out drug dealers, and gangbangers, and predators, and killers. And of course we also worked up the chains to the foreign sources of the drugs that were poisoning Richmond. But we felt a tremendous urgency to try to save the good people of those poor neighborhoods in Richmond. We worked in part through a program called “Weed and Seed” that some of you may remember. We worked hard to weed those neighborhoods by removing those who were strangling it. But we did that so that seeds could be planted to grow something that would be good and that would fill the space and prevent further weeds. The dream was that someday maybe kids could play in the parks and old folks could sit on the porch and watch those kids play.

And I remember doing that work and being asked at the time, “Why are you doing so much prosecuting in black neighborhoods? And locking up so many black men?” “After all,” folks would say, “Richmond is surrounded by large suburban counties with large white populations and surely there are drug dealers in those suburbs?” And my answer was simple: “We are there in those neighborhoods because that’s where people are dying. These are the people we lock up because they are the predators, choking off the life of a community that deserves better.”

We did this work because we cared deeply about the people trying to make a life in these neighborhoods. But here’s the thing, the people asking me these questions were not the black ministers and community leaders in the poorest neighborhoods. Those good people in those bad neighborhoods already knew why we were there, locking up felons with guns and drug dealers and drug dealers with guns. They supported it because they shared the dream of a neighborhood with freedom and life. Those people, those ministers, those leaders—they were the seeders working like crazy to grow something healthy in the space that we created. And how far we have come thanks to their work.

Over the last two decades in most places in America, what was only a dream 25 years ago has come true. Kids of all colors went to school in 2014 in an America with historically low crime. Just that term historically low doesn’t quite capture it. To illustrate what I’m talking about, I was born in 1960 into a more violent America than those children enjoyed last year.

In 2014, grandparents, especially in minority neighborhoods, could sit on porches and watch kids play in parks. And sit there and remember the bad old days when drug dealers and gangbangers ruled the roost. They remember what it was like even if so many Americans can’t because so many Americans didn’t live through it.

People can and should debate the causes of the decline in crime, but I believe serious people all agree that law enforcement contributed significantly to that change in our world, to saving neighborhoods and lives by the thousands. The work of law enforcement helped us get to 2014, a place so many thought was impossible.

And yes, we had to do a whole lot of arresting to get from 1990 to 2014. And every arrest and prosecution is in many ways a failure on all kinds of levels. And there are many reasons for those failures, stretching back many, many years. And, in fact, I believe in some cases centuries. But the pulling of those weeds, as painful as it was, allowed churches, school, community groups, and parents to plant seeds that grew into something remarkable, neighborhoods free and alive in a way they were not 25 years ago. We cannot lose sight of that.

The problem we face today is that nobody speaks for people who are not victims, because they don’t exist. There are millions of people of all colors, who in 2014 enjoyed their lives and their neighborhoods in a way that was impossible in 1990. People aren’t trapped in their homes, putting kids to sleep in bathtubs to keep them safe from stray bullets. So they are not here to participate in some of our most important conversations. They are out living.

Somehow we have to imagine those voices in the current debate as we talk about how to improve ourselves and to be more just in this country. There is no doubt that there are ways we can make our criminal justice system better, more effective, and more just.

For example, reasonable people can disagree whether certain sentences were too long. But I think we now have the space in time to do hard thinking about what the right length should be. There is really good work being done on a bipartisan level to make sure that the adjustments we make will keep us both strong and fair. And I think that makes good sense, and I think that serves public safety.

We also have the chance to get better about equipping those who are going to come out of prison to live productive lives. And again on a bipartisan basis there is really good work being done to make us better at helping people transition to society. And there is no doubt that unaddressed drug addiction was the root problem for a whole lot of people who were locked up for property crime and non-violent offenses. And again there is great working being done by people from all points of the spectrum to get us better at getting help to the people who need it.

And of course we must hear the voices of those who are incarcerated and their families, as we work to punish effectively, to reintegrate effectively, to deal with addition and demand for drugs, which is something I believe we have neglected for generations. Yes, it is true that young men of color have long been dramatically over-represented among both homicide victims and killers. But it’s also true that white people buy the overwhelming majority of drugs in America and that white people’s demand for drugs drives the trade. And that’s a problem this country can’t continue to drive around.

And finally, of course, we have to improve the way we do law enforcement, the way we police. As I said in a speech earlier this year at Georgetown, there are hard truths we in law enforcement have to see with clarity. Only by looking hard at ourselves can we really improve and connect with the people we serve and protect. We have to show people the true heart of law enforcement, what we’re really like. And we have to work hard to see the people we protect.

And although I worry that competing hashtags risk driving our lines apart, I believe they actually offer an opportunity to see each other more clearly. I believe law enforcement can actually use the hashtag #blacklivesmatter to see the world through the eyes of people who are not in our line of work and see how they might perceive us. And I believe that those members of the black community can use the hashtag #policelivesmatter to see the world through law enforcement eyes and see the heart of law enforcement. Only by getting up close, where it is hard to hate, can we see each other and bend those lines back towards each other.

I have spoken in the last few minutes and used the word 2014. The reason I have used the word 2014 is because something is going on in big cities in different parts of the country in 2015. According to the major city chiefs, far more people are being killed in many of America’s cities this year than in many years. But let’s be clear, far more people of color are being killed in America’s cities this year. And it’s not the cops doing the killing. We are right to focus on violent encounters between law enforcement and civilians. Those incidents can teach all of us to be better.

But something much bigger and more disturbing is happening. According to the major city chiefs, most of the 50 largest cities in America have seen an increase in homicides and shootings this year, and many of them have seen huge increases. These are cities that have little in common except for being American cities—Chicago, Tampa, Minneapolis, Sacramento, Nashville, Orlando, Cleveland, Dallas, and the list goes on.

In Washington, D.C., we’ve seen a 20 percent increase in murders across the city. Baltimore, a city of 600,000 souls, is averaging over one homicide a day, a rate higher than New York City, which is a rate 13 times the population.

Milwaukee’s rate has nearly doubled.

And who’s dying? Police chiefs say that increase is almost entirely among young men of color. At crime scenes, in bad neighborhoods, often with multiple guns recovered. And that’s yet another problem that white America could drive around. But if we really care about all Americans, and we must, we have to understand what is happening.

Community leaders need to demand answers. Law enforcement needs to demand answers. Academics need to hit this hard. We all have to ask this question. What could be driving an increase in murder in some cities, spread across the country, all at the same time? What explains that map and that calendar in the first 10 months of this year? How can it all be happening all of a sudden in disparate cities in disparate parts of the country? I’ve been a part of a lot of thoughtful conversations about this with chiefs, elected officials, academics, and community members.

The Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General convened a summit on this to talk about this privately, two weeks ago. There were lots of good discussions, lots of good ideas. Folks have said maybe it’s a return to violent offenders who have come out of jail, maybe it’s heroin, maybe its synthetic drugs, maybe it’s that we broke up large gangs and so the smaller pieces of gangs are fighting for turf. Maybe it’s something about the availability of guns. Or something about the way in which local justice has changed. And these are all useful suggestions.

But to my mind none of them adequately explains the map and the calendar. In different places all over the country, while some places are seeing decreases, some places are seeing dramatic increases and all in the beginning part of this year.

I’ve also heard another theory, in conversations all over the country including at the Attorney General’s summit. Almost nobody says it on the record, but police and elected officials are saying it quietly to themselves all over the country. And it’s the one theory that to my mind, to my common sense, does explain the map and the calendar. And of the explanations I have heard, it’s the one that makes the most sense to me. Maybe something has changed in policing.

In today’s YouTube world, are officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime? Are officers answering 911 calls but avoiding the informal contact that keeps bad guys with guns from standing around?

I spoke to officers in one big city at a precinct house who described being surrounded by young people with mobile phones, video cameras rolling, as they step out of the cars, taunting them, asking them what they want and why they’re there. They described a feeling of being under siege and were honest and said, “We don’t feel much like getting out of cars.” I have been told about a senior police leader who told his force, “Our political leadership has zero tolerance for you all being connected to another viral video.”

The question is, are these kinds of things changing police behavior in cities around the country? The honest answer is, I don’t know for sure whether that’s the case. I don’t know for sure that even if it is the case if it explains it entirely.

But I do have a strong sense that some part of what’s going on is likely a chill wind that has blown through law enforcement over the last year. That wind is made up of a whole series of viral videos and the public outcry that followed them. And that wind is surely changing behavior, my common sense tells me. Part of that behavior change is to be welcomed. It will make us better as we talk and learn more about de-escalation and better use of force. Those are conversations that are vital and we will get better.

I also think it’s very important that the Department of Justice continue to scrutinize policing. That makes us better and I don’t believe that chills good policing. The wind of the viral videos is something separate and very powerful to my mind.

I think we all have to ask ourselves whether it is changing behavior, and if it is, what are we going to do about it? Because we can’t lose sight of the fact that there really are bad guys standing on corners in America’s cities with guns. Young men dying on the street corners in all those cities are not committing suicide or being shot by cops. They’re being shot by other young men.

Lives are saved when those killers are confronted by actual honest-to-goodness professional “What are you guys doing standing on the street corner at 1:00 a.m.?” policing. Lives are saved when police officers are out of their cars and, in an appropriate and professional way, providing a counter-force to those who would occupy our corners with violence.

All of us civilian, law enforcement, white, black, Latino, Asian, all of the great spectrum of America, has an interest in that kind of policing. Community leaders need to welcome it, insist upon it, and demand it, demand professional policing, which includes officers out of their cars, providing a counter-force in an appropriate, professional way. Law enforcement leaders need to insist that their officers deliver that kind of policing especially in the hardest hit neighborhoods. And the citizens of our great country need to realize that good policing is something that saves lives and we need it badly. Because real policing makes a difference.

We need to be careful that 2014 doesn’t drift away from us in an age of viral videos or there will be profound consequences. If we’re not careful, we will lose the space in American life to have these important conversations about reforming justice and improving the interactions of police and civilians.

In a way, those conversations are a welcome luxury because we have the space in time that we didn’t have 50 years ago to talk about these things. But if what we’re seeing in some cities in America continues, we will be back to talking about how law enforcement needs to rescue minority neighborhoods from the grip of violence and all of us should care too much about the people we serve and protect to let that happen.

So here is my plea. We need to figure out what’s happening and deal with it now. I have heard some folks suggest that it’s too early, it’s only October, we should wait to the end of the year and then see what the crime stats look like. I refuse to wait. Especially given the information that we have from all the big city chiefs and especially because these are not just data points, these are lives.

Law enforcement leaders must not wait to push their folks to police well. By that I mean firmly, fairly and professionally. And as important, community leaders must not wait to demand and assist those officers in policing well. And to insist those officers get the space, time, and respect to do it effectively and professionally.

Now I know, there’s no doubt that the response to violent crime has to be a local one. It will be by sheer numbers. But we feds are asking ourselves these days, urged by you, how can we do more to help you? That’s why the Attorney General convened her summit. We stare at the map, the calendar, and we ask ourselves what would explain that data.

I believe the feds have a unique role to play with respect to data. There is great value in a national view of what’s happening in our country. I know data is a boring word, but it gives us a full picture of what happens, and it’s what smart people of all walks of life in this country use to make good decisions.

Doctors in emergency rooms here in Chicago, if somebody walks in with some strange deadly set of symptoms, are able to tell instantly whether this is a local food poisoning thing or whether these symptoms are being seen in hospitals around the country, and it makes a huge difference in their ability to save that life.

A whole lot of us have been pressing for more data for months. We need it on violent crime, we need it on officer-involved shootings, we need it on altercations with the citizens we serve, and especially on attacks on law enforcement. For decades we’ve all relied on the Uniform Crime Reports, the UCR, but they aren’t comprehensive or timely enough to be useful to us.

Not long after the Ferguson riots, I asked my staff, “Can you give me data, show me how many African American people are being shot by law enforcement and sort it for me?” They couldn’t do it. We have no such data. We track justifiable homicides but that isn’t mandatory. The result is that we cannot fully tell what’s going on in this country. How can we address issues about use of force and officer- involved shootings if we don’t know the circumstances?

We face a data shortage on the violent crime front. We can’t tell you on a national level how many shootings there were in any particular city last weekend, when parts of private industry can tell you how many people saw the movie “The Martian” last weekend. How can we address a rise in violent crime without good information? And without information every single conversation in this country about policing and reform and justice is uninformed and that is a very bad place to be.

So I hope you will join me in getting us all to move to NIBRS. NIBRS is a way in which we can all collect data in a way that we can identify patterns, trends, and help us prevent crime and have thoughtful informed conversations at the national level. And we also must have a better system to collect information around officer-involved shootings, which we can use to tell ourselves there are problems here, there’s improvement here, and to inform national discussions. About a third of our states and local law enforcement submit data to NIBRS.

A whole lot of folks worry that if they move to NIBRS, there will be a political hit because it will look like crime went up. It will only look like crime went up if we fail to explain to our political leaders, to our media and our citizens, that it isn’t crime going up, we’re just counting it in a different way. But I know that’s a real concern, so what we’re going to do is, when people make the conversion, we’re going to print it on both UCR and NIBRS, for as many years as you like, so people can see them side by side.

And I know cost is a concern. You’ve had some lean years, and now you think the feds are rolling in saying, “Hey, how about a new reporting system?” But here’s how I think about it – it’s short term pain for long term gain that will help all of us in this great country. A whole lot of chiefs and sheriffs in their organizations are behind this, switching all of us to get on board with NIBRS.

We will work with you on the technical challenges; we will work with you to see if there are ways to solve the funding challenges. I do not have the power to mandate that people give us better data. But everyone in this room cares deeply about sound policing and sound public policy, that’s why you’re here. I hope you work with us. I hope we’ll get there in the next three to five years. The good news is, I have a 10-year-term and you’re stuck with me for another eight. And I am not going to stop talking about this.

I think there’s one other way I want to mention before I close that I think we feds can help, especially the FBI. We have built this amazing analytic capability, especially on the counterterrorism front since September 11. I think we can be useful in using those resources to take a closer look at homicides in cities that are seeing these spikes around the country. I think maybe we can work with departments to gather analyzed data that will help you and use it to get a more comprehensive picture.

For example, I think maybe what we could do is take a group of homicides and really stare at them to see if we can develop patterns involving demographics and circumstances in one city and across a set of cities, and do it in real time. And with that information, help the cities be better, and help all of us be better. I think this might help so we’re going to start experimenting with it right away in the great city of Milwaukee to see if it can make a difference.

I know we are in the midst of a hard time in law enforcement. It is a very hard time. But I think we do hard for a living. That’s who we are. Please know that we are in this together. Please know that we want to help you in whatever way we possibly can.

Most importantly, I want to finish by thanking you. Thank you for the work you do, and the lives you save.

When I speak to young audiences, I’m a bit of a depressing speaker because I tell kids look, bad things happen, and I urge them to do something to make good decisions about their lives. I tell the kids, here’s the challenge of life: we live it forwards so we’re always looking for the next thing—the promotion, the honor, the better car, the better house, schools—all that kinds of stuff. That’s really important, that’s the natural way to live life.

But I tell young people that it can obscure what matters. That can create a lot of smoke around what you really care about and who you want to be. So you’ve got to do something that seems a little crazy, but is essential to good decisions. In your mind, imagine yourself, old and gray and about to die—I hope we’re all old and gray at that point in our lives. Sit there at the end of your life and look back, and ask this question: Who do I want to have been? Who do I want to have been?

And I say to them, the reason I suggest you do that is from that vantage point, the smoke is cleared. Houses, cars, money, honor, promotions—who cares? And what really matters will come into view and I hope guide who you become as a person. Who do you want to have been? This hall is full of people who in some respects have slightly different answers, except in the most important respect: I believe you’re in this hall today, you’re in uniform protecting this great country of ours because you want to have been somebody who, with whatever ability you had, you did something for people who needed you. That’s who you want to have been.

I believe the FBI is very lucky that you have answered the question in that way, because you are great colleagues. I believe your communities are lucky you have answered it that way because you serve and protect them. I believe this great country of the United States of America is lucky you answered it that way because you keep her safe. Thank you for answering it that way, thank you for deciding to have been people who will make a difference for everybody who needs us. I’m honored to serve alongside of you. Godspeed.