James B. Comey
Federal Bureau of Investigation
University of Chicago Law School
Chicago, Illinois
October 23, 2015

Law Enforcement and the Communities We Serve: Bending the Lines Toward Safety and Justice

Remarks as delivered.

It’s great to be back at the place I called home for three years.

I graduated in 1985, which may seem like the 1800s to you, but to me it does feel like yesterday.

When I first walked into this building, I felt that same sense of fear and anxiety and anticipation that I think all first years share—that “Am I smart enough to be here?” feeling.

But I also felt excitement and anticipation. For me, law school was a time of joy and hope. Joy in learning my way around the law—learning how to orbit a problem and to ask myself hard questions and to be asked hard questions. Hope that I could be of some use, to be part of the greater good—to make the world a little bit better.

That sounds idealistic, I know. But I think all law students are idealistic in some sense.

We all share a fascination with the law, and an idea of what it could be, and what it should be … how it can protect civil rights and civil liberties, the notion of keeping people safe and righting what is wrong.

I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do with my law degree but my hope was to find a job that would allow me to make a difference in some way. This school gave me the confidence and tools to serve people who needed help.

At the time that this school was my home, the South Side was my community. The neighborhood was one place I would go when I needed a break from the pressures of this place.

Back then, I played a lot of basketball, maybe too much basketball. In 1983, my second year of law school, I became the only white player in the Ogden Park Basketball League at 65th and Racine. My teammates joked that I integrated the league, which I guess is true.

They weren’t so much focused on integration as on winning, and they knew you can’t teach height. “He can’t jump but he sure is tall.”

The next season, I brought the second white player ever.

And with a group of guys who played the game beautifully, I was lucky enough to be part of a championship team.

Like my law professors and my fellow law students, my teammates helped me to see life through different eyes. We had different histories and different perspectives, but we all just wanted to play the game we loved for a few hours.

In 1985, as I was getting ready to leave Chicago, we all started to see ominous changes in the neighborhood that weren’t good.

It was when crack cocaine began to spread like cancer, in Chicago and across America. Kids were shooting kids in turf battles over the sale of cocaine, innocent people were caught in the crossfire, and violent crime and homicide rates began to rise dramatically.

It was the beginning of a period during which American cities—and minority neighborhoods in particular—experienced historic and horrific levels of violent crime.

It was a time when I chose to start my career in government trying to be part of doing something useful—a choice I’ve never regretted. And one that I would encourage all of you to consider, no matter what kind of public service you might pursue, for at least part of your career.

* * *

Now, all these years later, I fear we are facing another wave of violent crime and homicide, and our communities are once again in trouble. And the trouble is complicated, layered, and painful.

I imagine two lines: one line is law enforcement and the other line is the folks we serve and protect, especially in communities of color.

I think those two lines are arcing away from each other, at an increasing rate.

Each incident that involves real or perceived police misconduct drives one line this way. Each time an officer is attacked in the line of duty, it drives the other line this way.

I actually feel the lines continuing to arc away from each other, incident by incident, video by video, more and more quickly.

And that’s a terrible place to be.

And just as those lines are arcing away from each other—and maybe because they are arcing away—we have a crisis of violent crime in some of our most vulnerable communities across the country.

Here in Chicago, just last month, more than 50 people were shot in just one weekend. 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.

In cities across the country, we are seeing an explosion of senseless violence.

These people aren’t just numbers or blips on a screen. They are parents and children and friends. They are young people who could have done more with their lives.

And this not a time for: “Not my neighborhood, not my problem.”

When that kind of violence becomes part of our everyday existence, everyone pays a price. And it will take everyone to make it right—to make sure those lines start to arc not away from each other, but toward one another—toward a better understanding of what we all need from one another, and how we can get there together.

My Work as a Prosecutor

Let me start by telling you a little bit about my time as a prosecutor.

After leaving this great place, I worked in the late 1980s and 1990s as a prosecutor.

I worked alongside many in law enforcement who were trying to save lives.

Many in law enforcement in New York City—where I worked then—believed we were destined to have a structural level of violence of more than 2,000 murders each year. Two thousand was simply the baseline level of violence that we had to accept. The job of law enforcement was to try to push the carnage down toward 2,000.

That was so wrong.

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

When I worked as a prosecutor in Richmond, Virginia, in the 1990s, that city, like so much of America, was experiencing horrific levels of violent crime.

But to describe it 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 problem. If you were white and not involved in the drug trade as a buyer or a seller, you were largely apart from the violence. You could escape it.

But if you were black and poor, it didn’t matter whether you were a player in the drug trade or not, because violent crime dominated your life, your neighborhood, your world.

There was no way to drive around the violence that came with the drug trade and the drug trade was everywhere in your neighborhood. And that meant the violence was everywhere.

The notion of a “non-violent” drug gang member would have elicited a tired laugh from a resident of Richmond’s worst neighborhoods.

Because the entire trade was a plague of violence that strangled Richmond’s black neighborhoods. The lookouts, runners, mill-workers, enforcers, and dealers were all cut from the same suffocating cloth. Whether they pulled the trigger or not, those folks were killing the community.

Like so many in law enforcement in the 1980s and 1990s, we worked hard to try to save lives in those Richmond neighborhoods—in those black neighborhoods—by rooting out the drug dealers, the predators, the gang bangers, the killers. Of course, we also worked “up the chain” to lock up big-time dealers all the way to Colombia.

But we felt a tremendous urgency to try to save lives in the poor neighborhoods of Richmond.

We worked in part through a program called “Weed and Seed.” We worked hard to weed those neighborhoods by removing those who were strangling it, so that seeds could be planted to allow good things to grow and to fill that space.

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.

As we did that work, I remember being asked why we were doing so much prosecuting in black neighborhoods and locking up so many black men. After all, Richmond was surrounded by areas with largely white populations. Surely there were drug dealers in the suburbs.

My answer was simple: We are there in those neighborhoods because that’s where people are dying. These are the guys we lock up because they are the predators choking off the life of a community.

We did this work because we believed that all lives matter, especially the most vulnerable.

But the people asking those questions were not the black ministers or 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 addicts with guns.

They supported it because they, too, dreamed of a future of freedom and life for their neighborhoods. Those leaders and ministers were the seeders, who hoped to grow something in the safe space created by our weeding—something that would be healthy and that would last.

Seeing Reality Clearly

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. And just that term—“historically low”—doesn’t quite capture how the world has changed between 1990 and 2014.

I was born in 1960 into a more violent America than we had in 2014. We haven’t been in such a good place for more than 50 years.

In 2014, grandparents—especially in minority neighborhoods—could sit on the porch, watch the kids play, and remember the bad old days when the gang bangers and drug dealers ruled the roost. They remember what it was like, even if so many Americans can’t, because so many Americans were lucky enough not to have experienced it.

To achieve a historically peaceful America—especially in the hardest hit neighborhoods—a whole lot of young men went to jail, especially men of color.

Folks can debate—and should debate—causes of the decline in crime, but surely serious people can agree law enforcement contributed significantly to saving neighborhoods and lives by the thousands. The work of law enforcement helped get us to 2014, a place most people, especially law enforcement, thought impossible.

Reasonable people can also disagree about whether sentences were too long. And I think there is some really good work going on right now in law enforcement, at the prosecutorial and judicial levels, and all the way up to Capitol Hill, to address federal sentences, to be more just, and that’s good to do. There is no doubt that unaddressed drug addiction was a root problem of many who were locked up for property crimes or other non-violent offenses. But we should debate sentencing reform with a fair and honest understanding of history and avoid language that distorts reality.

Nobody “disappeared” from Richmond or New York or Detroit or L.A. in the 1980s and 1990s. Instead, case by case, bad guys were arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced. They didn’t “disappear”; they were removed from their neighborhoods to state and federal prisons, where they received the protections of the Constitution and where family and friends could visit them.

There is no doubt that each of those convictions and jail terms was in some sense a tragedy. There is no doubt that the pain and impact for families left behind was enormous and lasting. There is no doubt that many were left feeling they were forced to choose safety over justice. But each time a predator or drug dealer was moved from the street to prison, that neighborhood got a little better.

And it didn’t happen “en masse.”

Each drug dealer, each mugger, each killer, and each felon with a gun had his own lawyer, his own case, his own time before judge and jury, his own sentencing, and, in many cases, an appeal or other post-sentencing review. There were thousands and thousands of those individual cases, but to speak of “mass incarceration” I believe is confusing, and it distorts an important reality.

And we must stare hard at reality if we are to make good decisions.

That work added up to a very large number of people in jail, especially young men of color. But, then, there were a very large number of young men of color involved in criminal activity in America’s cities and in America’s most desperate neighborhoods.

Each arrest and each prosecution represented a failure on multiple levels of society, and there are many reasons for those failures, stretching back many, many years—frankly, all the way back to the beginning of this country and even before that.

But the pulling of those many weeds, as painful as that was, allowed churches, schools, community groups, and parents to plant seeds that have grown into healthy neighborhoods. Neighborhoods that are free and alive in 2014 in ways that were unimaginable 25 years ago.

We cannot lose sight of that.

A problem we face today is that nobody speaks for those who have not been victimized by crime in recent years because those “victims” don’t exist. There are tens of thousands of people who were not murdered or raped or robbed or intimidated because crime dropped in our country. The victims don’t exist, so they can’t form a constituency, they can’t talk to the press, they can’t talk to Congress.

There are millions of people—people of color—who in 2014 enjoyed their lives and their neighborhoods in ways that were impossible in 1990. They were not trapped in their homes, putting their children to sleep in bathtubs to keep them safe from stray bullets, so they are not here to participate in this important discussion.

They were out living.

Somehow we need to imagine their voices in the current debate about justice in this country as we strive to make ourselves more just.

Although we have come far as a nation, we still have weed-choked neighborhoods.

We heard the voices of real live victims in August in northwest Arkansas, when the FBI and our partners sent hundreds of agents and officers into the predominantly black town of Blytheville to arrest drug dealers who were suffocating the community and overwhelming local police.

As our SWAT teams stood in the street following the arrests of the defendants—70 of them, nearly all of whom were also black—they were met by applause, hugs, and offers of food from the good people of that besieged community.

Those are the voices that we have to hear. Those are the voices we cannot forget.

Of course, we also need to hear the voices of those who have been incarcerated and their families. We need to strive to punish effectively and reintegrate more successfully. We need to deal with the issues of addiction and demand for drugs that we have failed to adequately address 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 is also true that white people buy and use most of the drugs in this country—and the white peoples’ demand for drugs drives the drug trade that is destroying black neighborhoods. It’s a problem our society simply must not drive around.

* * *

And, of course, we need to improve the way we police.

As I said in a speech I gave earlier this year at Georgetown University, there are hard truths that we in law enforcement need to see clearly. Only by looking hard at ourselves can we improve and really connect with the people we protect.

But as we struggle to reexamine our criminal justice system—which surely must be done because it surely can be more just—I hope we don’t lose sight of how we got here.

Perhaps it is true, as someone once said, that the only thing new is the history you don’t know.

Yes, we put a whole lot of people in jail, but over that same period, our cities were transformed.

Lives were saved; lives that matter enormously.

We cannot forget that as we try to get better.

Rising Violent Crime Rates

Part of being clear-eyed about reality requires all of us to stare—and stare hard—at what is happening in this country this year. And to ask ourselves what’s going on.

Because something deeply disturbing is happening all across America.

I have spoken of 2014 in this speech because something has changed in 2015. Far more people are being killed in America’s cities this year than in many years. And 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 is happening.

Most of America’s 50 largest cities have seen an increase in homicides and shootings this year, and many of them have seen a huge increase. These are cities with little in common except being American cities—places like Chicago, Tampa, Minneapolis, Sacramento, Orlando, Cleveland, and Dallas.

In Washington, D.C., we’ve seen an increase in homicides of more than 20 percent in neighborhoods across the city. Baltimore, a city of 600,000 souls, is averaging more than one homicide a day—a rate higher than that of New York City, which has 13 times the people. Milwaukee’s murder rate has nearly doubled over the past year.

And who’s dying?

Police chiefs say the increase is almost entirely among young men of color, at crime scenes in bad neighborhoods where multiple guns are being recovered.

That’s yet another problem that white America can drive around, but if we really believe that all lives matter, as we must, all of us have to understand what is happening.

Communities of color need to demand answers.

Police and civilian leaders need to demand answers.

Academic researchers need to hit this hard.

What could be driving an increase in murder in some cities across all regions of the country, all at the same time? What explains this map and this calendar? Why is it happening in all of different places, all over and all of a sudden?

I’ve been part of a lot of thoughtful conversations with law enforcement, elected officials, academics, and community members in recent weeks. I’ve heard a lot of theories—reasonable theories.

Maybe it’s the return of violent offenders after serving jail terms. Maybe it’s cheap heroin or synthetic drugs. Maybe after we busted up the large gangs, smaller groups are now fighting for turf. Maybe it’s a change in the justice system’s approach to bail or charging or sentencing. Maybe something has changed with respect to the availability of guns.

These are all useful suggestions, but to my mind none of them explain both the map and the calendar in disparate cities over the last 10 months.

But I’ve also heard another explanation, in conversations all over the country. Nobody says it on the record, nobody says it in public, but police and elected officials are quietly saying it to themselves. And they’re saying it to me, and I’m going to say it to you. And it is the one explanation that does explain the calendar and the map and that makes the most sense to me.

Maybe something in policing has changed.

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 from standing around, especially with guns?

I spoke to officers privately in one big city precinct who described being surrounded by young people with mobile phone cameras held high, taunting them the moment they get out of their cars. They told me, “We feel like we’re under siege and we don’t feel much like getting out of our cars.”

I’ve been told about a senior police leader who urged his force to remember that their political leadership has no tolerance for a viral video.

So the suggestion, the question that has been asked of me, is whether these kinds of things are changing police behavior all over the country.

And the answer is, I don’t know. I don’t know whether this explains it entirely, but I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year. And that wind is surely changing behavior.

Part of that behavior change is to be welcomed, as we continue to have important discussions about police conduct and de-escalation and the use of deadly force.

Those are essential discussions and law enforcement will get better as a result.

But we can’t lose sight of the fact that there really are bad people standing on the street with guns. The young men dying on street corners all across this country are not committing suicide or being shot by the cops. They are being killed, police chiefs tell me, by other young men with guns.

Lives are saved when those potential killers are confronted by a strong police presence and actual, honest-to-goodness, up-close “What are you guys doing on this corner at one o’clock in the morning?” policing. All of us, civilian and law enforcement, white, black, and Latino, have an interest in that kind of policing.

We need to be careful it doesn’t drift away from us in the age of viral videos, or there will be profound consequences. If we are not careful, we will lose the space in American life to talk about criminal justice reform—to focus on recidivism and re-entry and sentencing reform—and to talk about effective police interactions with civilians, all of which are essential.

In a way, those conversations are a welcome luxury, made possible by the fact that—as of 2014—we have a violent crime rate we haven’t seen in 50 years. If what we are seeing in America this year continues, we will be back to talking about how law enforcement needs to help rescue black neighborhoods from the grip of violence.

All lives matter too much for us to let that happen.

We need to figure out what’s happening and deal with it now.

The Need for Better Data

One of the ways to get a better handle on what’s happening in our communities is through more and better information.

“Data” is a dry word, but we need better data. And people tend to tune out when you start to talk about it, but it’s important, because it gives us the full picture of what’s happening.

It’s what smart people use to make good decisions all over the country in all walks of life, and in all kinds of work. It saves lives in medicine by equipping doctors in Chicago to know whether they are facing local food poisoning or a national epidemic.

I’ve been pressing for more data for a couple of months now, and I will continue to do so.

Data related to violent crime and homicides. Data related to officer-involved shootings. Data related to altercations with the citizens we serve, and attacks against law enforcement officers.

The good news is after a few months of discussions, law enforcement leaders see it as I do and I am optimistic we will get our country the data we need to better understand crime and policing.

It may take us a few years to get there, to get all American law enforcement reporting through the National Incident-Based Reporting System, which is a rich source of data. But the good news—or bad news depending upon your perspective—is that I’m here for another eight years and I will continue to push for this kind of vital information.

And maybe most of all, we need to remember this isn’t just data.

These are lives; these are families.

These are not just complex criminal issues; they are complex social issues, as old as our country.

We need better information to make better decisions.

We need everyone working together to find solutions, armed with facts.

* * *

I wanted to meet with you today because this is not just a law enforcement challenge. And it is good that we have heard from President Obama, and from the Attorney General on this issue. And Monday, I’m going to speak to 10,000 police chiefs from across the country about these same issues. But this isn’t just a law enforcement challenge.

It is your challenge.

It is our collective challenge—as lawyers, as concerned citizens, as Americans.

Because these are our communities. These are our neighbors, our children, our friends—our street corners and schools and public parks.

We want them to be safe; we want them to thrive.

And when drugs and gangs and gun violence start to rip our communities apart, we cannot just drive around the problem.

We must force ourselves to do the hard work. We have to weed where we must and seed wherever we can.

We all need to talk and we all need to listen, not just about the easy things, but about the hard things, too. About the state of our communities, the state of policing, and the state of our relationships.

These conversations will be bumpy and difficult. Because people are challenging. And perspectives can be difficult to change.

We must find a way to bend these lines toward each other.

And here’s the good news: It’s hard to hate up close. It’s hard to hate someone once you sit and stare into their eyes and start to understand where they’re coming from, and why they feel the way they do.

We have to get up close if we are to bend these lines. We must start seeing one another more clearly.

We have to resist stereotypes. We have to look for information beyond anecdotes. And we must understand that we need each other.

Our lines—law enforcement and civilian—are best when they travel together and lead us all toward safety and justice.

Thank you for what you’ve done and what you will do. I look forward to the conversation.