James B. Comey
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Historically Black Colleges and Universities Law Enforcement Executives and Administrators Annual Training Conference, Bethune-Cookman University
Daytona, Florida
July 13, 2016

Protecting Our Nation's Colleges and Universities

Remarks as delivered.

Thank you for that introduction. It is great to be with you all. I am here because you invited me—you get what you ask for. What I thought I could do is share with you some thoughts on things that I know are on your mind and are also on my mind, and then I'd love to have a conversation with you and just take questions and feedback, whatever you want to talk about. We're in the same business.

I want to start by talking about something that’s on all of our minds today. I was in Dallas yesterday for the memorial service where President Obama spoke and President George W. Bush spoke, and hearts were very, very heavy. This is a very difficult time for law enforcement in the United States, and the conversations that we—all of us—have been trying to have for our careers, and especially over the last couple years, about race and law enforcement couldn't be more important. And I know you will continue those conversations, and I promise you that I will continue those conversations, because I imagine two lines in American life. One is us in law enforcement and the other is the communities that we serve and protect, especially communities of color. And those two lines, for the last two years now, have been slowly arcing away from each other, and each incident of real or perceived misconduct by law enforcement bends this line a little bit this way. Each time a law enforcement officer is attacked in the line of duty, especially in circumstances like we experienced Thursday night in Dallas, our line bends this way.

There isn't an easy answer to bending them back together. There’s no scientific way to predict and to drive those lines together. It requires human contact. I've believed my whole life that it’s hard to hate up close, and that the answer to arcing those lines back together is to get up close—community by community, department by department, state by state—for on our side, to show people the true heart of law enforcement, to show people what we are like, what we care about, what we've chosen to do with our lives. And in that showing, also acknowledge where we have fallen short—to stare at ourselves and what is true about ourselves and the way in which we can get better.

Both President Bush and President Obama said things yesterday that were deeply meaningful and important. One thing that former President Bush said stuck with me. He talked about human weakness and human failure, and he said we have a tendency as human beings to judge others by their worst moments, and judge ourselves by our best intentions, and that leaves a gap between us. It leaves us unable to actually put ourselves in the position of another, and see the world as they might see it, and especially see ourselves as they might see us.

I think it’s vitally important. I think he’s right about the human condition, human nature. I think it’s vitally important that all of us, whether we're in law enforcement or not, resist that human weakness, and try very, very hard to put ourselves in the shoes of others, and force ourselves to have the hard conversations.

I've said many times and to my workforce that I believe one of the central narratives of American life is race. I sent them a Fourth of July message where I talked about the greatness of America, and I said we're also a country that was born in original sin. We were a country of slave owners when this country was born. The narrative of race has been the center of this great country, and central to this great country; it’s also something we have a hard time talking about. The answer to our challenge is we’ve got to get over that. We have to get close to each other and talk about what is bothering both sides and what is true about civilians and what is true about law enforcement.

To do that, we need information. We need data. Data is a boring word. It is a dry word, but it is essential. I believe every conversation at the national level about race and law enforcement is uninformed. Every conversation is uninformed, because we don't have the information that we need. It is ridiculous that health care professionals can tell you what symptoms have been seen in hospitals and emergency rooms around the country within hours of those symptoms emerging. Booksellers can tell you how many books of a certain kind were sold in what city and when. Movie producers can do the same thing.

We in law enforcement have no ability to tell ourselves or tell our country what we see at the aggregate level in terms of the most important use of governmental authority, which is the use of lethal force in encounters with civilians. All the time, I hear people talk about the epidemic of lethal force directed against African-American civilians, and my answer is, "How do you know that? I don't know that." There could be an epidemic. There could be no epidemic. We are operating without data.

One of the things all of us in law enforcement are working very hard on is to get ourselves to a place where we can collect and share that data, not just in law enforcement, but share it across the country so that conversations about this most important topic are informed.

Yesterday, on the front page of the New York Times, there was an article about a study released this week by an African-American economist at Harvard, who in the wake of the pain of Ferguson, Missouri, said, "I'm not a protest person. I'm a data person, so I'm going to jump into the data." And he has begun the work that we simply must do at a national level. The results he came to after looking at hundreds of thousands of police encounters surprised him. Some good news and some bad news. The bad news is he concluded that black people are far more likely in a police encounter to have hands laid on them, to be handcuffed, to be searched, to be pepper sprayed. And he found something else that surprised him—that black people are far less likely to be shot than white people in a similar circumstance. He said that result surprised him.

I don't know whether those results add up across the country, but those are the kind of things we have to stare at. I promise you on behalf of the FBI, we will continue to drive to collect the data that allows us to have informed conversations about the most important thing we do, which is have encounters with civilians, and in some circumstances have used deadly force. I appreciate your support on that.

Second, while I'm on the topic of race, I want to tell you how I'm thinking of diversity in the FBI. We have a crisis in the FBI, and it is this: Slowly but steadily over the last decade or more, the percentage of special agents in the FBI who are white has been growing. We are now 83 percent white in our special agent category, and I have nothing against white people—especially tall, awkward, male white people—but that is a crisis for reasons that you get and that I work very hard to make sure the entire FBI understands.

That is a path to a fall down a flight of stairs, because at some point, people will look at the FBI and say, "Well, that’s where white people work," and then 83 percent will become 100 percent, and we will be less effective for the American people in two different respects. We have to interact and operate in a country that is moving in the opposite direction, that is getting more interesting, more diverse, more complicated, more wonderful in my view. As we become steadily but slowly more white, we are less able to be effective in operating in that country, and in the many, many communities that make it up. That’s the first reason.

The second reason is the trap of me. The central challenge of human existence, I believe, the central challenge for being a human being trying to lead, is that I can only see the world through me. I am trapped inside this not too impressive six-foot-eight-inch, skinny, white guy from the New York metropolitan area existence. That’s who I am. I can't escape that. All data that I take in comes in through that filter. There is great danger in it, because to make effective decisions, I need to think about things better than I am capable of thinking about things trapped in myself. So I need people around me who have experienced the world differently than I have—perceive the world differently than I have—as an antidote to that “trapped in me” phenomena. That is true for all leaders in the world, all leaders in law enforcement, all leaders in the FBI. We are less effective if we don't constantly resist the “danger of me.”

We're doing a whole lot in the FBI. We're going to change this. I will have failed if I leave in 2,609 days, not that I'm counting. That’s what I have left in my term. I have about seven years left. I will have failed if I leave without changing that. It is not a moon landing. The answer, as we've said inside the FBI, is we need to understand that recruiting is not somebody else’s job. It’s my job. It’s your job. It’s your job. If you're in line at a Denny’s or you're in a ball game, you are recruiting for the FBI.

One of my daughters summarized the challenge for us this way. I have five kids. They're all very smart, like their mother. They give me brutally honest feedback. One of them said, "Dad, the problem is you're the man." I thought that was a compliment, so I said, "Thank you." She said, "No, Dad, the problem is you're the man. Who wants to work for the man?" I said, "You're right," but if you were to peek inside the man—not me personally, but inside my organization, and I'm sure this is true of your organization—what you would see should inspire and attract people from all walks of life, because we do good for a living. We protect the most vulnerable. We protect civil rights. We fight violent crime. We fight terrorism.

A measure of that is that the FBI actually only has one of the normal two diversity problems. Most organizations struggle to attract great talent from diverse backgrounds. And the second challenge most organizations have is they struggle to make those people, who are in a minority in that organization, feel comfortable, feel part of the family. Most organizations struggle to attract and struggle to retain. We do not have that second problem in the FBI.

I say with a smile that we are like one of the world’s great roach motels. Once you come in, you do not leave the FBI. Our turnover amongst federal agents—whether they are white or black, man or woman, Asian, Latino, it doesn't matter—our turnover is about 0.5 percent. Almost nobody leaves once they taste this mission that you know so well and you've devoted your lives to. Once they taste the work of the FBI they find that our community is an embracing community. We are a family that’s made up of tens of thousands of people, so in any family, you're going to have your weird uncles and aunts, but in the main, we are a welcoming family. We do not have that second problem. We have the first problem, which is getting people of great talent to try to get into the FBI.

Our mission is to get out there and show people what we're like, and we're doing it in a ton of different ways. Most of my workforce can't stand the TV program Quantico, because it shows we only have our clothes on about half the time. But one of the things I like about it is, and I say it with a smile, hey, it shows we're attractive and diverse on TV. It is a hugely popular show among young people of all backgrounds. That’s a great thing.

I dream of a day when every boy and girl—black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, it doesn't matter—when they are in middle school, thinks about the FBI. When I was in middle school, every boy in America thought about the FBI, because there was a program on Sunday nights called The FBI. We only had three channels and PBS. You had to get up when they said to change the channel, so I watched The FBI, as did a huge number of people who work with us today, and I was shaped by it.

What we do for a living is different. It’s about the orientation towards life. It’s about orientation towards other people. It’s not a thing you do. It’s a way you are, and you become that way very early in your life. My dream is when those people are deciding who they want to be, to be there and have them think about us and understand that the man is actually not the man. It’s the man and woman. It’s not just a white man. It’s people of all different colors, and it is a very cool place to work. That’s my dream.

I know our interests are not aligned here. I'm talking to a group of law enforcement professionals. I'd like to steal your talent. I’ve got to be honest about that. One of the things we're doing—all of you know that talent that sits in America is historically at colleges and universities. We're doing a whole lot of hiring off of college campuses, and I'll let you in on our secret. We have figured out that if we get talented young people to come in in non-agent roles, they will become addicted to this mission. That is much smarter than they will grow up to be something else inside the FBI. That’s much smarter than waiting till they're 29, which is the average of entry for FBI agents, and then try to grab somebody who is talented who may have golden handcuffs on them, because they work for Coca-Cola, or Microsoft, or something. We will get them young. We will raise them up. We will steal from you. That’s our mission.

As I said, I will have failed if I don't change this, and I have a good feeling it’s already changing. I spend a lot of time at Quantico. We're hiring hundreds of people, and we're making progress. I don't want to jinx it by giving you too much at the outset, but we're making progress. People are understanding it’s not just the man.

Third, I want to give you an update on how we're thinking about the terrorism threat, because I know it concerns you very much. All of you know this, but it’s taken a while, I think, for the American people to understand that the al Qaeda model that has dominated our thinking for the last 20 years was utterly broken by the group that calls itself the Islamic State. Al Qaeda focused on carefully selected operatives, multi-pronged attacks against national landmarks, hugely visible targets to do the next big thing against America, and communicated in a very old fashioned way by posting magazines online that people had to go find, and communicated with potential adherents almost never. Maybe sometimes people e-mailed into one of their magazines.

That model was destroyed two years ago by the Islamic State, which began crowd sourcing terrorism and sending out a siren song in a very sophisticated way through social media, pushing it out through this chaotic spider web, so you no longer had to go find the terrorist message. It landed on your hip 24 hours a day, and it was a message that was very different. It was a message of come or kill. Come to our caliphate and live the life of glory and participate in a final battle on God’s side. Come find meaning with us, and if you can't come, kill where you are. Kill any way. Use a rock. Use an axe. Use a gun. Use a car. Kill in our name. And especially kill people in uniform, law enforcement or military.

They began pushing that message of poison out a couple of years ago, and here’s the thing about social media, especially Twitter. It works. It works to promote books and movies. It works to make your intimate social connection. It works. You send a message of poison and it resonates with troubled souls.

All of you know this because of the work you do. We have troubled souls in all 50 states in our great country, and so their message began to pay off about a year ago, in the spring of 2015, where we saw an increase in people traveling to find meaning and an increase in people all across the country, radicalizing towards violence, killing in their name. That is the challenge of this era.

The al Qaeda model, in a way without even knowing it, could be counted on. We counted on the fact that just shooting people in a club or attacking a police officer with a hatchet on the street would be an admission of weakness by al Qaeda. They couldn't afford that if they were going to portray themselves as the leader of the global Jihad. The Islamic State, so-called, thinks about it totally differently. Generally, violence in their name is an important thing to them.

Why am I telling you this? This makes the connections among all of us more important, frankly, than they were at September 11, because this is a threat that’s not focused on Washington or airplanes. It’s focused on wherever there are people who can be killed, and wherever there are troubled souls, radicalizing towards that violence. Our connections, through our joint terrorism task forces, through our relationships, are critical to seeing that threat and responding to it.

There’s good news. Since last summer, we have seen a drop in the number of people attempting to travel to join the so-called Islamic State, their so-called caliphate. Those numbers went from about six, eight, 10 a month we were seeing to about one a month. That’s good news. I don't want to fall in love with it, because I want to make sure there’s not something we're missing. I want to make sure it’s also not a phenomenon that’s shifting towards people staying home to engage in violence, but in the main, that’s good news.

The bad news is we still face hundreds and hundreds of cases where people are somewhere on the spectrum of consuming to acting, and those people are very hard to see. They are the kind of operative that al Qaeda would never use, because they're unpredictable. They're drug users. They have mental illness. They're pedophiles. They are screwed up people, who can act unpredictably and act in a violent way unpredictably, so it’s made our work even harder. Our work is to find needles in a haystack normally. I describe this as we still have to find needles in a haystack. We also have to figure out which pieces of hay might some day become a needle. That is enormously difficult for all of us, and I thank you for your help on that.

I want to say two more things that are closer to your immediate work, and then I'll take your questions. Campus violence and campus shootings, especially mass shootings, have dominated during my adult life and are a huge feature of campus law enforcement’s work.

The FBI has a very important role to play there, and that is to make sure you and your partners are equipped with the most current information on trends, indicators, and tactics. If you do not have and have not seen a copy of the movie The Coming Storm, we will get it to you immediately. We have people here from our Office of Partner Engagement. One of the most important things we've done in the last couple years is to produce that movie. It cost a fair amount of money. It’s worth a hundred times the money that it cost, because it equips all law enforcement in a chilling, chilling real to life video to understand how we have to operate in the wake of such a terror attack. We will continue to try to find ways to share with you our thinking, our indicators, our training, and we will welcome your feedback as to how we might be more useful to you.

The last thing I want to mention to you is something I know you're interested in, which is how do we equip kids who are going to study abroad to be smarter and safer? There’s no easy way to do this, because the world is a dangerous place, and bright, young people like the people you protect end up going all over the world for great experiences, and they should continue to do that.

Here’s how we think about it. Obviously, you should make sure that all of those young people receive a briefing of some sort before they leave your campus. They need to know the basics, like how to sign up for State Department alerts and things like that. Here’s something else I would suggest you share with them. This is something I've actually shared with my own kids. They got this training from the FBI when I became Director to think about the world a little differently.

All of you in law enforcement know there are four potential states of existence: Red, orange, yellow and white. Red is a state of tremendous stress. You're in a fight. The stress hormones are coursing through your body. It’s unsustainable, but it may be lifesaving. Orange is a state of being where you're on the cusp of a fight. Stress hormones are starting to pump through you. You're getting closer to something very dangerous. Also an unsustainable state, although we ask our people, frankly, in law enforcement to live in it most of the time. Orange and red are places a young person can't live for any period of time.

White is earplugs in, loud music on, texting on a New York City subway platform at midnight. It is an utter unawareness of your surroundings. What my children have been trained to do, and I hope the children you are responsible for—great colleges and universities are training the same way—is to live in a state of yellow, which is a state of heightened awareness, a knowledge that bad things can happen and are out there, but not a disabling state of fear. A disabling state of fear is exactly what the savages want from us. We should urge our young people to live in a state of awareness.

A friend of mine e-mailed me not long ago. He said, "Is it safe for my daughter to go study in Europe?" I said, "Yes, it is." But then I explained to him you should teach her to live in a state of yellow. When she enters a restaurant, a concert hall, she should be intensely aware of her surroundings. Look where the exits are. My kids were taught that two seconds is the difference between life and death. Two seconds. Two seconds is actually quite a long time if you're mentally available to seize the opportunity. One-one thousand, two-one thousand. In that time, you can get yourself to a safe place. You can begin to make a move. It is impossible to take advantage of those two seconds in a state of white. You must be in a state of yellow. Not disabling fear, but a healthy awareness.

I ask my kids, "If you walk in a restaurant, look around. See what’s around you, and just ask yourself quickly, ‘If something bad happened, where would I go?’” Within those two seconds, you can go somewhere that may save your life. I know that’s depressing advice, but I think it’s very, very important that we give it to young people, both to avoid them becoming disabled from fear and to avoid them standing on a metro station somewhere in Europe with earphones in, ignoring the world. My suggestion to you is that you teach them be safe to the world and teach them to go abroad with joy and an open mind, with a healthy awareness of their surroundings.

What we do is very hard, especially now. I have five kids. Girl, girl, boy, girl, girl. My son just graduated from college, a small liberal arts college. Very, very good student. Very, very good athlete. Thank God he takes after his mother in both respects. He could do anything. Next Monday, he starts at a police academy. He told me he wanted to be a police officer because he wanted to help people. That is a wonderful thing. I am so proud of him. He has chosen a life of service, a life that makes his mother very nervous, but is a life of service.

In today’s environment, I worry very much that we could, if we're not careful, visit upon the next generation a real tragedy in America, and that is if we allow other brave men and women coming out of great colleges to be dissuaded from that kind of choice, to conclude that law enforcement is something controversial. It’s not something you're sure you want to be part of, because it’s a bit messy. If we allow that to happen, we will be sorry as a country. You won't notice it maybe it for a few years. You will notice it a generation from now. We must make sure that we show young men and women in America what law enforcement is like, and what an extraordinarily difficult and rewarding way it is to live.

Here’s how I talk about it when I talk to young people. I'm a bit of a depressing speaker. I say, look, kids, bad things happen. Life is really short. You can see why they don't love having me back as a speaker. I say bad things happen. Life is so short. There’s a danger in life, and it is that you will only live it forward, that you will only strive for the good grades, to get the diploma, to get the good job, to get a nicer car, to get an extra bedroom for the house, to save the money for the kids for college—all things that are really, really important—to get recognized, to get honored. If you only do that, you may miss what’s important in life. The smoke of things like fame, and money, and prestige may obscure what matters.

I tell them do this. Close your eyes and imagine yourself old and gray and about to die, and I hope we're all old and gray at that point. You're at the end of your life. Close your eyes and look back, and ask this question: Who do I want to have been? Who do I want to have been? Because when you ask it from that vantage point, the smoke is clear. Houses, cars, money, plaques on the wall, honors, who cares? What matters will come to you if you look at life backwards from the end, and I tell them this, and I am actually honest with them and say one of the reasons I'm telling you this is because I think from that vantage point, a life of service will make sense to you.

I know my answer. I know the answer of the people who are sitting here. The answer is—my personal answer is—I want to have been someone who had quality relationships with the people around me. I want to be a great husband, a great father, a great grandfather. Lord, I'd love to be a great grandfather. I want to be a great member of my community, and I also want to have been somebody who, with what ability I have, did something for people who needed me. That’s who I want to have been. That’s who you have decided to be. That’s why you're sitting here.

I think we've got to make sure we get out there and talk to young people to make them understand that although this is a hard way to live and a difficult way to live, it is the right way to live, given that question. You will have been something remarkable. You will not make a lot of dough. You will not get a lot of fame. You'll get a whole lot of criticism, but at the end of your life you will be glad in a way that those who let the smoke obscure what matters will not be.

I thank you for making that choice. I thank you for the people you lead making that choice. I hope you will join me in trying to convince the talented young people of this country that they should answer the question the same way. Until that 2,610th day—and I will leave at the end of my 10-year term—I will keep talking about these things we care about. I will keep listening, I hope in a good way, trying to make us better, make us more just, and make sure that great young people follow us into these seats so this country is safer. Thank you for listening.