March 13, 2015

Law Enforcement and Race

Continuing the Conversation

The sometimes uneasy relationship between members of law enforcement and the diverse communities they serve can be a difficult topic to discuss, but FBI Director James B. Comey today encouraged the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) to continue that conversation—and he again called for better reporting of incidents where force is used by police and against them.

During a speech to the NOBLE group in Atlanta, Georgia, Comey noted that the organization’s members were “uniquely qualified as law enforcement leaders who are leaders of color” to drive this conversation forward, and he pledged that the FBI would strive to be a more diverse organization to reflect the nation it serves.

In the wake of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the assassinations of two New York City Police Department officers, and other recent racially charged police incidents around the country, Comey last month publicly addressed the contentious issue of law enforcement and race, acknowledging some “hard truths.”

“One of my worries is that we were drifting to a place where we were not having a balanced conversation,” Comey said, and not being honest about how law enforcement and ethnic communities “see” one another. He called on NOBLE members to help “foster a more balanced and open-minded discussion.”

One of Comey’s goals is to have better reporting of data about encounters between police and citizens, especially violent encounters. Currently, demographic data regarding officer-involved shootings is not consistently reported to the FBI through its Uniform Crime Reporting Program because reporting is voluntary for local police departments. “In the absence of that data,” he said, “all conversations about policing and policy are uninformed, and that’s not a good place to be. We can do better.”

On the issue of diversity within the FBI, Comey acknowledged that the number of minority special agents has been on a slow but steady decline, and he is working on new recruiting strategies to hire more people of color.

“Diversity must be at the core of all of our conversations at the FBI,” he said. “Diversity is about doing the right thing, but also about effectiveness. It’s about being good at what we do. We are simply less effective when we are less diverse.”

A more diverse workforce allows the Bureau to connect better to the communities it serves and fosters greater trust with witnesses, victims, and even potential sources. “Diversity gives us credibility,” he explained, adding that he recently added diversity to the list of the FBI’s core values. “I want to talk about it and drive it into the conversations we have in my organization every single day.”

Cedric Alexander, president of NOBLE, said he appreciated Comey’s candor regarding the issue of law enforcement and race. “His willingness to be part of change in a positive way—and seeking out NOBLE to work with him and take an active role in creating a better public safety environment at all levels—is admirable. He has obviously given a lot of thought to these issues.”

Comey also spoke about the changing terrorism threat and why partnership between local, state, and federal law enforcement is in many ways more critical now than it was after the 9/11 attacks.

“We have taken the fight to core al Qaeda,” he said, and largely diminished their capacity to strike America. But spinoff groups such as ISIL have gotten “very slick at social media” and are spreading a poisonous message through the Internet. “ISIL is issuing a siren song to troubled souls,” he explained, and these homegrown terrorists are more likely to be initially noticed by a police officer on a neighborhood patrol than a federal officer.

The homegrown terror threat is occurring everywhere in the country, Comey said. “In all 50 states, there are people who are in some stage of consuming this propaganda and moving toward radicalization. Our task is to find them and disrupt them.” The only way to succeed at that, he added, is through a unified law enforcement effort.