Director Comey’s Opening Remarks at Forum on Race and Law Enforcement

BI Director James Comey joined Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams, Cuyahoga County Sheriff Clifford Pinkney, and more than 200 members of the local community on October 15, 2015 at a forum on race and law enforcement at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland.

Video Transcript

It’s an honor to be here. And I want to explain to you why I’m here. I think we have a crisis going on in this country. President Obama has described it as a slow-rolling crisis that we think goes away until it doesn’t.

I imagine two lines. One is us in law enforcement. And the other is the folks we serve and protect, especially in communities of color. And I think those two lines are arcing away from each other. And each incident that involves either real or perceived misconduct bends this line this way. Each time a police officer is murdered in the line of duty it bends this line this way. And I actually feel the lines continuing to arc away from each other. And that is a terrible place to be.

And one of the things we see going on in this country right now is—from a national perspective—a spike in violent crime and murder especially in cities all over the United States that have nothing in common with each other except they are American cities. Like Tampa and Dallas and Hartford, Connecticut and Cleveland and Milwaukee and Chicago. And so many other cities are seeing a huge jump this year in violent crime.

And the people who are dying are invariably people of color. Young men. And it’s a problem the rest of the country could easily drive around, because it’s happening to those people in those neighborhoods. We cannot allow that to happen.

And so in the course of the lines arcing away from each other we have a crisis of violent crime in some of our most vulnerable communities.

I’m here because I think Cleveland is a place of great pain that is in a way illustrative of that crisis of those bending arcs. But I think given the quality of the leadership you have here and the folks here in this room you actually have the best chance in America of arcing those lines back together and showing this country how it can be done.

And I think the answer to how it can be done is something unscientific. It’s simply understanding that it’s hard to hate up close. And we have to see each other more clearly.

The people that we serve and protect must see the heart of law enforcement. We must see the people we serve and protect. I mean really see and try and understand them.

The reason I spoke at Georgetown—I’m egomaniac enough to be citing my own speeches to you—but I went at the president’s request to the funeral of one of the two police officers executed in New York City, an Asian-American named Wenjian Liu. And shot sitting in his car by a sick guy. And as I stood at that funeral and talked to civilians and to law enforcement I could feel this palpable pain. And this frustration. I could almost feel the lines arcing away from each other.

And that’s when I thought, you know, I’m lucky enough to have this amazing job. Could I contribute to the conversation being healthier or more balanced. So maybe we can start to figure out how to arc the lines back together. And as Steve said, I thought there were four things that were true that we had to say.

The first was we in law enforcement have to own our history—that we have long in this country been enforcers of the status quo. And a status quo that was really rough on minority communities. I come from Irish-American stock—there’s a reason the wagon in which we put prisoners is called the paddywagon. Because the view of Irish-Americans was they’re a bunch of criminals. They’ll never be anything but drunks and criminals.

And the experience, especially of black Americans, dwarfs that. We in law enforcement have to own that and understand that’s the legacy of our country because the people we serve and protect don’t forget it. It’s part of their inheritance as well.

Second, we’ve all got to understand that every single one of us carries latent biases. Every single one of us—no matter how good your heart—there are parts of you that react differently to someone who looks different than you do. That is an inescapable part of the human experience. But that biology is not destiny. And it’s what you do next that matters. And understanding that we have those biases is critical to being good people and good enforcers.

Third, I said we also have got to stare at the fact that something happens to those of us who do this work. We see so much pain and crime and badness all day long that it can warp our view of life. And I said in the speech it can get us to a place where we see two identically dressed groups of men—black on one side, white on the other side—we react differently to those on that side of the street to those on that side of the street.

We have to understand that cynicism is a danger in our work. And it leads to mental shortcuts that can have profound consequences.

And the fourth truth I said is, look, we also got to understand as much as we need to improve policing and we can get better and we can be better at our jobs. Anybody who thinks that better policing is the answer to the challenges we face in the neighborhoods we patrol is kidding themselves.

The problems we face are so hard that honestly it’s easier to talk about the cops. There’s lots wrong with those of us in law enforcement, but we are not the root causes of problems in the neighborhoods we serve and protect.

And I worry that the root cause is so hard to fix that people don’t want to talk about it. And it’s easier to talk about policing. And that would be a big mistake.

So we sit here ate a turning point in American history. We risk giving back what we’ve gained over the last generation in reducing violent crime. Shame on us if we allowed that to happen, to have our children inherit an America that we lived in in the 60s, 70s and 80s. We can’t let that happen.

And an answer to fighting that and retaining what we’ve worked so hard for is arcing those lines back together. And that is human beings talking to each other about how we can solve the problems that divide us.

So thank you for this opportunity. I would not do this anywhere in the country. This is a place of tremendous promise, given its pain and its leadership. So thank you for the invitation.

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