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FBI Director Wades Into Contentious Debate Over Policing And Race


The FBI director says the nation is at a crossroads when it comes to race and policing. James Comey told students at Georgetown University today that it's time for law enforcement and communities to face some hard truths. He spoke as federal authorities investigate police shootings of unarmed black people in New York, Ferguson, Mo., and Cleveland. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The hour-long talk represented the first time the FBI director weighed in on the disconnect between police and minority communities. Speaking on Abraham Lincoln's birthday, in a lavish Georgetown hall named after a man born into slavery, James Comey said law enforcement needs to account for a troubling inheritance.


JAMES COMEY: All of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty. At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups.

JOHNSON: Comey says he remembers that past by keeping a wiretap application on his desk at the FBI. That document is what his predecessor used to surveil and harass Martin Luther King, Jr. Even more insidious, Comey said, is unconscious racial bias. To punctuate the point, he recited these lyrics from the Broadway musical "Avenue Q."


COMEY: Look around and you will find no one's really colorblind. Maybe it's a fact we all should face. Everyone makes judgments based on race. You should be grateful I did not try to sing that.


JOHNSON: The FBI director said racial bias is no more prominent in law enforcement than it is in other professions. And he said most police get into the job to help people, and they do. But Comey warned it's easy for police to assume everyone's lying and everyone's guilty.


COMEY: Many of us develop different flavors of cynicism that we work hard to resist because they can be lazy mental shortcuts.

JOHNSON: He also offered an antidote to that cynicism.


COMEY: I think it's hard to hate up close. And that the police in our country need to get out of their cars, both literally and figuratively, and get to know the people they serve and the people in the communities need to know them.

JOHNSON: Comey said he's trying to diversify the ranks of the FBI by reaching out to historically black colleges and universities.


COMEY: It is an imperative for all of us in law enforcement to try to reflect the communities we serve - big challenge for the FBI, right? The FBI is overwhelmingly white and male among my agent force.

JOHNSON: Comey didn't address concerns Muslim Americans have expressed over racial and ethnic profiling by law enforcement in the years since 9/11. As the leader of the top federal law enforcement bureaucracy, the FBI director doesn't have much control over what thousands of state and local police do. But Comey says they can and should do more to report how often they use force against civilians. There are few reliable statistics on police shootings.


COMEY: It's ridiculous that I can't tell you how many people were shot by the police in this country last week, last year, the last decade. It's ridiculous.

JOHNSON: The FBI director concluded with a plea for police to acknowledge their shortcomings, to think about the black man walking home from the library before they approach him. Comey also said it's easier to point the finger at law enforcement when something deeper is at work.


COMEY: Law enforcement is not the root cause of the problems in our hardest hit neighborhoods.

JOHNSON: He mentioned inadequate education, few role models and economic disadvantage in many poor neighborhoods. That conversation, Comey said, is even more complicated than the one about policing. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.