Friday, February 13, 2015

James Comey Can't Handle the Truth

Yesterday, FBI Director James Comey gave an impassioned speech about the “disconnect” between many minority communities in America and the police officers charged with keeping them safe. He listed four “hard truths” that the police and the public need to come to terms with in order to fix the current system.

The first “hard truth” was that “at many points in American history,” law enforcement has been used to oppress ethnic and other minorities through violence, intimidation, and brutality. Well, rather, Comey said, “law enforcement enforced the status quo…that was brutally unfair.”

This is less a hard truth than it is a watered-down history lesson. Convict-lease systems, in many respects, extended slavery well into the 20th century by using vagrancy and other charges to incarcerate black men and sell them into dangerous industrial slavery. Police were used to enforce segregation and violently break up peaceful marches throughout the Civil Rights Era. And, throughout our history, blacks have been the victims of wanton police violence for any number of reasons from John Lewis to Rodney King to Michael Brown to Eric Garner and countless others in between. Since Emancipation, when they lost the protection as a master’s property, black people—particularly young black men—have had an antagonistic relationship with the police, effectively without interruption.

The second “hard truth” concerned the research that indicated “widespread…unconscious [racial] bias.” (I never thought I’d see the day when the head of the FBI quote a ribald Broadway puppet show to explain “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.”)

Again, there’s nothing very hard about this truth. We live in a society in which much of our population can remember Segregation, racial-political assassinations, and other forms of white racial terrorism. Racism isn’t just the uncle who tells nigger jokes after a couple beers. We live in a society that had racism built-in to its foundation—indeed, its founding documents—and killed more than half a million of its own citizens for the right to keep a portion of them in bondage in perpetuity. These same portion of people, mind you, have had the federal government recognize their full panoply of constitutionally guaranteed rights for just over 50 years.

Of course Americans still have racial hang-ups! That a man with such power and gravitas couches the utterly obvious with vulgar puppets and “unsettling research” speaks to the mind-numbing power of American denial.

Director Comey continues, attempting to soften the blow,
“But racial bias isn’t epidemic in those who join law enforcement any more than it is in academia or the arts. In fact, I believe law enforcement overwhelmingly attracts people who want to do good for living[.]”
I’ve had my share of bad professors, but I don’t remember any of them ever choking any of their students to death for writing exam answers on their forearm or shooting them to death for in-class sarcasm.

The monopoly on the use of force held by police officers makes them unlike everyone else in society. If all black Americans had to deal with were clutched purses and off-color jokes from art teachers, we wouldn’t be having this absurd excuse for a “national conversation.” The fear and loathing of young black men costs too many of them their lives at the hands of police officers. That is the hard truth.

The third hard truth actually would be useful, if Director Comey didn’t immediately undermine himself trying to explain it. “Something happens to people in law enforcement….After years of police work, officers often can’t help but be influenced by the cynicism they feel.”

That police work often involves repeated encounters in minority neighborhoods using heavy handed tactics that can’t help but affect how that community views them. The community of Ferguson, Missouri—a mostly black suburb of St. Louis—had nearly 33,000 arrest warrants issued for non-violent offenses in 2013, many of which stem from traffic tickets and related court fees. The town population is 21,135. In the wake of recent protests, arrestees too poor to make bail found themselves in a Dickensian debtors prison, unable to pay for their release.

Let’s ask them about their cynicism.

Director Comey builds a straw-man to set up his fourth and final “hard truth”: officers aren’t racist because they don’t arrest enough “white robbers and drug dealers,” because if they were, it would be easy to fix. It’s because black people do drugs and don’t have jobs so they “become part of [an] officer’s life.” You see, repeated interaction with black people makes police officers cynical and if the black people just had jobs, we wouldn’t be in this situation.

As the Ferguson arrest warrants show, it doesn’t seem to matter whether black people are doing the things that would normally necessitate them becoming part of an officer’s life. Being black and poor puts them in communities that experience frequent and often less-than-cordial contact with police officers.

Director Comey, trying to appear magnanimous, said
“A tragedy of American life…is that young people in “those neighborhoods” too often inherit a legacy of crime and prison. And with that inheritance, they become part of a police officer’s life, and shape the way that officer—whether white or black—sees the world.”
This is circular logic at its most odious. Law enforcement, in its zeal to fight its war on drugs and crime, extracted scores of men from communities and put them into the criminal justice system. This deprived children of fathers and robbed the communities of economic resources. This,in turn, created the young black men that engender cynicism from today’s officers who “often can’t help” it.

While there is much to be said for back-end reforms that help former inmates return to society, the law enforcement executives who go around preaching about how to fix the men and communities they helped break in the first place tests the patience of anyone who recognizes the grotesque unfairness of our so-called justice system. It’s not all law enforcement’s fault, but they are reticent to acknowledge the role they have and continue to play in “those neighborhoods.”

Even in Director Comey’s singular moment of policy sanity, when he recognized that the voluntarily reported data from state and local law enforcement on use-of-force cases is so inadequate it’s virtually useless, he said such deficiencies create space for ““ideological thunderbolts”.…that spark arrest and distrust.”

There were no ideologues or demagogues at the scene of Michael Brown’s body as it lay in a Ferguson street for four hours in August. The protests and outrage were immediate and visceral because of the repeated, well-understood maltreatment the public received from the Ferguson police officers. Law enforcement’s reaction to those protests reaffirmed the animosity that was present well before the national media could find Ferguson on a map.

Director Comey’s pleas for officers to “see” the people they encounter belies his assertion that it’s not about racism in law enforcement:

“Those of us in law enforcement must redouble our efforts to resist bias and prejudice. We must better understand the people we serve and protect—by trying to know, deep in our gut, what it feels like to be a law-abiding young black man walking on the street and encountering law enforcement. We must understand how that young man may see us. We must resist the lazy shortcuts of cynicism and approach him with respect and decency.”  

“Lazy shortcuts of cynicism” is a euphemism for “ignoring the constitutional rights of young black men.” This isn’t a small problem rectified by a gut check imagining how a black boy might see a police officer.  Abuse ignores the limits placed on officers by the Constitution’s equal protection clause and the Bill of Rights. Being young, black, and male is not enough to satisfy “reasonable suspicion” and police officers have an affirmative duty to respect that. Director Comey’s “ideological thunderbolt” boogeymen aside, such unconstitutional behavior is a widespread problem in law enforcement with or without Al Sharpton’s presence. Black and minority communities know this all too well.

As far as Director Comey’s direction that the public “give [police] the space and respect to do their work,” I would ask the director to give the police the same admonition. People should be free from interference from the police unless they are committing a crime against person or property. As the recent NYPD slowdown showed, it is possible to keep the peace even in a large city without issuing thousands of criminal summonses.

It is impossible to fix the chasm of distrust between the police and minorities so long as police continue to abuse blacks and other minorities in the communities in which they live. This is the one and only hard truth the police and the government need to face. The rest is just distraction.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

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