F.B.I Director James Comey did the nation a huge favor last week when he publicly acknowledged that too many police officers allow unconscious racial biases to influence their conduct toward young black men. That is a reality residents of the nation's African-Americans communities have known for generations. But hearing it come directly from the head of the FBI was something of a historical first.
In an address to students at Georgetown University, Mr. Comey said Americans need to face up to some "hard truths" in the aftermath the killings of unarmed black men by white officers in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City last year. Police officers of all races, he said, can easily become cynical about the people they are sworn to protect, and that leads them to fall back on "mental shortcuts" that become "almost irresistible" when most of the suspects they arrest are black males. After a while they can come to see any black man they encounter as a potential criminal — and to react based on that assumption. Social science research backs him up and shows that even black officers can be susceptible to the phenomenon.
Mr. Comey's comment that everyone, including the police, "is a little bit racist" — a line lifted from the Broadway musical "Avenue Q" — went well beyond those of any previous FBI director on the subject of race, and farther even than those made by President Barack Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in the wake of the Ferguson shooting. Mr. Obama and Mr. Holder, who are both black, were roundly criticized by conservative lawmakers and police union officials as attacking the law-enforcement community. But Mr. Comey, who is white and comes to the office with impeccable credentials as a former prosecutor and the grandson of a Yonkers, N.Y., police chief, is being praised for his remarks. Go figure.
Mr. Comey's speech has opened a space for other police officials to address the substance of his remarks in a way they haven't felt able to up to now. Notably, in the six months since the Ferguson shooting, police chiefs have claimed with remarkable uniformity that racial animus played no role in recent deaths of black men at the hands of white officers; the law enforcement community's silence on the issue had been deafening until Mr. Comey spoke. At the very least the FBI director has taken a stance that may finally permit the kind of "healthy dialogue" on race and policing that he says the nation needs to see happen.
Baltimore area police officials are obviously cognizant of the problems Mr. Comey discussed. Speaking a day after Mr. Comey's remarks, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts told members of President Obama's national task force on policing that his department needs to be "focused not just on tackling crime but on fighting racism." He has repeatedly stated that his department needs to rebuild a relationship of trust with the community, and that can't happen unless the issues of racial profiling, mass arrests and unconscious bias among police are openly and thoroughly discussed. Meanwhile, Baltimore County police are trumpeting the promotions of more minorities to top command ranks and increased efforts to recruit minorities to the department to better reflect the community.
Working to build better ties between the police and the community and building a more diverse police force are certainly helpful. But they don't necessarily address some of the subtler but more profound points Mr. Comey made about the way police officers' experience can warp their expectations and magnify unconscious prejudices. "Something happens to people in law enforcement," he said, in which officers can develop "lazy mental shortcuts" based on experiences in environments where people lie to them routinely or neighborhoods where street crime is disproportionately committed by young men of color. All police — black and white — can be affected by it, he said.
The solution, as Mr. Comey sees it, is in lifting up African-American communities so that the young people growing up in them inherit "role models, adequate education and decent employment" rather than "a legacy of crime and prison." And who could disagree with that? But there are other steps that may be easier to accomplish, and may themselves help foster that goal. Police departments must retrain new and current officers on the force to recognize their own unconscious prejudices and negative stereotypes so that their conduct no longer reflects a biased view of law enforcement in which blacks are automatically considered more suspect than whites. Employing officer body cameras, as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake plans to do on at least a pilot basis before the end of the year, could also help in as much as they prompt both the police and the public to be more thoughtful in their interactions.