Not J. Edgar Hoover

James Comey tackled a tough topic last week. Speaking to students at Washington’s Georgetown University (Feb. 12), this is the first time I can remember the top law enforcement official at the FBI stepping forward to talk about an issue that’s long been simmering: police and race relations.

“At many points in American history,” Comey points out, “law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups.”

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But this is not the first time Comey has faced challenging issues. March 2004 was particularly noteworthy regarding a confrontation between the Bush White House and Comey when he was Deputy Attorney General to John Ashcroft.

Ashcroft had been rushed to the hospital with acute pancreatitis. The day before his hospitalization, Ashcroft ruled that the NSA’s “Stellar Wind” domestic intelligence program was illegal.

In a 2007 interview with journalist Bill Moyers, legal advisor to the Department of Defense “Jack Goldsmith was selected by the White House to help shape the legal framework for the government’s response to terror.”

MOYERS: “I wanna talk to you about the most amazing scene you ever witnessed. That’s your term for what happened. You actually wound up at the hospital that night when Gonzalez, the White House counsel and the White House chief of staff, Andrew Card, came to the hospital to try to persuade Attorney General John Ashcroft to give his permission to some secret– policy that was about to expire. Why was it the most amazing scene you ever witnessed?”

GOLDSMITH: “I was there with Deputy Attorney General and Acting Attorney General Jim Comey. And he had– made a ruling on the basis of my legal advice, which he agreed with. And they [Gonzalez and Card] were there to seek reconsideration from Ashcroft.

“It was the most amazing scene I’d ever witnessed because, first of all, I couldn’t believe– he was obviously extremely ill. He’d had a serious operation the day before. When we walked into the room, he had lost a lot of weight since I’d seen him last. He looked ashen. He looked terrible. He had the tubes and wires coming out of his body.

“And it was the most amazing scene because in this what seemed like near-death state to me and they [Gonzalez and Card] came in and made their request, he kind of, in an astonishing way, came to life, sort of lifted himself off the bed a bit, color came into his face. And in an amazingly clear and accurate two-minute speech, he said, ‘These are the Justice Department’s concerns. Share these concerns. I don’t appreciate you visiting me here. I’m not the attorney general in any event. Jim Comey is.’ And then he collapsed back into his bed.”

FBI Director Robert Mueller supported Ashcroft and Comey’s decision, and both men were prepared to resign if the White House moved forward with a recertification of the program. The two rescinded their threat after Comey met directly with President Bush, who agreed to the changes in the surveillance program originally proposed.

While he had the support of both Mueller and Ashcroft, Comey faced a moment of principle that remains an example of doing the right thing no matter the personal cost.

That same sense of integrity was evidenced last week when he addressed the students and media at Georgetown University. Entitled “Hard Truths – Law Enforcement and Race,” the Director specifically pointed to recent examples.

“With the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, the ongoing protests throughout the country, and the assassinations of NYPD Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, we are at a crossroads. As a society, we can choose to live our everyday lives, raising our families and going to work, hoping that someone, somewhere, will do something to ease the tension—to smooth over the conflict. We can roll up our car windows, turn up the radio and drive around these problems, or we can choose to have an open and honest discussion about what our relationship is today—what it should be, what it could be, and what it needs to be—if we took more time to better understand one another.”

Comey not only invites police, but community leaders and citizens to participate in the conversation.

“These are important debates. Every American should feel free to express an informed opinion—to protest peacefully, to convey frustration and even anger in a constructive way. That’s what makes our democracy great. Those conversations—as bumpy and uncomfortable as they can be—help us understand different perspectives, and better serve our communities. Of course, these are only conversations in the true sense of that word if we are willing not only to talk, but to listen, too.”

But the director is not just giving a sermon to others. He cites the bureau’s own mistakes.

“There is a reason that I require all new agents and analysts to study the FBI’s interaction with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to visit his memorial in Washington as part of their training. And there is a reason I keep on my desk a copy of Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s approval of J. Edgar Hoover’s request to wiretap Dr. King. It is a single page. The entire application is five sentences long, it is without fact or substance, and is predicated on the naked assertion that there is ‘communist influence in the racial situation.’ The reason I do those things is to ensure that we remember our mistakes and that we learn from them.”

“A second hard truth” Comey says “Much research points to the widespread existence of unconscious bias. Many people in our white-majority culture have unconscious racial biases and react differently to a white face than a black face. In fact, we all, white and black, carry various biases around with us.

“But if we can’t help our latent biases, we can help our behavior in response to those instinctive reactions, which is why we work to design systems and processes that overcome that very human part of us all. Although the research may be unsettling, it is what we do next that matters most.

“But racial bias isn’t epidemic in law enforcement any more than it is epidemic in academia or the arts. In fact, I believe law enforcement overwhelmingly attracts people who want to do good for a living—people who risk their lives because they want to help other people. They don’t sign up to be cops in New York or Chicago or L.A. to help white people or black people or Hispanic people or Asian people. They sign up because they want to help all people. And they do some of the hardest, most dangerous policing to protect people of color.”

Director Comey offers a number of important steps for both law enforcement and communities to take, and I encourage all to read the full text of his speech.

“We must work—in the words of New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton—‘to really see each other.’ Comey said.

“But the ‘seeing’ needs to flow in both directions. Citizens also need to really see the men and women of law enforcement. They need to see what police see through the windshields of their squad cars, or as they walk down the street. They need to see the risks and dangers law enforcement officers encounter on a typical late-night shift. They need to understand the difficult and frightening work they do to keep us safe. They need to give them the space and respect to do their work, well and properly. …

“America isn’t easy,” Comey says in conclusion. “America takes work. Today, February 12, is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. He spoke at Gettysburg about a ‘new birth of freedom’ because we spent the first four score and seven years of our history with fellow Americans held as slaves—President Healy, his siblings, and his mother among them. We have spent the 150 years since Lincoln spoke making great progress, but along the way treating a whole lot of people of color poorly. And law enforcement was often part of that poor treatment. That’s our inheritance as law enforcement and it is not all in the distant past.”

As one of the nation’s top law enforcement officials, Director Comey speaks with a clarity and reason about an issue that has, for the past year, been frustratingly divided due largely to political and sensationalized rhetoric. Comey makes clear his responsibility and ours: to talk, to listen, and to see each other as citizens.

“ ‘We must learn to live together as brothers,’ Comey said, quoting Dr. King, ‘or we will perish together as fools.’ ”

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