Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James Comey on Thursday said the first step to improving the relationship between the public and law enforcement is better data.
“It’s ridiculous that I can’t tell you how many people were shot by police in this country," he said during a speech at Georgetown University addressing race relations between civilians and police in the United States.
This summer, police mistrust came to the forefront of the national discussion after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City. Both incidents led to ongoing protests across the country and widespread anger against police. After two police officers were shot and killed in New York City, officers there — and around the country — began to worry about their safety.
Comey, who was sworn into office in Sept. 2013, said he chose to address these issues in public so that the dialogue on race and policing wouldn't drift away as people's attention shifts to other issues.
He said those incidents and others have brought law enforcement in the U.S. to a "crossroads."
This was the first time that an FBI director addressed the issues of race at length, according to The New York Times.
Comey called on the FBI to improve the way it collects and analyzes information on arrests, as well as confrontations between police and suspects. Local police departments voluntarily report police shootings to the FBI, and non-fatal incidents aren't reported at all.
Comey said his power is limited in compelling departments to provide more information, but pledged to use his bully pulpit to encourage local law enforcement to volunteer more data.
"Data seems like a dry and boring word," he said. "But without it, we cannot understand our world and make it better."
Aside from more data, the director said police need to "literally and figuratively" get out of their cars and engage with the community. “I think its hard to hate up-close," he said
Comey said technology, like body cameras, are useless without police interaction.
Comey told the student audience that it is a matter "of morality and effectiveness” for the racial makeup of a police department to reflect the communities they serve, although he conceded that the FBI struggles to meet that standard.
MSNBC host Joy Reid called the speech "blunt and forward."
While tech guru Anil Dash said he was, "cautiously optimistic" about the director's discussion of race.
Comey pushed for an ongoing dialogue about the lack of opportunity for young men of color, saying that many boys lack role models, adequate education and access to decent employment, leading to interactions with the police.
"Changing that legacy is a challenge so enormous and so complicated that it is unfortunately easier to talk only about the cops," he said.
The director faulted unconscious bias among all people — including law enforcement — for the racial inequity in arrests and imprisonment, and said the issues are much more complicated than inherent racism.
During the speech, Comey referenced the Broadway musical Avenue Q, saying the issue of bias reminds him of the song, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.”
He said that people on both sides of the debate need to to a better job of understanding each other.
“We simply must find a way to see each other more clearly.”
Geneva Sands is a Washington, D.C.-based producer/editor focused on national affairs and politics. Egg creams, Raleigh and pie are three of her favorite things.