Addressing the Law School community Friday, FBI Director James B. Comey, ’85, called on American communities, police and civilian leaders, and academics to dig deep in confronting the “complicated, layered, and painful” issues that have sparked nationwide conversation in the past year in the face of high-profile allegations of police misconduct, attacks on police officers, and a rise in violent crime in many cities.
“I imagine two lines: one line is law enforcement and the other line is the folks we serve and protect, especially in communities of color,” said Comey, who delivered prepared remarks before engaging in a question-and-answer discussion with Law School student Ruby Garrett, ’16. “I think those two lines are arcing away from each other, at an increasing rate. Each incident that involves real or perceived police misconduct drives one line this way. Each time an officer is attacked in the line of duty, it drives the other line this way. I actually feel the lines continuing to arc away from each other, incident by incident, video by video, more and more quickly. And that’s a terrible place to be.”
Comey speculated about a link between the recent uptick in violent crime in Chicago and other cities and the so-called YouTube, or Ferguson, Effect, which refers to the theory that viral videos of police encounters have made officers wary and, perhaps, less likely to engage in the vigorous policing needed to combat violent crime. “I don’t know whether this explains it entirely, but I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year,” he said. “And that wind is surely changing behavior.”
He called for better data and urged all Americans engage in difficult conversations about safety and justice—talking, listening, and connecting.
“It’s hard to hate up close,” he said. “It’s hard to hate someone once you sit and stare into their eyes and start to understand where they’re coming from, and why they feel the way they do. We have to get up close if we are to bend these lines. We must start seeing one another more clearly.”
Comey reflected fondly on his time at the Law School, telling the audience that he became a better thinker and developed the mental discipline to see things from multiple perspectives.
“Smart people were constantly drilling you … and what that forced you to do is, in your mind’s eye, orbit the situation and the set of facts and see it almost instantly as others might see it. That orbiting is the essence of judgment,” he said. “We talk about this a lot at the FBI. To be good at using power, you have to be good at orbiting a situation … it forces you to get as close to an open mind as you can.”