​Civil rights group challenges FBI chief’s claim that police racial bias is ‘unconscious’

FBI Director James Comey (Reuters / Brian Snyder)
FBI director James Comey has come under fire from a leading civil rights group over controversial comments about the police and race relations.

Comey, a white Republican nominated by President Barack Obama,saidthis week that “unconscious racial biases” do exist among America’s police, but are far from becoming an epidemic.

“Much research points to the widespread existence of unconscious bias,” Comey told an audience at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, on Thursday. “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. I am reminded of the song from the Broadway hit, Avenue Q: “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.’”

He added that police officers “often work in environments where a hugely disproportionate percentage of street crime is committed by young men of color. Something happens to people of good will working in that environment. After years of police work, officers often can’t help but be influenced by the cynicism they feel.”

Comey’s comments were meant to address mounting concerns in the wake of recent incidents in which African Americans have died at the hands of police – a fate suffered by Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York last year, among others. It came as part of a rare discussion on the relationship between law enforcement and minority communities.

His comments prompted a concerned response from ColorofChange.org, a 1 million-member civil rights group formed in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a statement, the group said that Comey’s speech “perpetuated many of the dangerous, discriminatory perspectives that uphold the crisis of violent and abusive policing.”

The group also said: “Director Comey presented false equivalencies around the police violence facing Black and brown Americans and the growing calls for systemic policing reform. Holding police accountable for addressing the crisis of discriminatory police misconduct is not ‘unfair,’ but is rather one of the most critical challenges facing our nation.”

ColorofChange.org also disputed Comey's “argument that Black and brown communities are to blame for the daily terror and indignity of discriminatory policing. The reality is that law enforcement and leaders such as Director Comey and Attorney General Holder have the responsibility and obligation to address the violence and discrimination endemic to law enforcement.”

According to the NAACP, 43 percent of the people incarcerated in the US prison system are African American. Yet while blacks make up roughly 12 percent of drug users, according to the group, African Americans make up 59 percent of the nation’s prison population with regards to inmates serving time for drug offenses.

“The problems of law enforcement are structural just as much as they are about the implicit racial bias of police,” ColorofChange.org said. “These problems require a complete overhaul of the systems, policies and practices that uphold discriminatory and violent policing, such as Stop and Frisk, Broken Windows policing and so-called predictive policing. These practices incentivize police to target, harass and unjustly arrest Black and brown people for the most minor of issues.”

Tim Devaney, a reporter for the DC-based web publication The Hill, noted that the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) — a national group that represents the interest of law enforcement officials — took aim at Director Comey’s remarks as well.

"Police officers are constantly reminded not to generalize about ethnic groups or religious groups or groups of any kinds," Jim Pasco, the FOP’s executive director, told The Hill. "We would just remind Director Comey there are over 750,000 police officers and it is probably not good practice to generalize about them."

According to a poll published last month conducted by Reuters and IPSOS, nearly one third of the US public and almost half of African Americans believe that police "routinely lie to serve their own interests.”