James Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, gave a most remarkable speech yesterday about police and race in America. He acknowledged that the bureau, like other police agencies, often enforced a status quo that was "brutally unfair" to minorities. He noted the FBI's horrible and historically a-tonal harassment of Martin Luther King, Jr. He talked about latent racial biases that help determine how we act toward others who aren't like us. He said that many, if not most, police officers develop "different flavors of cynicism that we work hard to resist because they can be lazy mental shortcuts," on the job and that well-meaning officers who work in an environment where "so many boys and young men [lack[ role models, adequate education, and decent employment" become jaded and inured to the humanity around them.
A tragedy of American life — one that most citizens are able to drive around because it doesn't touch them — is that young people in "those neighborhoods" too often inherit a legacy of crime and prison. And with that inheritance, they become part of a police officer's life, and shape the way that officer — whether white or black — sees the world. [Comey]
His Rx: empathy.
Those of us in law enforcement must redouble our efforts to resist bias and prejudice. We must better understand the people we serve and protect — by trying to know, deep in our gut, what it feels like to be a law-abiding young black man walking on the street and encountering law enforcement. We must understand how that young man may see us. We must resist the lazy shortcuts of cynicism and approach him with respect and decency. [Comey]
But this is just a speech. How can the FBI (and other police agencies) work to affirm that black lives do indeed matter?
Here's one way.
There's a book out now by Jill Leovy, called Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America (Spiegel and Grau). It's a non-fiction story in part about a black life that did matter, whose murder did attract the attention of the police, because the victim happened to be the son of a detective. Leovy's bigger point is that as difficult and fraught-with-tension as interactions between black people and the police can be, they are sorely needed. Black and black crime went unsolved.
Leovy notes that in 1993, Americans living south of the 10 Freeway in Los Angeles had a higher chance of being killed than if they fought in combat units in the first Gulf war. Blacks were six times as likely to die as white people. In L.A. county, the homicide clearance rate was 38 percent for African-Americans.
Go back 30 years, and there are about 40 unsolved murders per square mile in Los Angeles County. Most of the victims by far were black, and they were young.
Wonder why people who live south of the 10 Freeway in LA think that their lives and voices don't matter much to the police? Because historically, justice does not care about your son if he is black. Justice is not impartial. Justice (and journalism) devote more resources and more attention to your case if you're wealthier, or white. The better detective you are, the less likely you'd be assigned to work in the ghetto. Black families saw only aggressive patrol tactics — many motivated by drug laws and arrest incentives — and very rarely the sustained and caring investigative follow-up to the crimes committed against their families. This remains true, to a lesser extent, today.
The FBI can help solve cold cases. It can't solve them all. But if Comey wants to add meat to his rhetoric, he can form a task force that retests DNA evidence from unsolved inner city murders in the 80s and 90s, one that would reinvestigate a number of these crimes, and would add a measure of value to lives that the law enforcement community basically wrote off as worth nothing just a few decades ago.