If FBI Director James Comey is correct, then there is no epidemic of police violence against Black people, and it is all in our heads, a figment of our collective imagination.
Speaking in San Diego at a meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the FBI chief argued that in the absence of reliable data, dramatic videos of police encounters are feeding the narrative that “biased police are killing black men at epidemic rates,” as AP reported. Comey added that the spread of viral video shared on social media gives the impression that “something terrible is being done by the police,” even when the data do not support it.
“It is a narrative driven by video images of real and gut-wrenching misconduct, by images of possible misconduct, by images of perceived misconduct,” the FBI head said. “It’s a narrative given force by the awesome power of human empathy.”
Comey argued that Americans “actually have no idea if the number of black people or brown people or white people being shot by police is up, down or sideways over the last three years, five years, 10 years,” or if Black people have a higher risk of being shot than whites when they encounter the police. As a result, he offered, this state of affairs keeps “good officers in their car” and makes them second-guess themselves. Officers see the videos and do not want to be in them, Comey noted, and the prevailing narrative creates division between law enforcement and the community. And as ABC News reported, he also said that “in the absence of information we have anecdotes,” and a “small group of videos serves as an epidemic.” And while there are bad cops, he concluded that “police officers are overwhelmingly good people.”
Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice announced its plan to create a national database on the use of force by police. Comey said the data are needed to have an informed debate on the issue. In the meantime, the government’s data compilation system is not mandatory, depending on local police departments to provide information on a voluntary basis. As a result, the public has been made to rely on sources such as The Guardian’s “The Counted” for information on police shootings. In that regard, Comey is wrong to say that the public, particularly Black communities, does not know if there is an epidemic of killings by law enforcement. There is plentiful research on the disproportionate use of force and deadly force against Black men; the impact of implicit police bias on deadly force; the arrests related to “stop and frisk” tactics and racial profiling against innocent Black and Latino young men; and the excessive monitoring of communities of color.
According to Mic, Blacks are 13 percent of the population but nearly a quarter of people shot to death by police last year. Further, as President Barack Obama noted, African-Americans have a 30 percent greater chance of being pulled over by the cops, three times more likely to be searched and twice as likely to be arrested. In addition, according to the Washington Post’s database, 258 of the 991 people killed last year were Black. Further, according to “The Counted,” 204 of the 856 killed by police so far this year were Black, and Blacks are killed at a rate of 5.11 per million, second only to Native Americans at 5.49. However, Latinos are fatally shot at a rate of 2.39 per million, while whites are killed at a rate of 2.1 per million.
Contrary to Comey’s contention that there is no epidemic of police killings, Harvard researchers concluded in a study that the fatalities amount to a public health problem exceeding deaths due to diseases such as pneumonia, influenza, malaria and mumps, and comparable to deaths from Hepatitis A. The highest court in Massachusetts ruled that Black men have a valid reason to flee from police due to the data showing they are targeted by police and far more likely to be stopped, frisked and searched. Further, a recent report from a United Nations panel condemned the “systematic police harassment” in the U.S., and called the killing of Black people by police a “human rights crisis” and “racial terrorism” comparable to Jim Crow-era lynching. Moreover, studies have proven that police view Black boys as less innocent than white boys, and exhibit shooter bias against unarmed Black people. According to the research, the blackness of the victim determines whether an unarmed person is shot by law enforcement, as Black men are seven times more likely to die from a cop’s bullet due to police perceptions that Blacks are a greater threat to their safety.
In the past, Comey has acknowledged the problems with unconscious racial bias and the killing of Black people by police. Yet, he has demonstrated a lack of a racial justice lens when discussing matters of race, policing and violence. For example, Comey has supported the “Ferguson Effect” — the notion that increased scrutiny by protesters over police violence leads to an increase in crime because cops do not want to do their job. And the FBI chief had difficulty calling white supremacist killer Dylann Roof a terrorist. Now, he wants to insult the intelligence of the American people, and tell the Black victims of police violence not to believe their lying eyes, when he should encourage greater police transparency and accountability.