BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Working to protect Americans’ civil rights is in some ways more difficult today because of an assumption that advances mean the fight for equality has been settled, FBI Director James Comey said Wednesday.
“People in this church know better than anyone on Earth that the struggle is not over. In many ways the struggle is broader, it’s more far-reaching,” he said from the pulpit of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the target of a racially motivated bombing that killed four girls in 1963. “In a whole lot of ways it’s harder now because folks assume it’s over. We fixed that mess in the 60s, right?”
Comey was a guest speaker at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s conference on civil rights and law enforcement themed “Race and Law Enforcement: It’s More than Just Black and White.” The discussion comes amid national scrutiny of the fraught relationship between law enforcement and minorities, and the program ended with a heckler in the church’s balcony lambasting the event as “a farce.”
Comey gave examples of ways law enforcement and citizens can build stronger relationships and later touched on remarks he made about the potential impact of citizens recording real or perceived police misconduct.
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Comey has suggested that rises in violent crime across the country could be fueled in part by anxiety among law enforcement officers who fear being recorded by citizens and hesitate to get out of their patrol vehicles to interact with people. Comey’s suggestion put him at odds with the Obama administration and drew criticism from former attorney general Eric Holder and others.
Comey said recent scrutiny has helped improve law enforcement accountability, but he wonders if it also poses unintended consequences in community policing. Comey told reporters he resists using the term “Ferguson effect” and instead said officers may fear being the center of the next viral video of a questionable encounter.
“I don’t know for sure whether that’s a real thing. I don’t know for sure whether that’s affecting crime, but I’ve heard about it all over the country from law enforcement leaders, from community leaders from police officers that there’s something going on like that that may be contributing,” he said.
“I’m not against videotaping police, I’m not against scrutiny. We get better that way,” Comey said. “What I’m asking is, is there something unintentional affecting our communities that is contributing to the spike in violent crime?”
DeKalb County Georgia Police Chief and former president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives Cedric Alexander said Comey’s suggestion isn’t far-fetched, but more research is needed to better understand what role increased scrutiny may play among other factors driving crime in some communities.
“We know it may be creating some potential reluctance, but we don’t know how to measure it and we’ve got to figure out how to better measure that,” Alexander said. “I’ve made the same observation he’s making. Many police leaders are making the same observation.”
During his speech, Comey also reiterated the need for more comprehensive use of force and violent crime data to inform discussions and improve transparency and accountability.
“Data means facts and facts help us find truth and understanding. We cannot address issues about use of force and officer-involved shootings or why violent crime is up in some cities within cities if we don’t know the circumstances, if we don’t know the facts,” he said. “Without it, every single conversation in this country about policing, about law enforcement policy, about criminal justice is incomplete and uninformed, and that is a very bad place to be.”