Comey denies racially biased police kill at ‘epidemic rates’
Points public to data, not anecdotes
FBI Director James B. Comey pushed back against the idea that “biased police are killing black men at epidemic rates,” saying Americans are relying on anecdotes and videos capturing the deadly encounters rather than on hard evidence to form that narrative.
In the absence of reliable federal data on police shootings, “Americans actually have no idea whether the number of black people, brown people or white people is up down or sideways,” Mr. Comey told the International Association of Chiefs of Police during the group’s annual conference in San Diego. “They have no idea of these things because we have no idea of these things.”
His comments came days after the FBI announced its intention to go forward with a pilot program to collect lethal and nonlethal use-of-force data, a move researchers say will begin to fill in the gaps when it comes to data on police shootings and other encounters.
In just the first half of 2016, at least four significant studies were released that sought to measure racial bias and use of force by police officers.
“They were all over the map,” Lorie A. Fridell, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida, said of the results.
One study published in the journal Injury Prevention found that blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be stopped, searched and arrested by police, but that race does not play a factor in the risk of injury or death during an encounter. Rather, the study found that the disproportionate deaths of black men at the hands of police result from their greater exposure to stops and arrests by officers.
“What this study says is that it doesn’t matter what your race is when you’re in a stop-and-frisk situation or arrest situation with a police officer,” study author Ted Miller told The Guardian newspaper when the study was released in July. “Your chance of being injured or killed is the same regardless of race — it’s equally dangerous for everyone.”
A study from the Center for Policing Equity, which analyzed 19,000 use-of-force incidents in 11 police agencies over a fiveyear period, found that blacks are three times more likely than whites to have force used against them during interactions with officers.
Some of the variation in the studies’ findings could be attributable to different methodology or variations across the individual agencies studied, Ms. Fridell said. Having a national database of use-of-force data will allow experts to identify trends across the country.
“We will certainly be able to determine whether there is disparity in use of force,” Ms. Fridell said. “What is tougher to do is identify the causes of that disparity. How much of that is due to police bias? How much due to other factors, including legitimate factors?”
With a lack of federal data and disparate conclusions from scientific studies, Mr. Comey lamented that the public draws conclusions about use of force from dramatic videos, shared widely on the internet, that capture deadly encounters between law enforcement and civilians. The narrative they come away with after watching such videos is that there is an epidemic of police violence targeting minority communities, he said.
“It is a narrative driven by video images of real and gut-wrenching misconduct,” but also perceived misconduct, the FBI director said.
Mr. Comey warned that the effects of those videos are being felt, creating a “chasm” of tension and distrust between police and the communities they serve. As a result, officers may stay in their patrol cars and citizens may opt not to share information with police, he said.
Such tension and animosity could threaten the future of policing by steering good and talented young people away from careers in law enforcement, Mr. Comey said.
“If quality people stop signing up, we may not notice it for a few years, but the day will come when this country will be deeply sorry that we failed to explain to great young people why they should choose law enforcement,” he said.
Chris Burbank, director of law enforcement engagement at the Center for Policing Equity, believes there are racial disparities in officers’ use of force, and says one of the keys to rebuilding trust between police and communities of color is getting to the bottom of the underlying cause of that disparity.
“We are seeing an all-time low in public trust in law enforcement,” Mr. Burbank said. “The idea of providing data in a public portal that people can look at — that is a good, positive step in the right direction.”
But he argues that reporting of use-offorce data by law enforcement agencies should be made mandatory for lethal and nonlethal incidents.
The 2014 Death in Custody Reporting Act requires law enforcement agencies to report interactions in which individuals died. Reporting on nonlethal incidents is voluntary.