Blog No. 82 The New York Times, The White House and FBI Director Comey

The New York Times editorial on October 27 was particularly vituperative. The paper’s wrath was captured in the editorial’s headline, “Political Lies About Police Brutality.” After applauding video recordings that have shown excessive, or even reckless, use of force by police, the Times warmed to its point:

Yet the peeling away of secrecy on these indisputably unconstitutional practices is now being challenged by politicians who want to soft-pedal or even ignore police misconduct while attacking the people who expose it or raise their voices in protest against it.

Who, you might expect to find, are the offending “politicians”? In fact, the Times identified only one, Governor Chris Christie (who, on Face the Nation, had accused participants of the Black Lives Matter movement of calling for the murder of police officers.) But the Times quickly moved on to its real target who is not a politician at all but the Director of the FBI, James Comey.  Mr. Comey, it will be recalled, was appointed Director by President Obama in 2013. Prior to that appointment, he was best known to the public for the occasion when he was serving as Deputy Attorney General in the Bush Administration and refused under rather dramatic circumstances, to approve a particular NSA surveillance program. One may agree or disagree with Mr. Comey on any issues, but he is not a politician and does not tell “political lies.”

The source of the Times’s outrage at Comey was a speech that Comey had given last week. The Times described Comey’s remarks as “incendiary” and explained:

In a speech at the University of Chicago Law School on Friday, Mr. Comey said that heightened scrutiny of police behavior — and fear of appearing in “viral videos” — was leading officers to avoid confrontations with suspects. This, he said, may have contributed to an increase in crime.

There is no data suggesting such an effect, and certainly Mr. Comey has none. But his suggestion plays into the right-wing view that holding the police to constitutional standards endangers the public. Justice Department officials who have made a top priority of prosecuting police departments for civil rights violations — and who dispute that heightened scrutiny of the police drives up crime — were understandably angry at Mr. Comey’s speculations.

His formulation implies that for the police to do their jobs, they need to have free rein to be abusive. It also implies that the public would be safer if Americans with cellphones never started circulating videos of officers battering suspects in the first place.

Contrary to the impression that the Times sought to convey, Comey’s speech was a thoughtful analysis, expressed in measured terms.  The speech covered a number of subjects, but the portion of concern to the Times began with a statement of fact that should be of concern to all of us but which went unmentioned in the paper’s editorial:

Far more people are being killed in America’s cities this year than in many years. And let’s be clear: far more people of color are being killed in America’s cities this year.

And it’s not the cops doing the killing.

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Most of America’s 50 largest cities have seen an increase in homicides and shootings this year, and many of them have seen a huge increase. These are cities with little in common except being American cities—places like Chicago, Tampa, Minneapolis, Sacramento, Orlando, Cleveland, and Dallas.

In Washington, D.C., we’ve seen an increase in homicides of more than 20 percent in neighborhoods across the city. Baltimore, a city of 600,000 souls, is averaging more than one homicide a day—a rate higher than that of New York City, which has 13 times the people. Milwaukee’s murder rate has nearly doubled over the past year.

And who’s dying?

Police chiefs say the increase is almost entirely among young men of color, at crime scenes in bad neighborhoods where multiple guns are being recovered.

Comey cited a number of theories as to the cause of the increase in violent crime, all of which he described as reasonable, but then suggested another explanation which he had heard from law enforcement officers and elected officials in conversations all over the country: “Maybe something in policing has changed.” More specifically, Comey asked whether, “In today’s YouTube world, are officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime? Are officers answering 911 calls but avoiding the informal contact that keeps bad guys from standing around, especially with guns?”

Comey cited examples of the reports he found troubling:

I spoke to officers privately in one big city precinct who described being surrounded by young people with mobile phone cameras held high, taunting them the moment they get out of their cars. They told me, “We feel like we’re under siege and we don’t feel much like getting out of our cars.”

I’ve been told about a senior police leader who urged his force to remember that their political leadership has no tolerance for a viral video.

The Director might also have quoted by name Rahm Emanuel, Mayor of Chicago and President Obama’s former Chief of staff. The Washington Post on October 26 quoted Emanuel: “We have allowed our police department to get fetal, and it is having a direct consequence. They have pulled back from the ability to interdict … they don’t want to be a news story themselves, they don’t want their career ended early, and it’s having an impact.” (Mayor Emanuel, is a politician well-known to The New York Times, but his views were not cited or quoted in the editorial.)

Comey was careful not to overstate the case. The Times described him as having said that “fear of appearing in “viral videos” — was leading officers to avoid confrontations with suspects.” In fact, Comey asked the rhetorical question of whether such fear was changing police behavior and answered candidly, “I don’t know.” Comey emphasized a lack of data which he said he was pressing to have collected and analyzed. Even absent such data, however, Comey is surely justified in taking seriously the growing accumulation of anecdotal evidence.

Perhaps the most irresponsible aspect of the Times editorial was the slur against Comey that, “His formulation implies that for the police to do their jobs, they need to have free rein to be abusive.” Comey had implied absolutely nothing of the sort and, on the contrary, had expressly endorsed the scrutiny of police conduct: “We are right to focus on violent encounters between law enforcement and civilians. Those incidents can teach all of us to be better.” And, “[W]e continue to have important discussions about police conduct and de-escalation and the use of deadly force. Those are essential discussions and law enforcement will get better as a result.” Comey simply insisted that those discussions should not be allowed to obscure the need for robust policing:

But we can’t lose sight of the fact that there really are bad people standing on the street with guns. The young men dying on street corners all across this country are not committing suicide or being shot by the cops. They are being killed, police chiefs tell me, by other young men with guns.

Lives are saved when those potential killers are confronted by a strong police presence and actual, honest-to-goodness, up-close “What are you guys doing on this corner at one o’clock in the morning?” policing. All of us, civilian and law enforcement, white, black, and Latino, have an interest in that kind of policing.

The Times did get one thing right—that officials in the Justice Department were angry at Comey’s speech—and the paper could well have added or substituted the White House. It was not the uncomplicated political narrative they prefer. As the Times reported in its news columns:

The evidence we have seen so far doesn’t support the contention that law enforcement officials are shirking their responsibilities,” the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, said in response to a question about Mr. Comey at his daily briefing. “In fact, you hear law enforcement leaders across the country indicating that that’s not what’s taking place.

Mr. Earnest did not cite the evidence or identify the enforcement leaders he had in mind, but no doubt there are some of the latter. It seems to us that, as is almost always the case, anecdotal evidence will not be uniform. Perhaps more data will yield a more definitive diagnosis of the overall picture and perhaps not. In the meantime, it would have been irresponsible for Director Comey to dismiss or ignore the many reports he had personally received from worried police chiefs.

According to the Times, Justice Department and White House officials objected to Comey’s remarks on the grounds that they undermined the Administration’s effort’s to hold police departments accountable for civil rights violations. But, as Comey’s text had sought to make clear, there need be no fundamental conflict between responsible police conduct and vigorous law enforcement. It is, perhaps, a matter of not letting either priority overwhelm the other.

The key to both aspects of the problem may lie in better police training and tactics—in rejecting the use of excessive force on the one hand and seeking to avoid situations in which officers are needlessly endangered or feel intimidated. Cellphone cameras are, for better or worse, not going to go away, so officers must take them as a given (and learn, among other things, how to respond firmly, but with a minimum of provocation, to a crowd of taunting wielders of such devices).  Perhaps more manpower and some greater expense will be required along the way, but, if so, it is a cost that we must be willing to bear.

3 thoughts on “Blog No. 82 The New York Times, The White House and FBI Director Comey

  • Thanks for the very thoughtful analysis of an extremely complex problem. James Comey I believe deserves respect as one of the most fair-minded, nonpartisan government officials on the scene today, and faces immense difficulty in dealing with inner city violence, both that between police and residents and among the local residents themselves. With the volatile mix of anger, fear, lack of employment, and lack of opportunity that exists in most inner city impoverished areas, especially among youth, it is not surprising that violent outbursts are so rampant.

  • I’ve seen stats supporting Comey but obviously didn’t keep track. Seems totally logical that Baltimore PD members don’t want to be defendants. During my 3 years as Police Commissioner in Millburn we had at least one incident of a similar nature.
    On service road to Rte 24 police responded to a “B&E”. They saw two black males fleeing with pillow cases spilling silver etc. The patrolmen fired no warning shot etc.
    “Commish, if you think I’m gonna do anything that puts me in front of a grand jury in Newark you’d better take my badge and gun now.” That was 1978 and you can extrapolate into today’s atmosphere. PD not paid enough to be harassed, sued
    and harangued by the likes of Sharpton, et al.

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