Saturday, October 24, 2015

Gap between minorities and police widening, FBI boss says in Chicago

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Gap between minorities and police widening, FBI boss says in Chicago

FBI Director James Comey, shown Oct. 22, 2015, in Washington, said during his Chicago address that law enforcement and the communities they serve are "arcing away from each other." (Jim Watson / AFP-Getty Images)

Lolly BoweanContact ReporterChicago Tribune

FBI boss calls for frank conversations on race, crime and the justice system

The gap between communities of color and the police who are assigned to protect them has widened in recent years, FBI Director James Comey said Friday in Chicago.

And the only way to restore the trust between African-Americans and other racial minorities and the police is to begin holding frank, open conversations about race, crime and the justice system as well as to address the breakdown in that relationship, he said.

"One of the hardest things to talk about in America is race," Comey said. "We have to get past that and talk ... and listen."

"I imagine two lines: One line is law enforcement, the other line is the communities that we serve and protect, especially communities of color," he said. "What I see is those two lines arcing away from each other, at an increasing rate."

Comey, in town for the Conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, spoke to law students, faculty, staff and some police officers at the University of Chicago Law School, which he graduated from in 1985.

Comey's remarks on the tense relationship between blacks and the police comes at a time of increased scrutiny of the use of force by police, particularly after a number of high-profile cases across the country in which unarmed blacks were killed.

Comey said he has noticed that violent crime in black communities has increased this year at the same time that trust in law enforcement has decreased. He said he has spoken to police leaders across the country who have offered various theories for the rise: increase in heroin use, violent offenders getting out of prison, access to weapons.

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But he has his own theory.

"Maybe something in policing has changed," Comey said. "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, who comes from a law enforcement family, said he has spoken to police officers who feel "under siege" and say it's affecting their work.

His remarks echoed Mayor Rahm Emanuel's recent comment blaming rising violence in Chicago and elsewhere on police officers becoming "fetal" out of concern that their actions would get them in trouble.

Comey pushed back against activists who blame the drug policies of the 1990s for massively incarcerating black males. He also took to task the idea that black men "disappeared" from their communities by being imprisoned.

Instead, he said, police aggressively made arrests and prosecutors like him came down hard on criminals in order to return drug infested African-American communities back to healthy neighborhoods.

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"That work added up to a very large number of people in jail, especially young men of color," he said. "But then there were a very large number of young men of color involved in criminal activity in America's cities and in America's most desperate neighborhoods."

At the same time, Comey said part of the conversation about race and police has to address the disparities. And the problem of drug addiction has to be addressed if communities are ever to change.

"Yes, it is true that young men of color have long been dramatically overrepresented among both homicide victims and killers," he said. "But it is also true that white people buy and use most of the drugs in this country — and the white peoples' demand for drugs drives the drug trade that is destroying black neighborhoods. It's a problem our society simply must not drive around."

Comey, who has led the FBI for more than two years, told students that when he attended the University of Chicago, located in the Hyde Park neighborhood, he regarded the South Side as his community.

Twitter @lollybowean

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