It’s easy to blame police racism for the deaths of young black men at the hands of law enforcement, but that narrative is increasingly facing pushback from those who say it’s not so simple.
FBI Director James B. Comey warned Thursday against using police as scapegoats to avoid grappling with much more difficult problems affecting black communities, including a lack of “role models, adequate education and decent employment,” as well as “all sorts of opportunities that most of us take for granted.”
“I worry that this incredibly important and difficult conversation about policing has become focused entirely on the nature and character of law enforcement officers when it should also be about something much harder to discuss,” Mr. Comey said in a speech at Georgetown University.
“Debating the nature of policing is very important, but I worry it has become an excuse at times to avoid doing something harder,” he said.
His comments were timed to the recent national debate on police and race stemming from the protests and riots triggered by the August death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
The narrative of cops killing unarmed young black men out of racial animus has helped propel the protest movement, but Mr. Comey said that studies on implicit bias show that virtually everyone — not just police — harbors a subconscious racial bias.
“A racial bias isn’t epidemic in law enforcement any more than it’s epidemic in academia or the arts,” Mr. Comey said.
At the same time, the most highly publicized cases — including those of Eric Garner in Staten Island and Tamir Rice in Cleveland — inevitably seem to involve the racially charged scenario of unarmed black males killed by white police officers.
“I think we know the answer to that. It’s bigger news if the cop is white and the suspect/civilian is black or another minority member,” said conservative pundit Larry Elder, who hosted a talk show on KABC-AM in Los Angeles for 20 years.
“The idea is racism is a major problem in America, so when you have a black cop or a Hispanic cop shooting someone, it has to be analyzed at a different level,” Mr. Elder said. “But if it’s a white cop doing it, a lot of people immediately jump to the conclusion that the white cop engaged in some sort of racial profiling or had some sort of fear because the person happened to be black.”
Recent examples of unarmed black men killed by minority officers include Jordan Baker, 26, shot in January 2014 by Officer Juventino Castro, who was not charged; Ezell Ford, 25, who was shot Aug. 11 in Los Angeles by Officers Antonio Villegas and Sharlton Wampler; and Akai Gurley, 28, who was killed Nov. 20 by New York Officer Peter Liang.
Mr. Elder said the double standard lies with a host of opinion-drivers. “I think it’s the media; I think it’s Hollywood; [I] think it’s academia; I think it’s the civil rights activists,” he said.
Peter Moskos, associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, flagged the disconnect between the reaction to the Gurley and Brown shootings two months ago in a post on his blog, Cop in the Hood.
“If you want to be outraged, I find the lack of more public protest over the police-involved killing of Akai Gurley odd,” Mr. Moskos said in a Dec. 12 post. “I mean, if you’re looking for an honest victim killed by police for no reason at all, why not focus on an honest victim killed for no reason at all (instead of, say, a guy who robbed a store and then, almost assuredly, attacked a cop)?” referring in the parenthetical to the Brown killing in Ferguson.
Officer Liang pled not guilty on Wednesday after he was indicted by a Brooklyn grand jury on second-degree manslaughter charges. He shot Gurley while patrolling the dark stairwell of an apartment building in an incident that police have described as a tragic accident.
Mr. Moskos, a former Baltimore cop, suggested three reasons for the difference. The first is that there was no effort to portray the Gurley shooting as justified. Immediately afterward, New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton called the incident an “unfortunate tragedy.”
The second is that the Gurley family rejected overtures by the Rev. Al Sharpton to deliver the eulogy at the funeral and otherwise to become involved in the case, although Mr. Sharpton has since appeared with Kimberly Ballinger, Mr. Gurley’s domestic partner, and the couple’s young daughter Akaila.
Finally, Mr. Moskos cited the race of the officer.
“This matters, though I’m not certain how much. Last I checked, Asians can be racist too,” he said. “And other police-involved shootings involving nonwhite officers have become issues because of the race of the victim. … But certainly an ‘officer of color’ (as they say) removes some of the typical boilerplate narrative.”
That narrative remains potent even though black police officers are “disproportionately more likely than white police to kill black people,” said Mr. Moskos, who crunched the numbers using FBI Uniform Crime Reporting data, though he also pointed out that those numbers are notoriously incomplete.
From 1998-2012, 73 percent of those killed by black police officers were black, which he describes as “kind of amazing,” while 28 percent of those killed by white officers were black. He attributes the imbalance to the fact that black officers are more likely to work in predominantly black communities.
Those figures are percentages, and because there are significantly more white officers, they are responsible for more deaths. During that 15-year period, his data shows 4,388 white police killed 2,998 whites and 1,213 blacks. Meanwhile, 547 black officers killed 402 blacks and 141 whites.
Mr. Comey, who took over 18 months ago at the FBI, said officers are no different than other Americans in “our white majority culture” in holding subconscious biases.
But he noted that police can become cynical when their life experience involves repeated confrontations with young black men in predominantly minority neighborhoods.
“So why has that officer, like his colleagues, locked up so many men of color? Why does he have that life-shaping experience? Is it because he is a racist? Why are so many black men in jail? Is it because cops, prosecutors, judges and juries are racist because they are turning a blind eye to white robbers and drug dealers?” Mr. Comey said. “The answer is a fourth hard truth: I don’t think so. If it were so, that would be easier to address.”
He cited data showing that “the percentage of young men not working or not enrolled in school is nearly twice as high for blacks as it is for whites,” and credited President Obama with trying to change that situation with his My Brother’s Keeper initiative.
“A tragedy of American life, one that most citizens are able to drive around because it doesn’t touch them, is that young people in those neighborhoods too often inherit a legacy of crime and prison, and with that inheritance they become a part of the police officer’s life and shape the way that officer, whether white or black, sees the world,” Mr. Comey said.
“Changing that legacy is a challenge so enormous and so complicated that it is, unfortunately, easier to talk only about the cops,” he said. “And that’s not fair.”