Out of the Woods: FBI director’s ‘hard truths’ need to be heard
Published 6:10 am, Thursday, June 18, 2015
News of the appointment of the outspoken, 6-foot, 8-inch tall, 52-year-old James B. Comey, of Westport, as the nation’s seventh director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has added considerable status to our already star-studded cast of national celebrities from all walks of life.
Comey — whose previous jobs include deputy attorney general (where he was the main prosecutor in the “obstruction of justice” case against fellow Westporter Martha Stewart in 1984), U.S. attorney, and general counsel at Bridgewater Associates — is the father of graduating Greens Farms Academy senior (and student council chair) Claire Comey, and Abbey Comey, recipient of the ninth grade citizenship award. Two of his other children also attended the academy. At the commencement ceremony recently, Comey discusssed what he consider are the four keys to success: 1) high emotional intelligence; 2) effective communication; 3) the confidence to be humble and ask questions, and, 4) value one’s reputation.
Comey’s tendency toward truth telling showed up earlier this year when he delivered a speech on race that drew praise from a student audience at a graduation at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. For a man who lives in one of the most elite parts of the nation (Westport’s Greens Farms), he addressed race relations with unusual insight and rare perspective. He is seen by many political observers as a new kind of 21st-Century Republican who — if he continues to make friends on both sides of the aisle — could have a very promising future on the national political stage. God knows, as the pundits have been stressing, his party is desperately in need of long-term leadership at the top.
Comey moved to Westport in 2010, when he took a job with Bridgewater Associates, an institutional money manager. He became a hero to Democratic opponents of President George W. Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program when he refused for a time to reauthorize it.
Comey is registered as a Republican voter in Westport.
The Washington Post described Comey as a “Teller of Hard Truths.” Excerpts from his outstanding, timely Georgetown speech follow:
“… in places like Ferguson and New York City, and in some communities across this nation, there is a disconnect between police agencies and many citizens—predominantly in communities of color.
“Serious debates are taking place about how law enforcement personnel relate to the communities they serve, about the appropriate use of force, and about real and perceived biases, both within and outside of law enforcement. These are important debates. Every American should feel free to express an informed opinion — to protest peacefully, to convey frustration and even anger in a constructive way. That’s what makes our democracy great. Those conversations — as bumpy and uncomfortable as they can be — help us understand different perspectives, and better serve our communities ...
“Let me start by sharing some of my own hard truths: First, all of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty.
“There is a reason that I require all new agents and analysts to study the FBI’s interaction with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and to visit his memorial in Washington as part of their training. And there is a reason I keep on my desk a copy of Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s approval of J. Edgar Hoover’s request to wiretap Dr. King ...
“A second hard truth: Much research points to the widespread existence of unconscious bias. Many people in our white-majority culture have unconscious racial biases and react differently to a white face than a black face. In fact, we all, white and black, carry various biases around with us.
“Racial bias isn’t epidemic in law enforcement any more than it is epidemic in academia or the arts. In fact, I believe law enforcement overwhelmingly attracts people who want to do good for a living — people who risk their lives because they want to help other people ...
“But that leads me to my third hard truth: something happens to people in law enforcement. Many of us develop different flavors of cynicism that we work hard to resist because they can be lazy mental shortcuts.
“Two white men on the other side of the street — even in the same clothes — do not. The officer does not make the same association about the two white guys, whether that officer is white or black. And that drives different behavior. The officer turns toward one side of the street and not the other. We need to come to grips with the fact that this behavior complicates the relationship between police and the communities they serve.
“So why has that officer — like his colleagues — locked up so many young 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?
“The answer is a fourth hard truth: I don’t think so. 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 part of a police officer’s life, and shape the way that officer — whether white or black — sees the world ...
“We simply must see the people we serve.”
Woody Klein is a Westport writer. His column, “Out of the Woods,” appears every other Friday the Westport News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.