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A Cheat Sheet For Comey’s Speech On Race And Policing

FBI Director James Comey’s Thursday speech on race and law enforcement is getting a lot of attention for what The New York Times called its “unusually candid” assessment of a wide range of issues: racial disparities in arrests and incarceration, the FBI’s history of racial oppression, low employment rates among African-American men and the lack of good data on police shootings. Here is a bit of context on some of the key passages (quotes are taken from the FBI’s official transcript).

Unfortunately, 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.

After the police shooting of Michael Brown in August, the city of Ferguson, Missouri, drew widespread attention for having an overwhelmingly white police force patrolling a majority-black community. But as The Washington Post showed, Ferguson was hardly unique; most U.S. cities have a higher share of white officers than white residents, in many cases by a wide margin.


Race isn’t the only way in which there is a disconnect. As FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver wrote in August, most officers don’t live in the communities where they serve. Many people have suggested that the two problems are connected and that requiring police to live where they work — as some cities do — could help reduce racial disparities. But it may not be so simple: In an October article for FiveThirtyEight, Batya Ungar-Sargon and Andrew Flowers found that cities with residency requirements actually had police forces that were less representative than cities without such rules. Rather, Ungar-Sargon wrote in a follow-up story, creating a diverse police department requires a combination of aggressive recruiting and a focus on community policing.


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.

Comey quoted “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” a song from the Broadway hit “Avenue Q.” Social science research generally finds the musical – and Comey – is right. The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University publishes an annual “Implicit Bias Review” that collects research on unconscious racial bias. In one study, research subjects playing a police video game were more likely to accidentally “shoot” unarmed black characters than white ones. In a similar study, pediatricians were more likely to prescribe painkillers to white patients than black ones. But the 2013 report also finds that training can help to counter unconscious bias.

A mental shortcut becomes almost irresistible and maybe even rational by some lights. The two young black men on one side of the street look like so many others the officer has locked up. 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.

There is ample evidence that police treat black and white residents differently in many communities. In Ferguson, black drivers are more likely to be stopped by police and more likely to be searched when they are stopped, even though they are actually less likely to be caught carrying contraband, according to a report from Arch City Defenders, a local nonprofit that provides defense counsel to low-income defendants. In New York, there were large racial disparities in the city’s controversial “stop and frisk” program, according to a 2013 analysis by the New York Civil Liberties Union. In 2012, young black and Latino men accounted for more than 40 percent of stops despite making up less than 5 percent of the city’s population. Nationally, black drivers are 31 percent more likely to be pulled over than white drivers, according to a Washington Post analysis of federal crime statistics.

Racial disparities in stops and arrests translate into disparities in incarceration as well. According to the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group, black men have a 1-in-3 lifetime chance of imprisonment, compared with 1-in-17 for white men. That has long-term economic and social consequences: Having a felony conviction makes it much harder to find a job, even as high incarceration rates no longer seem to be bringing down crime.

The truth is that what really needs fixing is something only a few, like President Obama, are willing to speak about, perhaps because it is so daunting a task. Through the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, the president is addressing the disproportionate challenges faced by young men of color. For instance, data shows 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.

The unemployment rate for African-Americans was 10.3 percent in January, more than double that of whites. But that actually understates the racial disparity in employment, particularly for young men. The unemployment rate treats anyone who isn’t actively looking for work as “not in the labor force” and makes no distinction between people who are out of the labor force for good reasons (in school) or bad ones (they’ve given up looking for work). And official labor-force statistics completely ignore anyone who’s in prison or jail.

Account for those factors, and the situation is grimmer. According to data from the American Community Survey, 30 percent of African-American men aged 18 to 24 were neither working nor in school in 2013, compared with 15 percent of white men in the same age range – figures consistent with Comey’s claim. There are similarly large race gaps in income, wealth, and college graduation rates.

Many of the protesters in Ferguson and New York cited economic disparities as a source of their anger. As Bishop Timothy Woods, a local pastor, told me when I visited Ferguson in August, high unemployment and poverty have bred a sense of hopelessness among many young African-Americans. “They kind of assume that how they are now is how they’re always going to be,” Woods said.

Twenty years ago, Bed-Stuy was shorthand for a kind of chaos and disorder in which good people had no freedom to walk, shop, play, or just sit on the front steps and talk. It was too dangerous. But today, no more, thanks to the work of those who chose lives of service and danger to help others.

There’s no question that American cities in general, and New York in particular, have grown much safer in recent decades. In Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, where police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were killed in December, the number of murders fell 84.5 percent between 1990 and 2014; major crimes as a whole were down 77.1 percent over the same period. Nationwide, crime is down by about half since the early 1990s.

In his speech, Comey attributes falling crime rates to police work. But the connection isn’t clear. A new report from the Brennan Center for Justice attributes the decline to a wide range of factors, some related to policing (such as the expanded use of data) but most of them not (such as the aging population and declining alcohol consumption).


How can we address concerns about “use of force,” how can we address concerns about officer-involved shootings if we do not have a reliable grasp on the demographics and circumstances of those incidents? We simply must improve the way we collect and analyze data to see the true nature of what’s happening in all of our communities.

As my colleague Reuben Fischer-Baum wrote in August, data on police killings is incredibly bad. The FBI collects data on “justifiable homicides” by police. But as Comey noted in his speech, reporting is voluntary and sporadic. And that’s far from the only problem with the data. It doesn’t include unjustifiable killings (which may be included elsewhere in federal crime statistics but aren’t identified as police killings), doesn’t include many killings that are still under investigation and doesn’t include killings in federal jurisdictions.


Demographic information, such as the race of the officer and victim, are often missing. To fill the void, various independent groups — most notably the “Killed By Police” Facebook page — have sprung up to try to compile their own figures. Fischer-Baum looked at the Facebook group’s data in August and found it fairly reliable, though certainly not comprehensive. But there’s a clear need for better statistics.

Hayley Munguia contributed reporting.

Ben Casselman was a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.