James B. Comey, FBI Director speaking at the FBI/BCRI Annual Conference on Civil Rights, 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, May 25, 2016 made an eloquent plea for mutual understanding and empathy:
“We have to understand what it’s like to be a citizen who might worry that calling the police will make things worse. Who might actually fear us rather than dismiss that perspective because it makes no sense to us given the way that we know ourselves. We need to feel it. And with an open heart and an open mind, work to change that perspective. . . . Last, we have to understand the truth that the problems we face are greater than the divide between law enforcement and the communities we serve. It’s far harder than that. We in law enforcement have a whole lot to improve and to work on, but the truth is, the cops are not the root cause of our problems in so many of America’s neighborhoods. And a whole lot of people don’t want to talk about that because it’s so hard.
“The problems are so complicated and difficult because they’re about education and employment and opportunity and communities and safe streets and drug treatment and families and role models. . . . For our part, those of us in law enforcement need to feel the life experience of the people we encounter, the people we serve and protect. We have to see and work to understand their perspective and how they are experiencing life. We have to re-double our efforts to resist bias and prejudice, to resist shortcuts and assumptions.
“We have to work to imagine what it is like to be a law-abiding young man of color walking home from the library late at night and encountering one of us in law enforcement. How does he feel? How does he see us? We have to understand what it’s like to be a citizen who might worry that calling the police will make things worse. Who might actually fear us rather than dismiss that perspective because it makes no sense to us given the way that we know ourselves. We need to feel it. And with an open heart and an open mind, work to change that perspective. And it’s a two-way street. Citizens really need to see and imagine what police officers see through the windshields of their cars. What they feel as they approach a car with tinted windows during a late night car stop. They need to imagine why officers might be tense during that encounter. They need to feel an officer’s heart race as she walks up to a door answering a domestic disturbance call not knowing what she might encounter on the other side of that door. They need to see officers who are quietly and professionally helping the most vulnerable members of this community. If they take the time to do that I know what they’ll see. They’ll see officers who are human, who are overwhelmingly doing the right thing for the right reasons, and who are too often operating in communities—and facing challenges—that most of us choose to drive around. [Emphasis added]
“People in this church know better than anyone that today’s civil rights struggle isn’t over. In many ways, the struggle is more broad and far-reaching. In many ways, it harder now, because folks assume it’s over—we fixed that mess in the ‘60s, right? We in the FBI will continue to root out hate crimes and to investigate abuses of power and authority. We will continue to protect the civil rights and civil liberties of every American. We recently rewrote the FBI’s mission statement to make it clearer. Our mission today is simple. To protect the American people and to uphold the Constitution of the United States. That is it. That is who we are, that is what we stand for. But it will take all of us, every single member of every community, to fight for and deliver change. To fight for equality and fairness, to stop driving around problems. To be agitators and insiders in the best way. In the way that Dr. King taught us. We each have a responsibility to see one another up close. To stand up for justice and to sow peace whenever and wherever we can. To strengthen the fabric that ties us all together into that single garment of destiny.”