Speaking in San Diego at a meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the FBI chief argued that in the absence of reliable data, dramatic videos of police encounters are feeding the narrative that “biased police are killing black men at epidemic rates,” The Associated Press reported. Comey added that the spread of viral video shared on social media gives the impression that “something terrible is being done by the police,” even when the data does not support it.
“It is a narrative driven by video images of real and gut-wrenching misconduct, by images of possible misconduct, by images of perceived misconduct,” the FBI head said. “It’s a narrative given force by the awesome power of human empathy.”
He touched on a theme he has pursued for more than a year: trying to get police to embrace the need to report statistics on officer-involved shootings. Better numbers, Comey argues, would help the nation understand whether there is a real epidemic of police killings of black men or if the advent of viral videos shared in social media are giving the impression that there are more lethal confrontations between police and minorities.
“A small group of videos serve as an epidemic” Comey argued Sunday.
Comey argued that Americans “actually have no idea if the number of black people or brown people or white people being shot by police is up, down or sideways over the last three years, five years, 10 years,” or if Black people have a higher risk of being shot than whites when they encounter the police. As a result, he offered, this state of affairs keeps “good officers in their car” and makes them second-guess themselves.
Officers see the videos and do not want to be in them, Comey noted, and the prevailing narrative creates division between law enforcement and the community. And as ABC News reported, he also said that “in the absence of information we have anecdotes,” and a “small group of videos serves as an epidemic.” And while there are bad cops, he concluded that “police officers are overwhelmingly good people.”
Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice announced its plan to create a national database on the use of force by police. Comey said the data are needed to have an informed debate on the issue. In the meantime, the government’s data compilation system is not mandatory, depending on local police departments to provide information on a voluntary basis. As a result, the public has been made to rely on sources such as The Guardian’s “The Counted” for information on police shootings.
In that regard, Comey is wrong to say that the public, particularly Black communities, does not know if there is an epidemic of killings by law enforcement. There is plentiful research on the disproportionate use of force and deadly force against Black men; the impact of implicit police bias on deadly force; the arrests related to “stop and frisk” tactics and racial profiling against innocent Black and Latino young men; and the excessive monitoring of communities of color.
People who think there is an epidemic of police shootings don’t know if there is, and police don’t know whether there is, because there is no national collection of police shooting reports. Some police departments report such numbers while many don’t.
The FBI is trying to change that, recently announcing a pilot program to collect numbers from police departments in 2017.
Comey also spoke about the need of police to improve trust with the communities they serve.