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Champion of Law and Order

eye on the news

Champion of Law and Order

As FBI director, James Comey understood better than anyone the importance of police work to public safety. May 12, 2017
Public safety
Politics and law

Whatever FBI director James Comey’s alleged failings in regard to the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server and Russian election interference, his precipitous sacking is a loss for America’s police officers and public order.

The man whom President Donald Trump now calls a “showboater” and “grandstander” gave candidate Trump the most powerful message of his campaign: policing matters. Months before Trump decried the media’s “false narrative” about policing, Comey had warned that the “chill wind” blowing through American law enforcement was resulting in a rising homicide toll among black people. Comey was virtually the only official within the Obama administration to acknowledge publicly the disastrous impact that the Black Lives Matter movement was having on public safety; Obama contemptuously rebuked him for doing so.

Comey delivered one of the most eloquent defenses of proactive policing ever penned in a speech at the University of Chicago law school in October 2015. The speech punctured the lies about the criminal-justice system being spread by the criminology profession, activists, and the media. Comey described working as a prosecutor in Richmond, Virginia, during the height of the 1990s drug wars. Drug violence affected black neighborhoods exclusively, Comey observed; white people could simply drive around the problem. But for blacks living under the thrall of open-air dealing, “violence was everywhere,” Comey said. A resident of such a neighborhood would have responded with a “tired laugh” to the Left’s favorite conceit of the “nonviolent drug dealer,” Comey noted.

Back in the 1990s, activists were already criticizing police officers and prosecutors for locking up black men instead of whites. Comey refused to take the racial bait. Law enforcement targeted neighborhoods where people were dying, he said; race had nothing to do with it.

No one has better refuted the “mass incarceration” idea popularized by Michelle Alexander’s factitious book, The New Jim Crow. There was nothing “mass” about incarceration: “Each drug dealer, each mugger, each killer, and each felon with a gun had his own lawyer, his own case, his own time before judge and jury, his own sentencing, and, in many cases, an appeal or other post-sentencing review,” Comey observed. If these individualized cases resulted in large numbers of black men being sent to jail, that was because “there were a very large number of young men of color involved in criminal activity in America’s cities.” In other words, America doesn’t have an incarceration problem, it has a crime problem.

When FBI SWAT teams and their law-enforcement partners arrested 70 black drug traffickers in northwest Arkansas in August 2015, they were “met by applause, hugs, and offers of food from the good people of that besieged community’’—all black themselves, Comey said. He might have added that no Black Lives Matter activists had bothered to help rid the community of its predators.

The press ignored the speech’s unflinching honesty about the vast racial disparities in criminal offending and victimization and its account of how policing and incarceration had revitalized neighborhoods. But the media did rouse themselves to notice Comey’s observations about rising street crime in black areas. The last two decades’ progress against crime was at risk, Comey observed, because officers were reluctant to get out of their cars and do the proactive work that prevents drive-by shootings. They were answering 911 calls but avoiding the informal contact that deters bad guys with guns, he said. Such discretionary police work was precisely what the Left incessantly criticized as racial oppression. Comey recounted a conversation with officers in a big-city precinct who described being surrounded and taunted the moment that they got out of their cars. Because of officers’ growing hesitation about engaging with potential suspects, cities across the country were seeing an explosion in senseless violence, Comey posited.

Comey’s Chicago speech was a direct rejection of the Obama administration’s line that the criminal-justice system is racist. Acknowledgment of rising crime rates challenged Obama’s warm embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement. Nothing other than proactive policing had changed in criminogenic environments that could explain the increase in crime—economic conditions, demographics, and poverty rates were all stable. And so within days of Comey’s speech, Obama himself went to Chicago and issued a scathing put-down. Obama accused Comey of “cherry-pick[ing] data” and using “anecdotal evidence to . . . feed political agendas.” Even though violent crime was rising in American cities both large and small, Obama dismissed the homicide numbers as an insignificant aberration. The press echoed Obama’s contempt. The New York Times called his speech “incendiary” and said that it “plays into the right-wing view that holding the police to constitutional standards endangers the public.”  There was “no data suggesting” that depolicing was contributing to an increase in crime, the Times said. 

But the bad news kept coming in. In May 2016, after a meeting with the Major Cities Chiefs Association, Comey again went public with his concerns. “The [violent crime] numbers are not only going up, they’re continuing to go up in most of those cities faster than they were going up last year,” he said in a press conference. And again he articulated the most likely cause for this reversal of the two-decades-long crime decline: “Police are less likely to do the marginal additional policing that suppresses crime—the getting out of your car at 2 in the morning and saying to a group of guys, ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’”

The Obama White House struck back swiftly against this latest refutation of its narrative of police-driven racial oppression. “This administration makes policy decisions that are rooted in evidence, that are rooted in science,” sniffed Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary. “We can’t make broad, sweeping policy decisions or draw policy conclusions based on anecdotal evidence. That’s irresponsible and ultimately counterproductive.” Earnest’s condescension was sickening, especially because the Obama administration routinely accused the police of an epidemic of racially biased shootings, without any regard to data. Had they bothered to look, Obama and his analysts would have found that the data demonstrate conclusively that police activity, including the use of lethal force, is determined by crime, not race.

When the final tally came in, reported homicides in 2015 had risen nearly 12 percent, the largest one-year increase in nearly 50 years. In cities with large black populations, the homicide increase ranged from 54 percent in Washington to 90 percent in Cleveland. An additional 900 black males were murdered in 2015 compared with the previous year.  The 2016 increase looks to be almost as bad, though the Left continues to downplay the ongoing loss of black lives. 

Comey’s dissent from the party line was evident in the FBI’s investigation of the Michael Brown shooting, the event that jumpstarted the Black Lives Matter movement in August 2014. Working in conjunction with the Justice Department’s Criminal Section and the U.S. Attorney in Missouri, the FBI exposed the “hands-up, don’t-shoot” hoax that had depicted a peaceful Michael Brown being gunned down in cold blood by Officer Darren Wilson. The FBI–DOJ report on the Brown shooting, released in March 2015, fully supported the November 2014 decision of the St. Louis grand jury not to indict Wilson (a verdict that set off a second round of riots in Ferguson). Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder were clearly furious at the FBI’s exculpation of Wilson, and they groused that the decision not to bring civil rights charges against him was the product of a standard for culpability that was prohibitively high. In fact, under no standard of culpability could Wilson have been found guilty.

Comey’s FBI also defied attorneys in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, who have been pressing for a criminal indictment against New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo for the 2014 death of Eric Garner in Staten Island. The FBI agents and federal prosecutors who were actually analyzing the case, however, had found little ground to indict. Attorney General Loretta Lynch then removed the New York team of FBI agents and investigators, replacing them with Civil Rights Division lawyers.

Comey anticipated Trump’s rightful focus on the Chicago “carnage.” In his October 2015 Chicago law school speech, he pointed out that more than 50 people had been shot in the city in one weekend the previous month; the next weekend, the toll was higher. The victims included an 11-month-old boy shot in the hip and his mother and grandmother, who were killed right next to him. And Obama’s dismissal of Comey’s crime warnings was a warmup for his disregard of Trump’s similar observations. Trump decried the spike in urban violence in his Republican Convention acceptance speech. In response, Obama again rationalized the 2015 homicide surge as a mere “uptick in murders and violent crime in some cities.” Comey’s defiance of the Obama White House narrative on crime and policing showed a streak of independence now being characterized as self-centered and capricious. Perhaps this independence crossed the line into insubordination in the FBI’s election investigations, but it was sorely needed during the Obama years and provided the only honest official voice with regards to law enforcement. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recognizes the destruction wrought by the Black Lives Matter movement—now Sessions and the president together must find a replacement for Comey who shares the ousted director’s deep understanding of how crucial policing is to public safety.

Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and the author of the bestselling The War on Cops.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

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