On Wednesday FBI Director James Comey took a tour of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and addressed the media about the ongoing discussion about race relations throughout the country.
Comey was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013 and served as the United States Deputy Attorney General under President George Bush from 2003 to 2005.
During the press conference, Comey spoke to the spike in violent crimes in communities throughout the country and what can be done to help stem the flow of guns into the hands of criminals. One reporter asked Comey about the “Ferguson Effect” and how what happened in Missouri has lead to an apparent rise in violent incidents in communities.
“I’d resist the term ‘Ferguson Effect’ because it confuses me a little bit,” Comey quipped. “What I am focused on — is there something about viral videos that depict real police misconduct? Is there something about that affecting law enforcement on the marginal proactive policing edge? That is, are officers in some places reluctant to get out of their cars and engage in policing that helps reduce crime? I don’t know for sure if that’s a real thing or if it’s affecting crime, but I’ve heard about it from all over the country.”
Many cities are seeing spikes in violence, Comey said, and it all started in the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015. “While looking at that same map, there are many cities that are seeing a decrease. So it’s very hard to make sense of what’s happening. I’m trying to drive a conversation to say what’s going on,” Comey said. “The thing we all have to agree upon is everybody wants the same kind of policing… You want officers in a respectable appropriate way out of their cars talking to people.”
Comey said that the scrutiny of police that has spilled over from Ferguson and elsewhere has been a good thing for law enforcement because “we get better that way.”
Speaking in terms of race relations between law enforcement and members of the community, Comey said that Birmingham is an example of how much progress has been made in that regard, and said the improvements would have been “unimaginable” 50 years ago.
“That’s to be celebrated. But it’s also an inspiration because it’s never good enough. Birmingham is an example of a place where people talk to each other in a very healthy way,” Comey said. “Tremendous progress has been made here but in other parts of the country I would say it’s lumpy.”
After the mass murder of nine members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Comey visited with faith leaders and law enforcement in the area. They all said the same thing, according to Comey, “The time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining today.”
Comey said that struck a chord with him because, “If you’re in law enforcement and you can’t immediately text 5 people in the affected community, the leaders, and get a response, you have failed. You need to invest in those relationships when the sun is shining.”
Birmingham is one of the pilot cities for My Brother’s Keeper, a national initiative started by Obama to invest in helping at risk youth in the community graduate.
One reporter asked if initiatives like MBK help at risk youth in the community and what else should be done to end the cycle of violence in low-income communities. “I think what works — and it’s at the heart of [MBK] — is incredibly time intensive up-closeness,” Comey said. “That is mentoring and coaching of parents and trying to direct that child from very early on. Trying to redirect someone when they are 18 is a very hard thing.”
Comey said he’s never believed that you can “arrest your way” to a healthy neighborhood. “The answer is you have to invest the time with them in a way that they’re not the one standing on the corner with a gun.”
Comey was asked about other situations including the investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s email server as well as the FBI’s role in Governor Robert Bentley’s current legal situation. He declined to comment on both ongoing investigations.