Monday, February 16, 2015

FBI director says police must do better on race, and that's a message for both urban and rural areas

By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

In our opinion, one of the most important speeches given by a public official in the law few years was the address last week by FBI Director James Comey, acknowledging that U.S. law enforcement has a history of being "often brutally unfair to disfavored groups," especially racial and ethnic minorities.

Comey speaks at Georgetown University
“Many people in our white-majority culture have unconscious racial biases and react differently to a white face than a black face,” Comey said, in a rare case of power speaking truth to power. This is a matter of concern not just in urban areas, where minority populations are relatively larger, but in rural areas, where the percentage of "disfavored groups" can vary widely and the policing is often not as sophisticated as that in urban areas.

Perhaps the latest example of that is the rough treatment a man from India who couldn't speak English received from police in Madison, Ala., last week. They threw him to the ground and he was partially paralyzed, reported Challen Stephens of The Huntsville Times. His prognosis is optimistic, NBC News reports. Anna Claire Vollers of the Times reports that more than $170,000 has been raised through crowdfunding to help pay his medical expenses. Her story includes a video of the incident. The assaulting officer has been fired and arrested, Edward Bowser of the Times reports.

Given such incidents as this, and the choking death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner at the hands of New York police last year, it was important that the nation's top cop make a speech about police and race. As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne wrote, if President Obama or Attorney General Eric Holder, who is also African American, "had given the same speech (and they’ve said many of these things), the response would have been political and in some cases nasty. This only underscores why it was essential for the words to come from a white director of the FBI."

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