An important column in City Journal about just how important policing is, to all communities.
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.