In a speech delivered on Thursday, FBI Director James Comey broke the silence the country's top law enforcement agency has traditionally kept on race and policing, calling out local police for becoming cynical and failing to understand the communities they serve, as well as criticizing the impulse to blame officers for social problems whose roots run deep.
Addressing students at Georgetown University in an auditorium that, he noted, was named after the son of a plantation owner and a slave, Comey declared that it was time to have an "open and honest" discussion about the difficult relationship between law enforcement and communities of color.
"Of course, these are only conversations in the true sense of the word if we are willing not only to talk but to listen, too," he said. Accordingly, he welcomed questions after his remarks.
Promising to deliver "hard truths," as the speech was titled, Comey said that recent police killings in Ferguson and Staten Island — and the angry protests they enflamed — are not caused by "racist" officers but by officers who have developed "mental shortcuts" based on race.
"Police officers on patrol in our nation's cities often work in environments where a hugely disproportionate percentage of street crime is committed by young men of color. Something happens to people of good will working in that environment," he said. "A mental shortcut becomes almost irresistible and maybe even rational by some lights. The two young black men on one side of the street look like so many others the officer has locked up. Two young white men on the other side of the street — even in the same clothes — do not."
"That drives different behavior," Comey added. "The officer turns toward one side of the street and not the other. We need to come to grips with the fact that this behavior complicates the relationship between police and the communities they serve."
But he noted that narrowing the debate to concentrate solely on criticism of police isn't a solution.
"I worry that this important and incredibly difficult conversation about race and policing has become focused entirely on the nature and character of law enforcement officers, when it should also be about something much harder to discuss," Comey said. "Debating the nature of policing is a very important thing, but I worry that it has become an excuse to avoid doing something harder."
He explained that an effort needs to be made to provide education and employment opportunities that are necessary to develop "violence-resistant and drug-resistant kids, especially in communities of color, so they never become part of that officer's life experience."
"Changing that legacy is a challenge so enormous and so complicated that it is, unfortunately, easier to talk only about the cops," Comey said. "And that's not fair."
He also called for investment in more community policing, and said that "police in our country need to get out of their cars and get to know the people they serve."
Comey criticized the lack of consistent, reliable reporting on officer-involved shootings, which aren't tracked comprehensively. Instead, a fraction of the nation's law enforcement agencies "self-report" this data.
"I can go to Google to find how many people bought a book on Amazon," he remarked during the Q&A portion. "It's ridiculous that I can't know how many people were shot by police."
The speech was a first for the FBI. Comey, who has been at the helm of the agency for 18 months, made it clear that he hoped it would encourage a frank talk about race and policing that some officials have been reluctant to face in the aftermath of Ferguson.
Attorney General Eric Holder — the highest-ranking administration official to visit Ferguson — has spoken of how the events there touched him in a "personal" way. And New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke candidly about having to teach his biracial teenage son to "take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him." Both were widely criticized for talking about race.
In contrast, activists for social justice have demanded more recognition of the fact that race is at the core of these issues in the words and actions of officials, and particularly from President Barack Obama.
"What we need to see now is him using the power of his position, the power of the highest office in the land, to enact some real change," Ashley Yates, an organizer with Millennial Activists United and one of the leaders of the Ferguson protests, said after meeting with Obama late last year. "We have been on the ground making the changes that we can in our communities, but these are high-level changes that we need to see. These are systemic issues, and we need systemic solutions for them."
"We need policies, and we need the backing of our black president to say that this is a racial issue and that he stands behind us," she added.
Comey's comments marked a significant departure from the ways in which the FBI has previously commented on questions of civil rights.
"Not to take anything away from the previous directors, but it was almost as though they thought, 'This is something we shouldn't weigh into,' " Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, told the New York Times. "The FBI director is looked upon by police chiefs who have been talking about this issue for years as a very important person, but they haven't used their position as a bully pulpit to underscore how important civil rights and race is in policing."
The Times also dug up an editorial Comey co-wrote while a student at the College of William and Mary in 1980, criticizing the school's lack of commitment to racial diversity on campus.
"So, if the college wants to enroll more black students, what is the holdup?" the editorial asked. "Is the college unable to provide the resources necessary for an effective recruiting program? Unable, no. Unwilling, yes."
On Thursday, Comey redirected this sentiment toward the FBI, which he acknowledged is "overwhelmingly white and male."
When a black student in the audience asked Comey what he planned to do about that, Comey told him to get in touch after graduation.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi