CLEVELAND (AP) — FBI Director James Comey said on Thursday there's a crisis in big cities across the country as the divide between law enforcement officers and minority communities widens while violent crime and murder spike upward.
Comey made his remarks during a forum at a community college in Cleveland, where the relationship between police and the majority black community has been especially troublesome the last several years because of highly publicized police custody deaths and fatal shootings, such as that of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy who was holding a pellet gun.
Cleveland is in the early stages of implementing a federal court-monitored agreement that the city and the U.S. Department of Justice reached after the DOJ concluded last year that city police officers too often used excessive force and violated people's rights and that the problem was primarily rooted in the black community.
The people who are dying as the result of violent crime in American cities are typically young men of color, Comey said.
"It's a problem the rest of the country could easily drive around because it's happening to those people in those neighborhoods," he said. "We can't allow that to happen."
Comey called Cleveland a "place of great pain" that is an example of the divide that exists. Without referring to the agreement, called a consent decree, he added that leadership in Cleveland makes him hopeful the city can show the rest of the country how to narrow the gap. The ultimate answer, he said, is "unscientific."
"It's simply understanding that it's hard to hate up close," he said. "We must see each other more clearly."
One of the key provisions in Cleveland's consent decree is to train officers about how to engage the community in bias-free policing and to create systems to make the police department accountable for doing its job without regard for race, gender or sexual identity.
Law enforcement officers must "own our history" about how minorities have been treated by police, Comey said at the question-and-answer forum.
"Because people we serve and protect don't forget," he said. "That's part of their inheritance as well."
While law enforcement must always work to improve, better policing won't solve the problems that plague poor neighborhoods of color, Comey said, adding that it would be a mistake to focus just on police. People need to realize that they need police to "weed the predators out," he said.
"We need police in these neighborhoods to save those lives because those lives matter," Comey said. "These are Americans dying in our streets, so we are needed there."