The F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, delivered an unusually candid speech on Thursday about the difficult relationship between the police and African-Americans, saying that officers who work in neighborhoods where blacks commit crimes at a high rate develop a cynicism that shades their attitudes about race.
Citing the song â€œEveryoneâ€™s a Little Bit Racistâ€ from the Broadway show â€œAvenue Q,â€ he said police officers of all races viewed black and white men differently. In an address to students at Georgetown University, Mr. Comey said that some officers scrutinize African-Americans more closely using a mental shortcut that â€œbecomes almost irresistible and maybe even rational by some lightsâ€ because black men are arrested at much higher rates than white men.
In speaking about racial issues at such length, Mr. Comey used his office in a way that none of his predecessors had. His remarks also went beyond what President Obama and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. have said since an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in August.
Mr. Comey said that his speech, which was well received by law enforcement officials, was motivated by his belief that the country had not â€œhad a healthy dialogueâ€ since the protests began in Ferguson and that he did not â€œwant to see those important issues drift away.â€
Previous F.B.I. directors had limited their public comments about race to civil rights investigations, like murders committed by the Ku Klux Klan and the bureauâ€™s wiretapping of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Â But Mr. Comey tried to dissect the issue layer by layer.
He started by acknowledging that law enforcement had a troubled legacy when it came to race.
â€œAll of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty,â€ he said. â€œAt many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups.â€
Mr. Comey said there was significant research showing that all people have unconscious racial biases. Law enforcement officers, he said, need â€œto design systems and processes to overcome that very human part of us all.â€