President Donald Trump sent shockwaves far beyond the beltway yesterday when he abruptly fired James Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Coming on the heels of Sally Yates’s testimony regarding former national security adviser Michael Flynn, the move has inflamed speculation that Comey’s dismissal is related to the FBI investigation into the Trump administration's contact with Russia. It’s clear that we’re all living in interesting times.
While I’ll leave it to the pundits to unpack the ramifications of the current drama, there is one largely overlooked element of the story that I’d like to flag for your watercooler conversations: Comey learned of his dismissal while visiting with FBI agents in Los Angeles, the purpose of which was to prepare for a diversity recruiting event later that evening.
While this may be the least interesting element of yesterday’s news, the FBI’s stunning lack of diversity remains one of the more serious issues facing the agency – and the country it serves - in the long term. According to the FBI’s own statistics, 83% of special agents, 78% of intelligence analysts, and 69% of professional staff are white. Comey, as it turned out, was on the case.
Last July, the former director gave a speech to a group of security officials for HBCUs at the invitation of Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla. “We have a crisis in the FBI and it is this: Slowly but steadily over the last decade or more, the percentage of special agents in the FBI who are white has been growing.’’ It was a time when many leaders were struggling to articulate a message on race and police violence, and Comey did not disappoint. He told the group that it was his job to reverse the trend at the FBI. “That is a path to a fall down a flight of stairs…83% will become 100%, and we will be less effective for the American people,” he said. “I will have failed if I don’t change this.”
It had become a refrain. Comey gave an unusually candid speech at Georgetown in February 2015, where he talked about the “complicated” relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve. He mentioned Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and police officers who had been targeted and killed. He affirmed the anger many feel toward law enforcement. And, in the service of encouraging necessary conversations, he offered some hard truths. “All of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty.” He cited research confirming the widespread existence of unconscious bias, and calling on law enforcement “to design systems and processes to overcome that very human part of us all.”
It was a well-crafted speech, unlike anything delivered by any of his predecessors. If you’ve got 22 minutes to spare, it’s worth your time.
In the bumpy days ahead, I expect the focus to remain on the ongoing investigation into the administration’s alleged Russian ties. But eventually, a director nominee will face Senate approval. Is too much to hope that someone will ask a question about why the FBI is so white? And that the nominee will have a serious answer? As imperfect as he may have been at times, Comey understood the profound importance of an agency that looked like the world it served. Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity...Diversity? If not now, when?