Another speech, in October of that same year, raised more hackles. In that address, he lent credence to the idea of a “Ferguson effect”—the hypothesis that police officers, nervous about being filmed on cell phones after several high-profile shootings of black people by cops, were taking a hands-off approach, and consequently crime was rising. The problem was that despite various anecdotes, there was no evidence to support any nationwide crime wave, much less to connect that causally to intimidated officers.
“The question that has been asked of me, is whether these kinds of things are changing police behavior all over the country,” Comey said during a speech at the University of Chicago Law School. “And the answer is, I don’t know. I don’t know whether this explains it entirely, but I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year. And that wind is surely changing behavior.”
The speech reportedly took other administration officials by surprise and upset them. A month later, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said there was no evidence for a Ferguson Effect.
In the same Chicago speech, Comey lamented mass incarceration of people of color but suggested it might have helped drive down the crime rate. “The pulling of those many weeds, as painful as that was, allowed churches, schools, community groups, and parents to plant seeds that have grown into healthy neighborhoods,” he said. “Neighborhoods that are free and alive in 2014 in ways that were unimaginable 25 years ago.” Most criminologists see no hard evidence that mass incarceration played more than a minor role in the the dramatic drop in crime rates.
Comey, then, might have been the most progressive FBI director on racial issues, but many of his views, and the bureau’s history, virtually guaranteed outcry.
Earlier this year, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was heavily booed when she spoke at graduation and received an honorary doctorate from Florida’s Bethune-Cookman University, another HBCU. In that case, as with Comey, students were highly critical of the school’s president for inviting DeVos. (Conflict between HBCU students and administrators over treatment of speakers is nothing new.)
But Comey can take heart: He didn’t have the worst trip to Howard by a Republican in recent history. In 2013, Senator Rand Paul went to speak at the school and, underestimating the historical knowledge of his audience, asked whether they knew that Republicans had founded the NAACP. He also forgot the name of the first popularly elected black senator—Republican Ed Brooke of Massachusetts—and had to be educated by the crowd.
In a statement, #HUresist said, “James Comey represents an institution diametrically opposed to the interests of Black people domestically and abroad. While his tenure at the FBI is finished, his impact on our community remains.”