If the FBI has figured out how and why one or more of its agents shot and killed a key witness to the Boston Marathon bombing during an interrogation last May 22, it isn’t rushing to tell anyone. As of this writing, the Bureau has been investigating itself for 237 days.
FBI officials boasted to The New York Times that the Bureau’s “shooting incident review team” employed “an effective, time-tested process” to investigate the use of lethal force by agents. But don’t expect this FBI probe to call into question its own actions. According to the Times, in more than 150 consecutive shootings dating back to 1993 the FBI has never once found an agent at fault.
Turning a Blind Eye
In fact, the Bureau’s reports systematically omit a key piece of evidence about shootings involving its agents: “Such reports typically do not include whether an agent had been involved in any previous shootings, because they focus only on the episode in question,“ FBI officials told the Times.
What does this astonishing admission mean for the FBI’s investigation of the slaying of Ibragim Todashev in Orlando last May?
Samuel Walker, a criminologist and nationally recognized expert in police accountability, tells WhoWhatWhy that the FBI’s blind eye toward shooting patterns by its agents is “just crazy.” Identifying such patterns is the first step toward flagging bad cops—or agents with “problems.”
The FBI’s failure to do this runs counter not only to common sense but also to “best-practice” protocols now used in police departments coast to coast. It also challenges the Bureau’s reputation as a model law enforcement agency.
FBI: We Are the Best
Forty years after J. Edgar Hoover’s mendacious tenure as FBI director ended, the Bureau continues to hold itself in the highest regard. Its website declares:
The FBI has developed a suite of capabilities that is unmatched in any other single national security agency in the world. At the same time, one common thread for the FBI through the years has been its penchant for lifting all boats in the global law enforcement and intelligence communities. Its rising tide has been a slew of institutionalized training programs and specialized courses.
But the FBI hardly needs to toot its own horn. Media toadies have been doing that for generations. Here’s an example from the New York Times in 1965:
The FBI, which has been built in Hoover’s own image, is generally acknowledged to be the finest police and investigative force in the world. It has greatly advanced the concept of law enforcement by introducing scientific methods and professional disciplines that have filtered down to precinct station houses in hundreds of cities across the country.
Could the FBI’s stonewalling on its “time-tested” investigation of the Todashev case be a tipping point? Perhaps. The Bureau’s image is being scuffed by some of its old media friends. On Jan. 7, the Boston Globe published a searing editorial – “Where’s the Explanation? – demanding that the FBI tell what it knows about the agent’s slaying of Todashev:
FBI director James B. Comey needs to understand that his agency’s credibility is on the line in its investigation into the killing of Ibragim Todashev…The FBI, which has a long track record of exonerating itself in internal inquiries into shootings by agents, has had ample time to investigate Todashev’s death. It’s unclear now what the agency is waiting for. It’s time Comey provided an explanation.
Reforming Law Enforcement
In an exclusive Q&A, we asked criminologist Walker about the basis of the FBI’s increasingly imperiled reputation.
Walker, a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, has been studying police accountability and oversight of police agencies and officers since the mid-1970s, including major research projects funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.
He was an expert witness in the Center for Constitutional Rights’ successful federal class-action lawsuit against the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk strategy. Many of Judge Shira Scheindlin’s remedies in her recent ruling against the NYPD, including the appointment of an independent monitor, were drawn from Walker’s testimony.
Walker holds a unique position in the traditionally hidebound world of law enforcement. He is a flinty police critic who is nonetheless called upon by police departments to guide reforms. He is also a hero to those who advocate for civilian oversight of police departments.
“I’m very proud of the fact that I can speak to both sides,” says Walker, who first ventured into advocacy as a volunteer in the black voter registration drive during Mississippi’s Freedom Summer of 1964. “I think I’ve established my credibility. There’s a new generation of police commanders who understand there are things they need to do and should do, and they respect that.”
The Evolution of Policing