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Attorney General Eric Holder Addresses the National Sheriffs’ Association’s 2010 Winter Conference
Washington, D.C. ~ Friday, January 22, 2010

Thank you, Sheriff Zaruba.   I appreciate your kind words.   I also want to thank you, and the NSA’s outstanding leadership team, for inviting and welcoming me here today.

 

It’s good to be among friends.   Over the years, I’ve been privileged to work with many of you, and, today, I’m proud to stand alongside each of you in answering our nation’s call to attain justice.

 

In that effort to attain justice, enforce our laws, and – most importantly – protect the American people, America’s sheriffs serve as essential partners to the Justice Department.   This morning, I’m eager to discuss the work we share.   But I’m also here to ask for your help in building the future we all seek.

 

In looking toward this future, and to the needs that must be met and challenges that must be faced, I’m reminded of the wisdom that our nation’s most iconic sheriff left us. As John Wayne once said, “Tomorrow hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.”  

 

It’s true that tomorrow’s success is informed by our past experiences.   And I’m certain it will be defined by our current priorities.

 

In establishing the Department’s agenda for this year and beyond, we are guided by the knowledge that moving forward effectively requires a commitment to getting back to basics.   We’ve begun by reinvigorating the traditional missions of the Justice Department and by re-instilling an ethos of integrity, independence and transparency in everything we do.

 

Even as we confront the complex challenges posed by global terrorism, and even as we recognize this work as the Department’s top priority, we must also embrace the historic and most fundamental roles of law enforcement: fighting crime, protecting civil rights, preserving the environment, and ensuring fairness in the market place.

 

Your entire membership, indeed every person in this room, can play a role.   And your guidance can make a critical difference.   In the work of making our neighborhoods and communities safer, you are the front lines.   You know what works.   You know what doesn’t.   And you have taught me that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all answer to the dynamic and evolving problem of crime.

 

This lesson became clear to me years ago, when I served as a young federal prosecutor.   And it’s been reinforced by my experiences as a judge, as a U.S. Attorney, as Deputy Attorney General and, today, as Attorney General.   I have learned, repeatedly and unequivocally, that good police work is a critical first step to understanding, punishing and preventing crime.   It’s the cornerstone of sound policy and the basis for effective resource investments.

 

But good police work is not done in isolation.   It’s done in partnership.   And it’s done with a commitment to exchanging information, ideas and experiences.

 

I know that collaboration is the most powerful law enforcement tool we have. This effort begins with the brave men and women who police our neighborhoods, manage our jails and help secure our borders.

 

This work – your work – makes a difference in communities, in families, and in individual lives.   And it will be a key component in meeting the Justice Department’s goals for this year and beyond.

 

I want to talk more specifically about several of our priorities.   And I want to tell you about some of the ways the Justice Department is working to provide much-needed support to sheriffs and other law enforcement personnel.

 

One of the top priorities of this Justice Department is to re-establish our relationships with state, local and tribal authorities.   These partnerships are critical.   Yet, in recent years, many of them have suffered, been neglected or been taken for granted. No longer.   We are committed to rebuilding these bonds.   And we are actively working to open new channels of communication and collaboration.

 

At every level, we’re focused on strengthening the Department’s core missions of combating terrorism and fighting crime.

 

In the months ahead, we plan to give particular emphasis to initiatives aimed at tackling economic crime, international organized crime, youth violence and the exploitation of children.

 

We will also be focusing on improving our corrections system and ensuring that conditions are secure, humane and aimed at rehabilitation.

 

There’s no question that problems in our jails and prisons are alarming, especially the increased prevalence of sexual assault.   The Bureau of Justice Statistics recently found that 12 percent of young offenders in our juvenile facilities have been sexually victimized.   This is horrifying.   It’s also unacceptable.

 

As we work toward making improvements, many of you have raised practical concerns about some of the recommendations included in the Prison Rape Elimination Act Commission Report.   I am committed to working with you.   And I’m determined to address this problem effectively, collaboratively, and as quickly as possible.

 

Sheriffs must be a part of this work.   I’m pleased that several of you will be meeting with the Department’s PREA Working Group on Monday.   And I want each of you to know that there will be additional opportunities to offer input and to comment on proposed regulations.

 

We’ll also be soliciting your assistance in our reinvigorated drug enforcement efforts. This work is driving an enhanced focus on Mexico and on our southwest border.   To date, the Department has launched a series of efforts aimed at confronting the threats posed by Mexican cartels, by sophisticated criminal organizations, by smugglers of guns, drugs, and cash, and by those intent on illegally crossing into our country.

 

Some of you work along our southwest border.   You know, as surely as I do, that we simply cannot afford to ignore the problem of illegal immigration.   Several of you have reached out to us and to our colleagues across the Administration.   You’ve warned that tension is building.   And you’ve described its consequences: spikes in hate crimes, an increased fear of local law enforcement, and growing concerns for public safety.

 

We hear you.   And we are working to ensure that the federal government lives up to its responsibility to create and enforce effective immigration laws. 

 

President Obama has signaled his commitment to comprehensive immigration reform. He’s engaged the Justice Department in finding a workable solution for the millions who are in our country without lawful status.   And he’s called on us, as well as the Department of Homeland Security, to provide technical assistance on issues of enforcement, administrative and judicial review, and civil rights.

 

As we encourage and pursue reforms, let me be clear about two points: We will fulfill our obligation to enforce current immigration laws.   And we will also honor our commitment to safeguard civil rights in our border areas, as well as in our workplaces, our housing markets and our voting booths.

 

I realize that achieving the goals I’ve laid out will not be easy.   Success will depend on how well we support our law enforcement partners.   It will also depend on our ability to provide the investments you need to do your jobs well.

   

In this time of mounting deficits and budget cuts, I know that your work has become more difficult. But it’s never been more important.   The needs of your offices cannot be ignored or overlooked.   You deserve better, and our communities deserve better.     

 

That s why, from day one, this Administration has been focused on providing local law enforcement officials with sufficient resources.   And the Justice Department is an enthusiastic partner in this work.

 

Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act alone, we have awarded more than $2 billion through the Office of Justice Programs.   And we ve allocated more than $1 billion through the office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

           

Many of you - but not enough of you - have benefited from these investments. As part of our OJP Recovery Act rural law enforcement program, $36 million was awarded to sheriffs’ offices.   And sheriffs have received nearly $9 million under our Southern Border program.  

 

However, addressing the challenges faced by law enforcement requires more than simply moving money out the door.   We must match resources effectively with local needs, something that can only be achieved through strong federal-local partnerships.   We must also recognize that, in the work of ensuring public safety, these partnerships go far beyond funding decisions.

 

We must seek out new ways to deepen and extend these partnerships.   This includes participating in each others’ task forces.   It includes sharing data and research.   And it requires taking what we know, and what we have learned from each other, and making sure this information is put to good use.

 

There’s no question that this type of cooperation among law enforcement agencies is vital to fulfilling our missions and responsibilities.   And one of our core objectives must be to work together to protect the safety of our law enforcement officers.

 

A key part of this work is the Department’s Body Armor Initiative and our Bulletproof Vest Partnership Program.   Through our National Institute of Justice, we run a rigorous standards and testing program to ensure that body armor does what it’s supposed to do: keep law enforcement safe.   Through our Bureau of Justice Assistance, we’ve helped law enforcement personnel in more than 13,000 jurisdictions purchase some 800,000 protective vests -- vests that can make a critical difference to our officers in the field.

 

Unfortunately, in the past, some body armor was poorly manufactured.   Some materials degraded to the point of being ineffective against the bullets they were designed to defeat.   The Justice Department’s Civil Division has been in litigation with several companies over defective vests made from a material called Zylon.   In October 2008, one of the companies – Armor Holdings Products – agreed to pay $30 million as part of a settlement.  

 

Today, I’m pleased to announce that $11 million from this and other settlements will be invested in law enforcement officers across the country.   These resources will not be going back into the Treasury.   They will be pumped into our Bulletproof Vest Partnership Program.   And, this year, they will enable us to purchase an estimated 26,000 additional bullet-resistant vests.  

 

Through this and other programs, we will take every step possible to protect your safety.  

 

I want you all to know that violence against law enforcement will not be tolerated. At every level of your Justice Department, and in every corner of our country, acts of violence against law enforcement will be pursued.   They will be prosecuted.   And they will be punished.

 

There is nothing more basic, or more important, to our work than keeping our law enforcement officers safe.   Recently, our nation, and our law enforcement community, was tragically reminded of this truth.

 

As you well know, less than two months ago, in a coffee shop in Lakewood, Washington, four police officers sat together, preparing for a work day they would not live to see.   At 8:30 that morning, these officers were ambushed by a gunman and killed in cold blood.   It’s believed that they were targeted, murdered, simply because of the uniforms they wore and the public service they provided.

 

These victims, of course, were members of Lakewood’s 100-member police department.   But they were part of something much larger. They were part of a law enforcement community that includes federal, state, local and tribal officials.   They were part of our nation’s law enforcement family.

 

Their memorial service was attended by more than 20,000 people.   Officers from as far away as New York, Boston and Chicago drove hundreds of miles to be there, creating a processional that lasted nearly three and a half hours.

 

But tragically, this type of senseless killing of law enforcement officers is not an isolated incident.   Just last week, Captain Chad Reed of the Dixie County Sheriff’s Office in Dixie County, Florida lost his life in the line of duty during a gunfight with a murder suspect.   Captain Reed and his family are in our thoughts and prayers- today and always.

 

The program from the Lakewood officers’ memorial service included the Police Officers’ Prayer.   A prayer for courage, for strength, for dedication and for compassion.   These are the qualities I see and admire in law enforcement officials across our country, and within this room.

 

It is your gifts, your dedication and your leadership that will enable our Justice Department to make a positive, historic difference.

 

Let us commit to this work.   Let us learn from each other.   Let us work in partnership to develop law enforcement programs that are sophisticated, smart, tough and effective. And let us do so today.

 

I look forward to working with you, and learning from you, over the next several years.   Together, we can make a better America.   Thank you.

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