Attorney General Prepared Remarks at the
Conference of the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies St. Louis, Missouri [NOTE: THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OFTEN DEVIATES FROM PREPARED REMARKS] July 26, 2001
I would like to thank Colonel Ronald Battelle, St. Louis County Chief of Police, and Colonel Robert Flagg, Chairman of the Board of Police Commissioners, for inviting me to be here tonight.
Congratulations, as well, to the Missouri Law Enforcement Accreditation Coalition for hosting your first ever national CALEA conference here in Missouri.
It is my rare privilege as Attorney General to meet so many of the dedicated men and women charged with the defense of the rule of law in the United States. I am honored to be here and to have your attention for these few minutes.
Thomas Jefferson said, "The execution of the laws is more important than the making of them." As a former Senator and current Attorney General, I have to confess to somewhat divided loyalties on this point. Each is a noble endeavor. But, without passing judgement on which role I prefer -- law maker or law enforcer -- I believe Jefferson was on to something. How we enforce the law is at least as important as what the law says to begin with. For in the execution of the law lies the people's trust in the law. If people don't trust the law they won't participate in law enforcement. And then, achieving justice is impossible.
As the men and women who accredit law enforcement agencies, you have a great responsibility. You are responsible for enforcing standards for those who enforce the law. And when you think about it, that's what the law is - a set of standards that make it possible to live in freedom.
That's the genius of America. It's not that Americans are any better or smarter or more talented than other people. If you think we're different from the rest of the world, look around you. We are the rest of the world. The genius of America is that we are privileged to live in a system that rewards whatever talents or brains we have by respecting our freedom. And freedom is respected when the law is enforced - uniformly, impartially, and without regard to race or color or creed.
So the goal of law enforcement is to maximize freedom for all Americans. The goal is not to prosecute as many cases as we can. We have standards of law enforcement because they preserve the people's trust in the rule of law - and it's that trust that allows us to remain a free society.
Standards building trust. Trust enlisting each American in upholding the rule of law. And where you have the rule of law - where you have the alchemy of freedom - human potential is realized.
But sometimes we forget this connection.
Earlier this year the Justice Department was asked what it could do to help protect voting rights in the mayoral elections that were held here in St. Louis. A group of us were discussing the fact that St. Louis is not covered by the Voting Rights Act and therefore is not eligible to receive official election observers. I suggested that we simply announce that the Justice Department was going to send attorneys from our Civil Rights Division to St. Louis to monitor the election. But then another person chimed in. "Oh, we can't do that," he said. "Then we won't catch them doing anything wrong."
And I said, "Exactly." It's more important to prevent an infraction than to prosecute an infraction. My job as Attorney General - the job of each of us as law enforcement officials - is to defend freedom. And freedom is maximized when law breaking is avoided, not when law breaking is prosecuted. Enforcing high standards tells citizens that not only is law enforcement swift and sure, but it is just as well.
Not long after I became Attorney General it became my responsibility to carry out the first federal execution in 38 years. Shortly before this execution was to occur, it was discovered that documents relating to the case had not been provided to the defendant's attorneys. Everyone knew that the defendant was guilty. But I decided we needed more than that to preserve the people's trust. We needed not just a guilty defendant but an innocent system. So I delayed the execution to allow the documents to be provided to the attorneys. I delayed the execution to preserve the public trust in the law and the men and women who administer the law.
In Washington last month the Department of Justice concluded an agreement with the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department that we hope and expect will become a model for how we can help local law enforcement set high standards - and to work cooperatively with us to fix a problem rather than fix the blame.
The District Police Department came to the Department of Justice in 1999 and asked for help to determine if its officers used excessive force in dealing with members of the public. We investigated and we found that, in fact, the District police had in the past engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force. But while the investigation was still underway we began to work cooperatively with the District to fix the problem. By the time we announced the agreement we were also able to report that the District police had already achieved a significant reduction in the rate at which they use deadly force.
No court orders were involved. No consent decrees were issued. Through hard work and good will on both sides we were able to produce results, not retribution, and accountability instead of acrimony. The District has five years to implement the remaining reforms in the agreement. The Department of Justice will be there to insure that it has the assistance it needs; to see that District officers are able to uphold the rule of law while using force only when and to the extent necessary.
In this case and others, the principles guiding the Department of Justice are the same: Standards building trust. Trust eliciting participation in law enforcement. And when the people participate in law enforcement, freedom endures. This is the approach we're taking to reducing gun violence in our nation. And it is the approach we must employ to relaunch the fight against illegal drugs.
The United States is a nation plagued by unacceptable levels of gun violence. We all have a moral obligation to see that this violence ends. We have, as well, a legal obligation to enforce the law. Federal law makes it a felony for convicted felons and other dangerous persons to lie about their records in attempting to buy a gun. Federal law makes it a felony for such people even to possess a gun. America has good, strong gun laws on the books. But when these laws go unenforced, public trust in the rule of law erodes.
President Bush's initiative to reduce gun violence, called Project Safe Neighborhoods, incorporates high standards and cooperation among local, state and federal law enforcement to see that gun laws are enforced. It builds on successful programs like Operation Ceasefire right here in St. Louis, which recently received three new federal prosecutors under the program dedicated exclusively to prosecuting firearms violations. The goal is to send the message that law enforcement takes the law seriously - and would-be law breakers would do well to do the same.
This same approach, I believe, can help us push back against a growing wave of illegal drug use. The Department of Justice is committed to a vigorous, sustained effort to reduce drug abuse. We come to this commitment with the knowledge that progress has been made in the past and can be made again in the future. Between 1979 and 1992, in response to a concerted national strategy and a clear moral message that drug abuse was wrong, teenage drug abuse consistently declined, year after year.
But the trend that was so hopeful in the Eighties reversed in the 1990s. Drug use by children between the ages of 12 and 17 more than doubled in the middle of the decade. Teen drug use appears to have leveled off since 1997, but it remains unacceptably high. Meanwhile, we seem to be losing our belief that progress is possible. But defeatism in the war on drugs, however fashionable, carries a serious cost. If we expect our children to take our drug laws seriously, parents, teachers, communities and law enforcement must set the tone. When leaders send the right message, progress in deterring drug abuse can be made - it must be made. And I think it can be made if we work together.
Standards building trust. Trust building freedom. Perhaps nowhere is this message more vital for law enforcement today than in the area of racial profiling or bias-based profiling. I want to congratulate CALEA for its adoption of strong standards to address bias-based profiling among law enforcement. Judging people on the basis of their race has a uniquely tragic place in American history. No issue leaves a greater stain on the pages of our history books. And no issue poses a greater threat to the people's faith in the just and equal administration of the laws.
I have always firmly believed that to treat people differently on the basis of their race is a profound moral wrong. It is, as well, a violation of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing the equal protection of the laws.
As a U.S. Senator I had the privilege of chairing a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1999 regarding traffic stops and race. I'll never forget hearing the testimony of a man named Rosano Gerald - a veteran of the armed services who had served his country for many years. Mr. Gerald spoke of traveling across a midwestern state with his 12-year-old son and being stopped twice -- for no apparent violation. The second time he was stopped his car was literally disassembled and he was left, with his young son, stranded on the side of the road. A man who had committed no infraction, who was guilty of no crime, was left to try to tell his son why he should continue to put his trust in law enforcement.
In the first month of his presidency President Bush asked the Department of Justice to undertake a comprehensive review of the nature and extent of racial profiling practices in federal law enforcement. That review is well underway and we anticipate to release a report on its findings early this fall.
To ensure the most complete picture of law enforcement practices possible, in March of this year I wrote to the House and Senate Judiciary committees to encourage Congress to get involved. I asked them to work with me in the ensuing six months to pass legislation for a comprehensive study of racial profiling - including the nature and extent of bias-based profiling in state and local law enforcement. I made it clear that if Congress failed to act within six months I would simply launch a study myself.
As time passes, I remain hopeful that Congress will move forward in a bipartisan approach to help law enforcement understand where racial profiling occurs and to eliminate it where it does occur. I continue to believe that the best way to preserve the people's trust in law enforcement is to work with the people's representatives in Congress. But my determination - and that of the president's - to ensure the just and equal administration of the nation's laws is paramount. There is no place in American law enforcement for judging the guilt or innocense of citizens by the color of their skin.
Standards building trust. Trust building freedom. This is the great charge - the great trust - of law enforcement in our nation. America occupies a unique position in the history of mankind. We send a message about the value of freedom that resonates around the world. But democracy and freedom don't mean anything absent justice.
At a gathering of lawyers in Charleston, South Carolina in 1847, Daniel Webster raised his glass in a toast. "To the law," Webster said. " It has honored us; may we honor it." Tonight, let us offer the same tribute to the citizens who look to us to enforce the law. They have honored us with their trust. May we honor them with justice.