PREPARED REMARKS OF
ATTORNEY GENERAL ALBERTO R. GONZALES
NATIONAL SHERIFFS' ASSOCIATION
SUNDAY, JUNE 26, 2005 - 8:00 PM
Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen.
I am very honored to be here with you. This is quite a crowd – if something goes down, I think Louisville might be the safest place on Earth this weekend.
Being here gives me a glimpse of what it’s like to live in the communities you serve. From King County, Washington to Broward County, Florida, the American people have greater peace of mind, thanks to the experience and expertise of those who wear a sheriff’s badge.
I am from Texas, and down there we are very proud of our lawmen. Back in the day, the phrase “there is a new sheriff in town” really meant something – it meant order to a lawless frontier, it meant hope in a tough, difficult environment. Most people back then never had an opportunity to meet the Attorney General or other law enforcement officials at the federal and state levels. But they did get to know their sheriffs, the person on the front lines in our communities. How sheriffs did their job created lasting impressions upon common people about how their government works. That, of course, is true still today.
One sheriff that set a shining example was Andrew Jackson Spradley – the famous sheriff of Nacogdoches County, Texas who was legendary for his honorable service. He literally brought the oldest town in Texas into a new century. As Sheriff in the late 1890’s, he trained bloodhounds to track criminals, helped take down the remnants of the Dalton Gang, and arrested outlaw bank robber Tex Wallace.
But he will forever be remembered as the Populist Party sheriff that helped give black Texans a measure of justice in the face of determined violence. He was defeated and re-elected four times as county sheriff (once by his own brother), primarily on account of his fair treatment of blacks – including calling them for jury duty and protecting them from organized harassment and lynching.
During his long career, Sheriff Spradley was known as a dedicated lawman and he embodied the best ideals of the badge.
More recently, I had the chance to honor Sheriff John Bechtold, Jr. and several other proud representatives of this Association.
About a month ago, we gathered at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial to say goodbye to many of our brave men and women in uniform. And I spoke about Sheriff Bechtold’s story of sacrifice.
He served as the Sheriff of Campbell County, South Dakota for ten years. And as I am sure he was on many occasions, Sheriff Bechtold was the first to arrive at the scene of an accident – in this case a collision between a car and a grain truck. He immediately began to administer aid but, soon after emergency workers arrived, suffered a heart attack and died. Ever faithful, Sheriff Bechtold died with his arms still locked in the CPR maneuver position.
Service to others. That is the standard of excellence that defines men and women such as Sheriff Bechtold – including all of you here today. Our Nation is thankful for the contributions of Sheriffs, Sheriffs’ Deputies, and everyone in the law enforcement community.
And on behalf of the President and everyone at the Justice Department, I’d like to thank you – in particular – for playing such a critical role in the fight against terrorism. As usual, you are on the front lines.
No American wants to experience another day like September 11 th, 2001 – especially the law enforcement community that lost so many brave officers.
I know that there are people here today – and others that you know and work with – that rushed to Ground Zero when the planes struck. You dropped everything. You got there any way you could to lend a helping hand – and you kept working for weeks straight.
On the evening of September 12 th, several members of the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office in Michigan set out in a semi-trailer full of donated flashlights, batteries, and water hoping to assist with the rescue operations at Ground Zero. When they arrived, they were told that their help wasn’t needed.
But they didn’t take no for an answer. After some determined phone calls, the group received an invitation from the FBI to assist with the search for evidence in the disaster rubble that that had been ferried to Staten Island.
For six days, these heroes worked alongside their law enforcement brothers and sisters from across the country in the “bucket brigade,” looking for crime evidence and victim’s bodies.
The work was grim. But the spirit of the law enforcement community in those dark days brought further honor to your profession.
And every day since, you’ve done your part to help ensure that we never have to face terrorists on our soil again. I’m proud to say that the federal government also is doing its part to be sure that we continue to get this important job done.
After September 11 th, we asked the law enforcement community what you needed to keep our citizens safe. And after careful consideration and spirited discussion, Congress and the President passed the USA PATRIOT Act.
From my conversations with the men and women in the law enforcement community, I know how important the tools of this Act are to everyone involved in the fight against terror. After months of study and numerous conversations with groups, concerned citizens, and members of Congress, I am persuaded that the PATRIOT Act is working to secure America in a way that is consistent with our values and respectful of civil liberties. The law enforcement and intelligence communities are now sharing important information. The Act has allowed us to bring the tools we already use on a daily basis in other criminal areas to bear in the new war on terror. And we are doing so subject to the oversight of federal judges and the Congress.
Finally, no one has provided me with evidence that the PATRIOT Act is being abused or misused.
Based on the facts, it is clear to me that we need to reauthorize this important legislation. From the front lines, you can be effective messengers to help Congress and the American people understand that the PATRIOT Act is important to our collective safety. I know some of you have already spoken out in favor of the Act. The President and I appreciate your support on this issue and encourage you to continue to spread the word about this important tool for law enforcement.
Even as we focus on our struggle against violent extremism, you know better than anyone that we cannot abandon our traditional mission to fight crime – especially violent crimes that involve guns and gang activity.
Thanks to your help, we are doing that effectively in part through the President’s Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative.
This program has a record of success – producing impressive double-digit increases in prosecutions of firearms violations. As you know, this program relies on local information and local partners to fight local crime. In short, it relies on you. You understand what is happening in your counties and cities…and you know what needs to be done to stop it.
Thanks to your efforts and the Project Safe Neighborhoods program, communities across America are safer today than they’ve been in three decades.
But, as long as there is any crime on our streets, we will not be safe enough. We can do better. So we’ve applied the strategies pioneered under Project Safe Neighborhoods to other important crime fighting programs, such as the Violent Crime Impact Teams.
In my first few weeks as Attorney General, we expanded the Violent Crime Impact Team initiative to five additional cities, bringing the total to 20 cities across the country.
Some of you have participated on one of these teams – helping us to identify the street thugs and gang members that make ordinary citizens afraid in their own neighborhoods.
These rapid-response teams target hot-zones for violent activity and identify a community’s worst offenders. Then we combine the resources of Federal, state, and local law enforcement in order to investigate and prosecute violent crimes – especially gun crimes – and we take these bad guys off the street.
We know this program works. Last year, the Department launched fifteen Violent Crime Impact Teams in cities across the country. The effects were felt right away.
In Baltimore, we arrested drug dealers. In Richmond, we arrested 23 members of a violent street gang. In Miami, we seized more than 750,000 rounds of ammunition. In city after city, the story was the same: Gun crime equals hard time.
Now, we also are prepared to apply the proven methods of the Project Safe Neighborhoods program to fight the pervasive threat of gang violence. The President and the First Lady have spoken about the gang problem, and combating this threat to our youngsters is one of my highest priorities.
We see the imperative for immediate action. Too many parents know what it’s like to have a child trade-in a library card for gang membership…to choose the distinctive clothing of a gang over a Little League jersey.
And, unfortunately, that choice often leads to violence. It is clear that gangs have become an increasingly deadly threat to our neighborhoods. I know you’ve seen this problem rob your communities of future employees and future leaders.
That’s why we are strengthening our Nation’s efforts to combat gang violence and reduce crime. I recently established the Attorney General’s Anti-Gang Coordination Committee. This group will advise the Department on how we can best use our resources to reclaim communities, block by block, from the grip of gangs.
I have asked every United States Attorney to appoint an anti-gang coordinator, and to prepare and implement a comprehensive, district-wide strategy – in consultation with local leaders like you – to coordinate anti-gang activity across the board.
They will need your help with this effort and I encourage you to contribute your local knowledge and experience to this critical task.
But we cannot stop with prosecutions. We must also work on prevention. As a father, I believe that we must give our children the support they need to say “no” to gangs and to violent gang activities.
I have asked the Unites States Attorneys across the country to work with community and faith-based organizations to offer at-risk youth alternatives to gangs and to support re-entry programs for those released from prison. These, and many other programs, must play an important role in a comprehensive approach to gangs – one that includes prosecution and prevention.
That is the same principle that underlines our Weed and Seed Strategy. As many of you know, this community-based strategy helps state and local law enforcement “weed out” the violent criminals in their area, while also planting the “seeds” of development and revitalization. These include prevention, intervention, and treatment services that help our children make the right choices to stay out of trouble.
Project Safe Neighborhoods and the Weed and Seed Strategy recognize that we have to work together to achieve our goals. Whether that is fighting crime, locking away gun-toting criminals, breaking up gangs, or providing healthy alternatives to violent behavior… federal, state, and local officials want a safer America and we are willing to combine forces to get the job done.
As far as I am concerned, that spirit of cooperation should spill over into everything we do at the Department to help you… and your partners at the state and local level.
I know we are already working together to solve cold cases and improve our capacity to utilize advancements in DNA evidence technology.
As you know, DNA technology is increasingly vital to ensuring accuracy and fairness in the criminal justice system. DNA can be used to identify criminals with incredible accuracy when biological evidence exists, and can also be used to clear suspects and exonerate persons mistakenly accused or convicted of crimes.
We are also working together to share information and develop technologies for safer “less lethal” weapons.
Finally, we are working together to refine and coordinate plans to meet President Bush’s goal of a National AMBER Alert Network that will help protect our children.
In each of these areas – and so many others of mutual concern and cooperation – it is the common bonds of law enforcement that guide our efforts to provide justice for all.
We cannot do it alone at the Federal level. And as talented as each of you may be, you cannot always do it alone at the local level. We need your help and you need ours. In a time of leaner budgets, we have to pool our resources, our experience, our technologies, our resourcefulness. We need to lean on one another to get an important job done for the American people.
And, at the risk of sounding philosophical, we need to realize this in our personal lives as well. We couldn’t do these jobs alone. That’s why I’d like to recognize the families who are here today or who may be home waiting again for your return. Across the country, it is wives, mothers, and daughters… husbands, fathers, and sons who are heroic by supporting the fine men and women in law enforcement. They serve our Nation, too.
I have only been in this job for four months, but I have served in government for more than ten years. Over these years, I have learned that it is always the families that really sacrifice. My brother, Tony, is a 26-year veteran of the Houston Police Department. I know that his wife, Kris, hugs him as he goes to work as a SWAT officer, carrying the knowledge that he faces unknown dangers with every shift.
As members of law enforcement, we can become consumed with arrests, cases, and prosecutions. And these are important. But we must never forget our families. There is no conviction, no assignment, no paycheck that is as satisfying as the hug of an adoring child or as comforting as the loving embrace of a loyal spouse.
To the families that are here today – and each of your families back home – I say thank you. Together with the law enforcement officers you support, you represent the spirit of service and sacrifice that have brought honor and pride to the law enforcement community in this country.
It is that spirit that the Department of Justice is looking to recognize with our Medal of Valor. A few years ago, Congress created the Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor to honor the courage of officers who have risked their own safety for the sake of others.
We will accept nominations for this highest national award for valor by a public safety officer until July 31 st. Already, a representative of this fine association, Jennifer Fulford, has been nominated. You can be very proud of Deputy Fulford’s story of courage. You will hear more about Jennifer’s story later in this program. But let me give you a preview.
Last year, Deputy Fulford, and her fellow officers at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, responded to a burglary call in Orlando, Florida. Deputy Fulford was the first to arrive on the scene with information from the dispatcher that an 8-year old boy and his sister were hiding in the family van in the garage – away from several gunmen in the house.
When she had taken a position in the garage to protect the children, Deputy Fulford was confronted by two of the gunmen who opened fire, hitting her ten times including on her dominant shooting hand.
However, Deputy Fulford still managed to empty several rounds with her weak hand and keep the gunmen at bay until back up arrived. When the shooting was over, the children were unhurt and reunited with their family members. Fortunately, Deputy Fulford survived her injuries.
For her quick and professional – not to mention extraordinarily courageous – response, Deputy Fulford is being honored tonight and she has been nominated by her agency for the Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor.
Some of you may not be personally acquainted with Deputy Fulford. All of you, however, know her type. Professional. Selfless. Courageous.
These are the characteristics of the men and women serving in Sheriff’s Departments across the country. And these are the qualities on which we will rely to tackle the great challenges of our day.
We have considerable work ahead. But as our numerous successes show, we can achieve great things in the service of justice when we work together.
On behalf of the President and the American people, let me once again extend my thanks. You are the strength and hope of our Nation in the war against terror, in the fight against crime, and in the pursuit of justice. Your service and sacrifice are changing our beloved America for the better.
Together we are all working to establish a Nation that is safer and more secure. We are building communities with greater freedom and opportunity for all. We are providing hope.
May God watch over you and your families, may He continue to guide your decisions, and may He continue to bless the United States of America.