Thank you, Commissioner Ramsey. I appreciate your kind words, and I am especially grateful for your friendship over the years; for your outstanding service as head of one of the largest and most active police forces in the United States; and for your leadership as President of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
It is a pleasure to join you – and so many critical law enforcement partners – for today’s important meeting. And it’s a privilege to be among so many dedicated, innovative public servants who are doing essential work all across – and beyond – this country. Together, you represent 63 of the largest law enforcement agencies in the nation, and serve more than 68 million Americans. Your combined workforces include nearly 160,000 officers and non-sworn personnel – whose contributions are felt every day in communities nationwide. And your leadership is essential to advancing the work, and addressing the priorities, that we share: protecting the American people from crime and violence, ensuring the security of our homeland, and safeguarding the most vulnerable among us.
As our nation’s Attorney General, as a prosecutor and former judge, and as the brother of a retired New York-New Jersey Port Authority police officer, I am inspired by your service, and proud to support each of the brave men and women who make up the "thin blue line" – a line defined by honor, heroism, and valor. Especially today, I am privileged to count the chiefs gathered here as indispensable colleagues and allies.
This meeting presents an important opportunity to hear from you, to continue the open and honest discussions that are so important in meeting our shared goals, and to explore strategies for strengthening the work that the Justice Department is doing to support each of you – and, in particular, to ensure the safety and wellness of all of our law enforcement partners.
But this gathering is also a chance to say “thank you” – on behalf of my colleagues across the Department and our counterparts throughout the Administration. Thank you for your service, your many sacrifices, and your selfless dedication to maintaining safety and security in our communities. Thank you for the progress you’ve helped to bring about in recent years – when it comes to combating crime, reducing violence, standing vigilant against terrorism, and helping to protect the basic rights and bests interests of your fellow citizens. And thank you for your unwavering commitment to continuing – and building upon – this extraordinary and essential work.
Despite the many obstacles before us – and the budget challenges that every department and government agency currently faces – the leaders in and beyond this room have proven your capacity for positive results, even in the face of urgent problems and unprecedented threats. By bringing federal, state, local, tribal, and international leaders together with community stakeholders, this Association has helped to highlight the most pressing – and persistent – challenges facing your ranks. You’ve led the way in stretching every precious taxpayer dollar. And, although the work that is your common cause has in many ways never been more difficult, every person in this room understands that it’s never been more important.
Like many of you, I was reminded of this fact during National Police Week – when I had the privilege of addressing more than 20,000 officers from across the country – and their family members – during the annual candlelight vigil in Washington. That gathering was a solemn observance marking another year defined by extraordinary contributions and achievements. It was a ceremony of sacred remembrance for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our country. And it was a stark reminder that, all too often, our safety comes at a devastating price.
As you know, last year, gun-related deaths surpassed deaths by any other cause among law enforcement personnel for the first time in nearly 15 years. And so far this year, at least 45 officers have lost their lives in the line of duty – 16 of whom were killed by gunfire, including Chief Michael Maloney, of the Greenland, New Hampshire Police Department. While we all can be encouraged that the national crime rate has been trending downward, the harsh reality is that incidents of violence against law enforcement officers are approaching the highest levels we’ve seen in nearly two decades.
This represents nothing less than a crisis. That’s true nationwide. And it’s especially clear here in Texas. Unfortunately, this state has mourned more law enforcement officer deaths than any other – including one just last month. Although we grieve for every fallen hero – and share a sense of outrage at the rising tide of violence that continues to claim far too many colleagues, friends, and loved ones – I know that we also share a determination to turn back this tide. And that we’re resolved to stand together in combating the threats that our brave men and women face every day.
That’s why, in recent years, our nation’s Department of Justice has made an historic commitment to protecting the safety and wellness of law enforcement officers across the country. At the federal level – and in every U.S. Attorney’s office – we’re making good on this promise by improving coordination and cooperation with our state, local, tribal, and international partners. We’re forging new relationships and strengthening old alliances. And across the Department, we’re implementing a host of initiatives designed to enhance our understanding of crime trends, so we can better respond; investing in cutting-edge protective gear and state-of-the-art equipment, so you have the tools you need to perform your duties as safely and effectively as possible; and developing innovative strategies and training programs that will enable us to meet increased violence with renewed vigilance.
Through the Officer Safety and Wellness Working Group, the Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance has partnered with the Community Oriented Policing Services – or COPS – Office, in order to acquire, analyze, and disseminate information and insights that can help guide our national efforts. Thanks to the Officer Safety Initiative, we’re providing training programs and information-sharing platforms to partners like each of you. We’re making it easier to identify dangerous suspects prior to making contact. And we’re taking steps to evaluate – and, if necessary, to redesign – key policies and practices in order to keep every officer safe.
BJA also has taken the lead in administering a groundbreaking program known as the VALOR Initiative, which offers a variety of resources to our men and women in uniform – including technical assistance, data on emerging threats, and tactical training to help assess and confront high-risk situations like ambush-style assaults. Already, more than 3,600 law enforcement professionals have received VALOR training in 20 sessions nationwide. Their feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. And – based on your expert advice – we plan to keep promoting it, refining it, and expanding its availability.
But all of this is only the beginning.
In addition to training tools and assistance, the Justice Department continues to offer direct support for procuring body armor for sworn law enforcement and correctional officers. Last year, at least 29 law enforcement and correctional officers were saved by bullet- and stab-resistant vests. And at last count, 17 of those individuals were wearing protective vests purchased – in part – by federal grant money administered through our Bulletproof Vest Partnership Program.
During 2011 alone, we awarded more than $24 million to help nearly 5,000 different jurisdictions purchase a total of more than 188,000 protective vests. Through the National Institute of Justice, we’re encouraging research and development to ensure that all of this protective equipment meets the highest industry standards. And thanks to other flagship programs like Byrne-JAG – and additional funding streams made available through COPS grants – we’re working comprehensively to help close budget gaps and increase access to the resources you need.
We’re also working hard to keep more officers on the beat – and even to expand job opportunities for veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since 2009, the COPS Hiring Program has awarded a total of $1.5 billion to create or protect 7,000 jobs in local law enforcement. I’d like to commend the COPS Office – and its outstanding director, Barney Melekian – for being the first out of the gate to implement President Obama’s call to create jobs for recent military veterans. And today, I am proud to report that we’re only weeks away from yet another major grant announcement – totaling more than $100 million – to help advance this work.
Now, I don’t need to tell you that such assistance could hardly come at a more critical moment. Especially in this era of economic challenges, it’s imperative that we marshal our best efforts. Our policemen and women expect nothing less. And I’d like to assure you that – at every level of the Justice Department – we are proud to share your determination to make the progress we need, and to strengthen our support for officers and their families – especially in the toughest of times.
That’s why we’re working to reinforce grief and support networks for the loved ones of those killed or injured in the line of duty. Not including the casualties from 9/11, last year marked the highest number of death and disability claims received by the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program in more than three decades. And while the program does good work – I also want you to know that I understand the concerns that have been associated with it. I recognize that these issues are not new. And, although these problems did not originate with this Administration, they will end with it.
With this goal in mind, the Department has launched a comprehensive review of the program that will result in concrete recommendations for addressing concerns, setting PSOB on a new trajectory for success, and ensuring that the families of fallen officers will always be able to count on us – in a timely fashion – to provide the support and assistance they rely on – and deserve.
Block by block, city by city, department by department – I am confident that we can make a powerful difference. We can combat, and hold accountable, the criminal element that menaces our communities and targets the law enforcement family. We may never be able to completely eliminate the dangers that our colleagues face. But – thanks to a wide range of Justice Department initiatives, a dedicated group of leaders across the Administration and throughout the country, and – especially – thanks to the hard work that our Major Cities Chiefs are leading every single day – I believe there’s good reason for optimism about where these efforts will take us from here.
So keep asking important questions. Keep pushing for the legislative reforms -- and advocating for the rights and benefits – that your members deserve. As you do, know that you have a strong ally in today’s Justice Department – and a good friend in this Attorney General. By working together, I’m confident that we can continue to make great strides in securing access to the latest communications tools and technologies. We can reduce recidivism and improve public safety. And we can – and will – stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the rank and file who put their lives on the line every day.
Every leader in this room can – and should – be proud of the record of achievement that has led us to this point. But I recognize that we cannot yet be satisfied – and this is no time to become complacent. And I want you all to know that, at every level of the Justice Department, not only do we have your back – we are committed to your future. We are dedicated to taking our shared efforts to a new level. And we are determined – above all – to ensure your safety.
In advancing this work, I am grateful for your partnership. I am counting on your leadership. And I look forward to all that we will accomplish together in the months and years ahead.