Thank you, President [Ernest] Green. I’m not sure what I appreciate more – your warm welcome or the semi-warm Florida weather. After all the snow we’ve seen in Washington this week, it’s good to be here in Tampa. But more importantly it’s great to be among so many friends.
Over the years, I’ve been privileged to work with many of you. And I’ve had the pleasure of watching this organization increase its membership, its outreach programs, and its impact on cities in crisis and communities in need.
In 1976, the year the National Organization for Black Law Enforcement Officers was launched, I joined the Department of Justice as a young prosecutor. My career path was guided by the same commitment, the same inability to turn a blind eye to injustice, and the same optimism that inspired NOBLE’s founding.
Now, some of the younger people in this room may not remember those days. But those of us with more than a few gray hairs on our heads can recall that it was a time of extraordinary challenge. It was also a time of unprecedented fear.
In the 1960s and 70s, America’s crime rate increased more than five-fold. Violent crime nearly quadrupled. The murder rate doubled. Illegal drug use surged. And our prison population skyrocketed.
In the face of these challenges, a small group of concerned, frustrated, and, ultimately, hopeful law enforcement executives came together. These officers had risen through the professional ranks and diversified the leadership of their departments. And they wanted to open the doors of opportunity for communities that had been left behind and for colleagues who had been overlooked.
These leaders saw firsthand both the value and obstacles of diversifying our nation’s police departments. They also recognized that the nationwide call to crack down on crime had, too often, also resulted in a breakdown of trust between police officers and the communities they served.
Their initial conversation has developed into a vibrant national dialogue -- one that each of you has helped to sustain. By pressing the communities you serve toward progress, and the colleagues you work alongside toward fairness, you’ve also strengthened this discussion.
I’m grateful to all of you. In particular, I want to thank you for your work with the federal government on a range of law enforcement issues. And I want you to know that your expertise and engagement will be critical in helping this Justice Department achieve its goals for this year and beyond.
Today, I’ve been asked to tell you about the Department’s key goals. I also want to talk to you about some of the challenges you’re facing.
Last fall, when I met with several members of NOBLE’s leadership team, I explained that the Justice Department is in the process of “getting back to basics.” We’re working to reinvigorate the Department’s traditional missions and to revive an ethos of integrity, independence, and transparency in everything we do.
At every level, we’re focused on job one: protecting the safety of the American people. In addition to combating terrorism and fighting crime, we’re also working to enforce our laws in a neutral and nonpartisan manner and to re-establish and strengthen our relationships with state, local and tribal authorities.
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. And we intend to build on the great progress we’ve made in opening new channels of communication with other agencies and with our partners in the field.
In meeting these goals, I know that success will depend on how well we support our partners in local law enforcement. It will also depend on our ability to provide the investments you need to do your jobs well.
From day one, this Administration has signaled a commitment to 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. In targeting these resources, a key priority is keeping law enforcement safe. Just a few weeks ago, I announced that $11 million will be pumped into our Bulletproof Vest Partnership Program. This investment will allow us to purchase an estimated 26,000 additional bullet-resistant vests this year. These new vests will save and protect lives, and they represent a small part of a much larger commitment to law enforcement safety.
Let me be clear about this: violence against law enforcement will not be tolerated. At every level of the 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.
Just as surely as we will work to protect you, the Department will also look for new ways to assist you in addressing and overcoming the challenges you face each day.
I know there are two specific problems many of you are struggling to tackle, and I’d like to address them.
First, the growing number of Americans – and disproportionate number of African Americans – currently incarcerated in prisons across our country.
Second, the division and tension that sometimes exists between law enforcement officers and the communities they work to protect.
As you all know, our nation now has the world’s highest incarceration rate. In the last 40 years, the number of inmates in American prisons has increased seven-fold. Today, one out of every 100 adults in America is behind bars.
Most of these prisoners are poor and uneducated. Twenty percent of them are Hispanic. Forty percent are black. In too many black families and neighborhoods, a “cradle-to-prison” life path has become the norm for young men. African Americans are now eight times more likely to be incarcerated as whites. And, if current trends continue, nearly 1 in 3 of our young black men will spend time behind bars.
Let me be clear, we enhance public safety by incarcerating those who harm our neighbors and our communities. This is a fact. But in our work to protect the American people, incarceration cannot be our only law enforcement strategy. We’ve learned that simply building more prisons and jails will not solve all our problems.
It’s time to face facts about our current approach to incarceration. It’s not sustainable. It’s not affordable. And we’ve seen that it isn’t always as effective as we think in reducing crime and keeping Americans safe.
Over the last few decades, state spending on corrections has risen faster than nearly any other budget item. Yet our best research suggests that there are other, more effective ways to invest taxpayer dollars and ensure public safety.
At a cost of $60 billion a year, our prisons and jails do very little to prepare prisoners to get jobs and “go straight” after they're released. Former offenders are often barred from housing, shunned by potential employers, and surrounded by other ex-offenders in their neighborhoods. This is a recipe for high recidivism. And it’s the reason that two-thirds of those released are rearrested within three years.
It’s time for a new approach.
If we are going to achieve positive outcomes for public safety, for state and local government budgets, for our communities, and for people who have been incarcerated and their families, we must begin to acknowledge that easy short-term solutions sometimes cause long-term negative consequences.
The truth is that any real effort to contain spending on corrections, while ensuring public safety, must include a strong focus on preparing for reentry so we can reduce recidivism. Effective reentry programs can transform lives. They can ease difficult transitions. And they can provide our best chance for safeguarding our neighborhoods and supporting offenders who have served their time and who are also resolved to improve their lives.
I’m proud that, last year, the Justice Department distributed $28 million in reentry awards under the Second Chance Act. And I’m pleased to tell you that we will have another $100 million available for reentry programs this year. But we must complement reentry programs with smart and sound policy changes at every level of government.
At the federal level, I have established a Sentencing and Corrections Working Group to take a fresh look at federal sentencing practices and determine how we can better prepare federal prisoners to transition back into their communities. Likewise, we must analyze the distinct crime trends and corrections policies of our states and counties by focusing on the neighborhoods where large numbers of offenders return. This will allow us to provide state and local officials with targeted, data-driven options for improving public safety and reducing spending.
We must also look for ways to expand and complement the work that NOBLE is leading. Your members are combating the vicious cycles of violence and poverty with opportunity, education, and hope. You’ve raised awareness about effective solutions for reducing recidivism. You’ve helped police departments implement new policies aimed at supporting those recently released from prison. You’ve created mentoring programs for the children of offenders, and you’ve found new ways to assist at-risk youth.
Many of you have volunteered what little free time you have to help a former prisoner fill out a job application or draft a resume. And when the call for a job interview finally arrived, many of you also dug into your own pockets to make sure that someone struggling to build a better life had the bus fare or the new shirt or the child care that they needed to pursue that opportunity.
You call this “community engagement.” I call it “leadership.”
Leadership is essential to safely reducing our alarming and disproportionate incarceration rates. It’s also the antidote to overcoming misconceptions and suspicions about law enforcement.
Today, some of those who need your help the most simply don’t trust the police. You’ve all seen this. And many of you have experienced the wariness, the anger, and the fear that’s out there.
I know how difficult overcoming professional misconceptions can be. But I also know that when some in our communities do not trust our law enforcement officers, our law enforcement system does not – and cannot – work.
So in those instances, how can we restore the public trust?
By demanding professionalism from ourselves and our colleagues.
By exposing bad behavior and encouraging best practices.
By looking beyond incarceration and considering what happens after these offenders leave our correctional institutions and reenter our communities.
And by strengthening our drug abuse treatment programs, expanding our prisoner education programs, growing our network of halfway houses, and enlisting more police officers, volunteers, and community partners in our work.
Research has proven the effectiveness of our existing treatment and education programs. And NOBLE has proven that the involvement of our police officers can make a critical difference in empowering communities and improving perceptions about law enforcement.
One place we’ve seen strong progress is Chicago, where NOBLE has collaborated closely with the police department. There, as in other cities, you’ve supported programs that provide positive interactions between young people and law enforcement.
The Chicago Youth Leadership Academy illustrates why these programs are so important. With the University of Chicago and a local nonprofit organization, Chicago’s Police Department administers what has become known as “Cops camp,” a week-long program that brings together police officers and teenage boys from Chicago’s South Side neighborhood.
Though these campers are only in middle or high school, half of them are the oldest male in their homes. As part of the program, they’re able to experience college life first-hand, sleep in a dorm, attend classes, and get to know their local police officers as teachers and mentors, instead of rivals.
For many of these campers, the experience is not only eye-opening . It’s also mind-changing.
One 16-year-old described how interacting with officers changed his perspective about their work. “I thought I didn’t like police officers,” he said. “I learned to trust them, [and] I learned that police officers don't have an easy job.”
Indeed, your jobs are difficult. And I would argue that they’ve never been more demanding. While the responsibility you shoulder is enormous, I believe it can’t compare to the opportunity each one of you has to make a difference.
Your membership can and must be a leading force in enhancing confidence in law enforcement, representing our police departments, strengthening public safety, empowering communities, and improving lives.
The people you serve, as well as your brothers and sisters in uniform, need the courage and creativity that inspired NOBLE’s beginning and now guide your current work.
Though NOBLE calls its members “the conscience of law enforcement,” in many ways, you serve as the conscience of a nation – calling forth our best selves and leading us toward better days.
I wish you continued success, and I look forward to our continued strong partnership.