Justice News

Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the Police Executive Research Forum Annual Meeting
Philadelphia, PA
United States
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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Remarks as prepared for delivery:

Thank you, Laurie, for those kind words and, more importantly, for your outstanding leadership. We’re all fortunate – and I’m especially grateful – to have you back at the helm of the Office of Justice Programs. I also want to recognize the great work that BarneyMelekian does as Director of the Justice Department’s COPS office. Many of you also have the pleasure of working closely with Barneyand his team, and I’m so glad he’s with us today.

Let me thank my friend, Chuck Wexler, for inviting me to join you. It’s good to be with you all. And it’s great to be back in the same city, however briefly, with my old friend, Commissioner Ramsey. When I served as Deputy Attorney General, I had the chance to work closely with Chief Ramsey. It’s no exaggeration to say that his tenure as D.C.’s police chief transformed our nation’s capital. He had the guts it required, not only to achieve measurable results in combating crime, but also to reform, modernize, and strengthen the District’s police department. The success he oversaw was extraordinary. And, here in Philadelphia, he’s achieving the same results.

Today, we’ve come together to consider ways to make this type of success not just possible, but probable. PERF’s commitment to this work is clear. Over the years, I’ve been privileged to work with many of you. And I’ve had the pleasure of watching this organization expand its membership, its outreach, its research and its impact – on police departments large and small, urban and suburban, Tribal and rural.

PERF has become a leading voice in establishing policies to reduce officer-involved shootings, to increase diversity in your ranks, and to bring a renewed focus on accountability and transparency within your departments. By advocating for cutting-edge tools and new technologies, as well as a return to fundamental community policing strategies, you’ve succeeded in combating violent crime across the country. Simply put, the people in this room have helped bring policing in the United States to a new and remarkable level. And the historic drop we have seen in the nation’s crime rates are a function of policies you have espoused.

This morning, I’m eager to discuss the advances I know you’ll continue to make. But I’m also here to ask for your help in building the future we all seek. In looking toward this future, I’m reminded of the timeless words of Philadelphia’s all-time wisest citizen, Benjamin Franklin. "Today," he once said, "is yesterday’s pupil."

So what did yesterday look like? For you – and for me – it began in 1976. That was the year PERF launched. It was also the year I joined the Department of Justice as a young prosecutor in the Public Integrity Section.

It was a difficult time for law enforcement everywhere, as those of us with a little gray in our hair can recall. In the 1960s and 1970s, America’s crime rate had increased more than five-fold. Violent crime had nearly quadrupled. The murder rate had doubled. Illegal drug use had surged. And prisons were bursting at their seams.

In the face of these challenges, 10 leaders of American law enforcement agencies came together for the first time. They believed that, by fostering discussion and collaboration among police executives, they could build better police forces nationwide. They were right. And, just as important, they were optimistic – guided by a hopeful conviction that their profession could evolve.

Today, we see that their initial conversation has become a vibrant national dialogue. And that early spark of optimism has infected everyone in this room – and many far beyond. From D.C. to Buffalo, Indian Country to Santa Ana, PERF’s leadership has measurably – and in many cases, dramatically – helped to improve the safety of our communities.

Even amid recession – and the budget challenges you talked about this morning – violent crime fell by more than 6 percent during the first half of 2009. Occurrence rates for nearly every category of crime declined. Murders dropped by 10 percent nationwide – by 20 percent in D.C., and by nearly 30 percent in L.A. Here in Philadelphia, major crimes fell to the lowest point in more than three decades, and violent crimes dipped to a 21-year low. These are historic achievements. They’re also are proof that something is working – and working well.

But, as you know best, unless we understand exactly what that something is – and exactly why it is working – we risk losing our grip on the progress we’ve made. We risk reverting to a past we want to learn from, but not return to.

By supporting professional police research, experimentation and the exchange of ideas, PERF is spearheading a national effort to discover the answers we need. We’ve learned, for example, that some of our most successful police forces have made community outreach a top priority, working day-by-day, block-by-block to foster greater trust between officers and the citizens they serve. Your research provides powerful, actionable knowledge that encourages better policing. It has helped to create a safer nation, a more transparent and accountable system of justice, and – I’d argue – a more effective Department of Justice.

This work – like all good police work – is not done in isolation. It’s done in partnership. By seeking more ways to work together, I know we build on what you’ve achieved. And I believe we succeed in meeting our shared goals.

For the Department of Justice, establishing the key goals for this year and beyond began with a straightforward objective: to get back to basics. We began by reinvigorating the Department’s traditional missions and by re-instilling an ethos of integrity, independence and transparency in everything we do.

Of course, our top priority is protecting our national security and the safety of all Americans. But we are also focused on law enforcement’s fundamental duties of fighting crime, protecting civil rights, preserving the environment and ensuring fairness in our markets. So far, we’ve made great strides in opening new channels of communication with other agencies, with our partners in the field and with many of the leaders gathered here today. In the months ahead, we also plan to put special emphasis on initiatives aimed at tackling economic crime, international organized crime, youth violence and the exploitation of children.

These projects, too, can only be effective if we engage our law enforcement partners. You are the first, and often best, antennas for detecting fraud, trafficking and violence. You are on the front lines. You know what works. You know what doesn’t. And, quite frankly, we rely on the information and expertise that only you can provide.

In particular, we’ll be soliciting your assistance in our reinvigorated drug enforcement efforts – work that 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. That’s why 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. And the administration has taken important steps forward in working with the potential architects of the Senate’s immigration legislation and with leaders at the grassroots level. I know PERF has been a part of this process, offering both research and insights on the unique challenges our broken immigration system poses for law enforcement. Your participation is important. And your perspectives will be critical in helping the administration find a workable solution for the millions who are in our country without lawful status.

As we encourage and pursue reforms, the Department will continue to focus on two key goals: fulfilling our obligation to enforce current immigration laws; and honoring our commitment to safeguard civil rights. However, effective enforcement, alone, will not be sufficient to solve current problems. We also need to gain the cooperation of the communities in which illegal immigrants, and others who violate the law, settle. This, of course, is achieved by the fair treatment of community residents.

Today, a growing body of research on procedural justice issues is showing us that legitimacy in the eyes of community members is central to effective policing. We’re seeing that the outcome of police interactions matters far less to residents – and even to perpetrators – than the nature of these interactions. In other words, an arrest doesn’t doom the law enforcement relationship with its public. But an unfortunate or unnecessarily heated interaction can. Laurie and her team are currently exploring this issue more deeply through their Evidence Integration Initiative. Within our COPS office, Barney has allocated resources to examine these issues more closely. And I know we will rely on the work that PERF is doing to inform our base of knowledge.

As we work together to meet our shared objectives, let me echo Laurie’s pledge that the Department will also work to ensure you have the resources and support you need to do your jobs and meet your responsibilities. We’re committed to your success, as well as your safety.

Earlier this year, I announced that $11 million from the Zylon settlement would go into our Bulletproof Vest Partnership Program. We expect this investment to provide some 26,000 additional bullet-resistant vests for law enforcement officials this year. I’m also pleased to report that the National Institute of Justice continues to make meaningful progress with its Body Armor Safety Initiative. As many of you know, PERF has been working closely with the Department on this issue. In fact, PERF conducted last year’s National Body Armor Survey and has been awarded a NIJ grant to conduct additional body armor research this year.

That said, I want to be clear about one point: There is nothing more basic, or more important, to our work than keeping our law enforcement officers safe. At every level of the Department – and in every corner of the country – acts of violence against law enforcement will be pursued. They will be prosecuted. And they will be punished.

Protecting the safety of law enforcement, and those you serve, must always be a top priority for our nation’s Justice Department. No one’s summed up the reason why better than my friend, Chuck Ramsey. Two years ago, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee – a group I had the privilege to appear before just yesterday – that, and I quote, "No community prospers or even survives long without safety. Safety is why people come together to govern themselves in the first place."

But supporting safety, as Chuck knows best, is about more than simply moving money out the door or putting more eyes on the streets. That’s part of it, of course. But, ultimately, it’s nothing without the work you do every day to build smarter police forces, not just larger ones. It’s work you call "developing best practices." But I call it "leadership."

With your brothers and sisters in uniform, I hope you will build on this leadership in the days ahead. I hope you will continue your strong and essential partnership with the Justice Department. And I hope you will agree with me that, together, we can build a better America.

Thank you all very much.