Justice News

Attorney General Holder Speaks at the National Officer Safety and Wellness Group Meeting
Washington, DC
United States
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Thursday, January 26, 2012

As prepared for delivery

Thank you, Barney [Melekian], for your kind words – and, of course, for all that you and your colleagues have done – in the COPS Office, and in conjunction with the Bureau of Justice Assistance – to help lead this Working Group, and to bring us together this morning.

I’d also like to thank Pew for hosting today’s important session, and providing a forum for discussion on some of the most critical – and most urgent – challenges facing America’s law enforcement community. This marks the third time that this extraordinary group of leaders, researchers, front-line practitioners, and federal partners has come together to exchange insights, to share expertise, and to strengthen the essential work that has become not just our shared priority – but our common cause.

I am honored to be included in this conversation once again, and privileged to join so many friends and colleagues in addressing – and advancing – the 16 priorities that have been identified for this Working Group – particularly reducing the rise in gunfire-related injuries and deaths, and countering premeditated and unprovoked ambush situations.

I know you have a busy afternoon ahead of you, so I’ll keep my comments brief. But I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge – and thank you for – the contributions that you have already made. Know that your time, energy, and efforts are appreciated – and that I’m counting on all of you to keep up the great work.

Especially in this time of economic challenges – when jurisdictions across the country have been called upon to confront growing demands with increasingly limited budgets – this group has an indispensible role to play. By bringing key leaders and innovators together, you help to shine a light on the most pressing threats our law enforcement officers face. By exploring innovative new strategies for combating these threats, you help agencies and departments across the country make the most of precious resources. And – by advocating for new training opportunities, pushing for improved information-sharing capabilities, and highlighting best practices, you help extend the reach of these efforts – so that every police officer, every sheriff’s deputy, and every federal agent can do their job more safely and more effectively.

As we gather this morning – thanks to the committed work of public safety professionals across the country – national violent crime trends are heading in the right direction. Countless lives have been improved and saved. And so many jurisdictions – from inner cities, to rural areas and tribal communities – have begun to make important, and long overdue, strides.

We can all take pride in this. But none of us can afford to be satisfied – and this is no time to become complacent.

The unfortunate reality is that – despite measured improvements in the overall crime rate – as you’ve already discussed today, incidents of violence against law enforcement officers are approaching the highest levels we’ve seen in nearly two decades. Last year, according to statistics maintained by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, a total of 177 federal, state, and local law enforcement officers lost their lives in the line of duty – a 16 percent increase over 2010. Since the first of January, an additional twelve officers have been killed.

As you know better than anyone, this represents a devastating and unacceptable trend – and a cause that demands our best and most innovative efforts.

That’s what this Working Group is all about. Together you have, not only tremendous expertise, but also remarkable potential. And you are strengthening current efforts to turn back the rising tide of violence we’ve seen. You’re also helping the Justice Department do everything in our power – and use every tool at our disposal – to protect those who are on the front lines keeping our nation safe. The Department’s latest efforts are guided by your leadership, bolstered by cutting-edge research – by the National Institute of Justice – and backed up by critical new programs and partnerships like those administered by Director [Denise] O’Donnell and her colleagues in the Bureau of Justice Assistance. These range from the Officer Safety and Smart Policing Initiatives, to our Bulletproof Vest Partnership – which we estimate helped save the lives of at least 16 public safety officers last year, and one since the beginning of 2012.

But all of this is only the beginning.

The Department is also building on current efforts to provide the communications tools and platforms that allow public safety professionals to share information more quickly – and to more effectively identify and combat threats. And, as we move forward, we’ll continue working to reinforce the core partnerships upon which these, and so many other, important platforms and programs depend.

This means collaborating with state, local, and tribal authorities – not to mention key federal partners, private sector stakeholders, and Cabinet-level agencies – to ensure that this vital work remains a top priority. It means strengthening relationships between front-line practitioners and the U.S. Attorney community – which is why, last fall, I instructed all 94 U.S. Attorneys’ offices to meet with local law enforcement officials and work together in identifying key concerns, assessing available resources, and implementing effective solutions. To date, nearly all of these meetings have taken place, allowing us to compile critical information that has given us a clearer look at each community’s most pressing needs. With this knowledge base, we’re working to allocate resources more effectively – and identify the solutions necessary – to keep our law enforcement partners safe.

And it means working with key Congressional leaders to secure financial support for flagship programs like Byrne-JAG, and to maintain critical funding streams available through COPS grants – which help agencies and departments across the country close budgetary gaps and gain access to the valuable resources they need.

Of course – in the face of once-in-a-generation economic challenges, including the sharp cuts that Congress has imposed on these and other programs at the federal level – we also recognize that our ability to expand on the progress we’ve made will depend on more than just moving money out the door.

That’s why the Department has also led the development of innovative training initiatives – such as VALOR, which I know you’ll be discussing this afternoon – to help provide law enforcement leaders with the information, analysis, and cutting-edge tools they need to respond to a range of threats – including ambush-style assaults.

I am proud to report that, to date, more than 1,700 law enforcement professionals have received VALOR training, in ten regional sessions across the country. We’ve heard from sheriffs and police chiefs that this curriculum has been successfully put to use in the field. And some officers have described it as a “wake-up call;” both “professional and relevant;” and even “the best training [they] have ever . . . had the opportunity to experience.” That’s why – along with VALOR’s Officer Safety Toolkit, 8,000 of which have been given out to the field – and its website, which has registered more than 1.7 million hits – we plan to keep promoting it, refining it, and expanding its availability.

At the same time, we’re also taking significant steps to enhance our understanding of key factors that contribute to officer wellness – and I am proud to note that the National Institute of Justice has just released two new studies which take a closer look at a few of these factors. 

One study, conducted in partnership with the Police Foundation, examined shift lengths in Detroit, Michigan and Arlington, Texas. It found that 10-hour shifts offer several benefits over 8- or 12-hour shifts – including less overtime, higher quality of work life, improved morale, and potential cost savings – without adversely affecting performance.  The second study, conducted by Brigham and Women’s Hospital, gathered data on sleep disorders and officer performance and found that some 40 percent of police officers screened positive for some form of sleep disorder – at least double the rate that’s been observed in the general population.  It turns out that these sleep-deprived officers had a higher risk of falling asleep while driving, committing errors or safety violations, and experiencing uncontrolled anger at a suspect.

As we move forward, I’m confident that these and other important findings will enhance our ability to target areas of concern, evaluate officer wellness issues as they arise, and explore strategies for taking action. But the tragic reality is that no degree of understanding or amount of training – no matter how effective – can prevent some violent encounters from turning deadly. Because of this, the Department also has made significant investments to provide support for the families of law enforcement officers in times of tragedy.

Not including those that resulted from 9/11, last year marked the second highest number of death and disability claims received by the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program since 1979. And I believe we can all be proud of the assistance that the PSOB has provided to so many families in moments of need.

This morning, as we reflect on these achievements – and renew our focus on the 16 core priorities that define the mission entrusted to this Working Group – it is already clear that what you’ve helped to accomplish – in the face of unprecedented threats and economic challenges – represents an historic step forward. As our nation’s Attorney General, as a prosecutor and former judge, and as the brother of a retired police officer, I am extremely grateful for the contributions that you have made – and the recommendations you will be developing, helping to implement, and building upon in the days ahead.

As we think about and plan for the future, it’s clear that a great deal of work remains before us – along with many more obstacles than we would like to see. Yet, as I look around this room today, I can’t help but feel optimistic about where your efforts will help to lead us from here.

Thank you, once again, for your time, energy, and excellent work. In this work, I am proud to count each of you as a colleague and partner.  Together we can – we must – create a world in which we keep safe those who do so much to protect our Nation. I am confident that we will.