Opinion Editorial

Timothy J. Heaphy

U.S. Attorney Opinion Editorial

Safe Communities:  Today’s Civil Rights Challenge

By: Timothy J. Heaphy


Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stirred the hearts and hopes of a nation when he stood before thousands in Washington and described his dream of a world in which “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”  As we celebrate the golden anniversary of his delivery of those powerful words, we have an opportunity to evaluate how our modern pursuit of justice compares to Dr. King’s vision.

While today’s world is demonstrably more just than it was in 1963, we cannot credibly claim to have achieved Dr. King’s dream of an equal opportunity society.  Today in America, too many people live in communities in which they encounter violence, drug addiction, and other forms of criminality on a daily basis.  Poor people in communities large and small, urban and rural are disproportionally impacted by crime, disease, and other destructive forces that prevent their realization of Dr. King’s dream.  Rather than being free to pursue happiness, they are caught in a cycle of poverty, deprivation, and despair. 

To truly achieve the ideal of justice articulated by Dr. King, we must collectively recognize public safety as a fundamental civil right.  Without real, lasting security in their homes and neighborhoods, people cannot succeed in school, maintain physical and spiritual health, or productively contribute to society.  Public safety is a bedrock civil rights issue, a foundation on which successful lives and communities are built.

How can we pursue this crucial civil right and ensure that our neighbors across Virginia enjoy the true security that enhances all other opportunities?   The answer lies in a comprehensive approach that combines targeted enforcement of our criminal laws with effective prevention programs. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. recently articulated this strategy in a speech to the American Bar Association:  “By targeting the most serious offenses, prosecuting the most dangerous criminals, directing assistance to crime ‘hot spots,’ and pursuing new ways to promote public safety, deterrence, efficiency and fairness, we . . . can become both smarter and tougher on crime.” 

As the Attorney General observed, our enforcement efforts must be informed, not over-inclusive.  For too long, law enforcement has “fished” for criminals by throwing nets over communities with high levels of crime.  The nets they cast caught many fish, but failed to separate the big from the small.  Today, we are changing tactics and deploying spears aimed at the biggest, most predatory fish.  We must identify and apprehend the most dangerous individuals in our communities so that they can no longer victimize their neighbors.  As we pivot from the dragnets of yesterday to the intelligence-driven enforcement of tomorrow, people who live in heavily-policed communities must become partners in the removal of those who truly compromise their safety.

But as Attorney General Holder said to the ABA, “we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation.”  We must augment our enforcement work with effective crime prevention.  We must do all we can to support parents, teachers, coaches, pastors, mentors, and all who help young people succeed. We must provide treatment and facilitate the recovery of people struggling with addiction.  And we must provide basic services to those returning to our communities from periods of incarceration, so that they have the tools to avoid reoffending.  While government can provide support for prevention, these efforts must be led by people taking ownership of their own communities, committed to empowering their neighbors. 

If we pursue a comprehensive strategy that combines targeted enforcement with effective prevention, we have the potential to enhance the quality of life in every neighborhood in Virginia.  When police focus their attention on truly dangerous criminals, they engender trust and confidence in heavily-policed communities. When schools, churches, neighborhood organizations and interested individuals step forward to support achievement and encourage positive development, they build a community’s collective strength. 

In response to a question about whether he was disturbing the peace by leading the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, Dr. King replied that “true peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”  Those words continue to ring true, and they frame today’s most pressing civil rights challenge.  If we work in a comprehensive way to eliminate the destructive forces that infect communities across Virginia, we can do more than reduce crime. We can create lasting safety, equal opportunity, and real justice.


Timothy J. Heaphy is United States Attorney for the Western District of Virginia

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