Department of Justice Seal
Prepared Remarks of Attorney General Ashcroft
National Police Survivors Luncheon
Washington, D.C.
May 14, 2004 - 12:30 pm

Thank you for allowing me to join you this afternoon. It is a pleasure and an honor for me to be here. I am sure all of you know that the national office of Concerns of Police Survivors is in my home state of Missouri. Being at this event is like running into a neighbor while on vacation half a world away from home.

Police Week is an important event for Washington, D.C., not because Congress is here, or the Department of Justice, or even because of the police memorial, where so many of us were last night. Police Week is important because each and every one of you is here.

The genius of our American system of government is that we believe that it is the people who grant the government its powers. We believe that it is the people's values that should be imposed on Washington -- not Washington's values on the people.

For 20 years, Concerns of Police Survivors has been doing critical work for the families and co-workers of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. From counseling and peer support to scholarship funds and Outward Bound programs, COPS is helping those left behind deal with the profound sense of loss, distress and frustration that accompany an officer's death. It is important that people in Washington know about the work of COPS. I thank you for all that you do, and I thank you for being here.

The first priority of government is to protect the lives and liberties of the people. When criminals violate the law and prey on the innocent, we expect our government to right these wrongs. We turn to our government for justice.

We are here to remember the men and women, the husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, who made the ultimate sacrifice for the cause of justice.

Last night, I said that the work of law enforcement officers is not just a job. It is a calling, a vocation. The men and women of law enforcement are drawn to their role in life by a profound desire to serve and to protect. They seek to uphold our nation's highest ideals of duty, honor, and courage.

You are here because a family member or loved one chose to take a stand, to defend the ideals that have made our nation strong and free. They made the ultimate sacrifice for the cause of justice so that others might live in safety and security.

Last night, I discussed the successes law enforcement has been achieving. It is important that we remember the purpose that our fallen heroes undertook every day. It is important that you know that their lives made a difference and that their efforts changed America for the better.

Their efforts helped drive the violent crime rate to its lowest level in 30 years. Between 1999-2000 and 2001-2002, the violent crime rate plunged 21 percent.

This means that compared to the year 2000, almost one million fewer Americans were spared the pain and anguish of being victimized.

The success in our nation's fight against crime means that 27 percent fewer people were robbed . 23 percent fewer men and women were assaulted . and 27 percent fewer women -- sisters, mothers, and daughters -- were raped.

The teamwork of the men and women of state, local and federal law enforcement has made our streets and our homes safer. Under Project Safe Neighborhoods, working together we are fulfilling the President's promise to lock up those who commit gun crimes. The results speak for themselves: there were 130,000 fewer victims of gun crime between 2001 and 2002 than in 1999 and 2000.

These successes would not have been possible were it not for the men and women of law enforcement who knew where they stood and claimed that ground with honor and courage. Our nation owes these men and women a great debt. On their behalf, please accept my profound gratitude.

We also owe you, the spouses and families, a debt of gratitude. Families and friends also face the unknown, never knowing if that kiss on the way out the door, that hug of appreciation, or that smile of friendship will be their final goodbye. But our thanks -- and our respect -- is not enough.

When tragedy struck your families, you found that you were not alone. You are held in the collective embrace of the law enforcement family that surrounds you even now, thanks to Concerns of Police Survivors.  

Every day, public safety officers across America answer the call of those in distress. Police officers, deputy sheriffs, state troopers, firefighters, and first responders answer this call with courage, determination, and valor. Every day, we call upon public safety officers to respond quickly to emergencies and to protect our families, our neighbors, and our communities. Government must be equally responsive to the needs of the families of officers who have sacrificed.

The idea behind the Public Safety Officers' Benefits Act, which was passed in 1976, was just that. The Act provides benefits including death, education assistance, and disability to the families left behind after the death of a public safety officer.

During my time in the Senate, I had the privilege of working closely with officers and their families to insure that the promises of the Public Safety Officer's Benefits Act are fulfilled and expanded. In 2000, I sponsored legislation that expanded financial assistance for college expenses to all spouses and dependent children of law enforcement officers slain since 1978.

At the Justice Department, the Public Safety Officers' Benefits Office (PSOB) is run by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. I know that the program has not been without its frustrations for many of you.

I was deeply troubled to learn, for example, that after a police officer was shot and killed in the line of duty on August 12, 2002, a PSOB claim -- submitted that very month -- was not awarded until 13 months later. The reason cited was that requirements and policies regarding beneficiaries slowed the benefits process.

Such a delay is unacceptable. Working with Concerns of Police Survivors, the Fraternal Order of Police, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the National Sheriffs' Association, the PSOB program streamlined the claims process for families. Today, all required forms are being revised to lessen the reporting burden on families initiating claims.

Another example of unacceptable bureaucratic delay was suffered by a police officer who sustained a line of duty injury and applied for disability through the PSOB in 1995. After filing all of the paperwork -- which took an entire year -- the injured officer's file was lost. The complex file was rebuilt, and the police officer finally received his disability award in December 2002 -- nearly 8 years after his injury.

The PSOB is now putting in place a new computer database of all active PSOB cases. This will help ensure that no officer or family receives such treatment again.

Delays in processing claims have also arisen because of the complicated medical issues that frequently arise. I was troubled deeply when I learned of the delay involving a public safety officer who died following smoke inhalation on September 18, 2001. A claim for benefits was submitted in 2002, a year after her death. Then it took another year to approve the claim because communication over forms, medical documentation, and reviews held up the award to her survivors.

To resolve this issue, we have retained the services of a cadre of medical specialists to deal with the medical issues surrounding claims. We have increased the availability of qualified consultants so that we can decrease the time it takes to review cases.

These changes are good. But we can do better. Bureaucratic red tape should not be allowed to injure further those who have already suffered so much. That is why today I am directing the Justice Department's PSOB office to make this guarantee to qualified beneficiaries: Once the office has received all necessary information, and determined the potential beneficiaries on a claim, a determination will be made on the claim within 90 days. No delays. No excuses.

There is no way to replace a life lost. But we can honor the memories of those who have gone before us by honoring the values for which they sacrificed.

President Theodore Roosevelt once said, "Life brings sorrow and joys alike. It is what a man does with them, not what they do to him, that is the true test of his mettle."

The men and women we honored last night, the men and women we have honored in the past and continue to honor to this day, demonstrated their mettle. We can all be grateful for their service to the nation. But it has fallen to you, the survivors, to continue to demonstrate your character. And you, too, have proven your mettle in the face of tragedy and adversity.

Our nation is safer because of your sacrifice. Our nation is stronger because of your courage. Our lives are more blessed because we have in our midst, and have had in our midst, men and women of such character.

May God bless them. May God bless you. And may God bless America.

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