Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr.

Remarks to the Strengthening Police-Community

Relationships Conference

The Marriot Wardman Park Hotel

Washington, DC

June 9, 1999

Good morning and welcome to this important two-day conference devoted to affirming and building trust between those in law enforcement and the citizens they serve. I want to thank all of the participants -- some of whom have come from far away -- for attending and sharing your expertise and perspectives so that together we might learn from one another and begin strengthening the bonds of confidence and commitment so central to providing safe and healthy communities all across America.

As the Attorney General mentioned in her opening remarks, the vast majority of the 700,000 police officers nationwide do their duty with honor and valor, putting their lives on the line daily, so that others might live their lives productively and in security. These men and women are caring and committed public servants to whom we all owe our thanks and much appreciation. Largely because of their selfless service, crime rates in almost every category have declined for the past seven years. Many neighborhoods are now better places to live because of the difference they have made. So we have much good news for which to be thankful. But of course, we wouldn't be here today if problems did not persist and if the picture was rosy for everyone.

In order for this conference to be a success we must be very honest with one another. And if we are being forthright we have to realize that it is still painfully clear that too many citizens -- especially those living in minority communities -- continue to mistrust the law enforcement officials on whom they should rely for protection. And in too many cases, such distrust is sadly warranted. The lack of respect, or even brutality, that some people are forced to endure at the hands of just a few officers can, and does, poison the well of confidence that is essential to effective policing. High profile incidents such as the Abner Louima beating and the tragic shooting of Amadou Diallo only fuel mistrust and create hostility. And the use of racial profiling sows additional seeds of suspicion and further exacerbates the tensions that concern us all. But make no mistake -- thought we are talking about a small number of officers, these problems are not limited to any one department or any one city. The actual problems or, equally important, the perception of problems are national in scope and touch people everywhere. Police abuse and misconduct anywhere must not be tolerated and must be fought everywhere. We cannot allow such behavior to undermine the legitimacy of civil authority in communities across America. Indeed, there is probably no agenda more important to safe neighborhoods and civil rights than strengthening law enforcement and community relationships. This is especially so in minority neighborhoods where the need for law enforcement services is often acute. It is a sad fact that people of color are disproportionately the victims of crime. Young black men make up about one percent of this nation's population yet they are about 18% of the nation's homicide victims. Black people constitute about 13% of America's population and yet we are about 50% of the nation's homicide victims. To address the ongoing violent crime problem a solid, trusting relationship between our minority communities and those in law enforcement is essential.

I began my career in the Justice Department's then newly formed Public Integrity Section, where I investigated and prosecuted official corruption on the local, state and federal levels. The work I was privileged to do was important because it involved holding accountable those who had breached the public trust, despite the fact that they had often enjoyed all of the power and privileges society could bestow. I learned a long time ago that those charges with making, enforcing, and administering the law must be held to the highest standard if the system is to work. Integrity is an essential ingredient in the recipe of trust. For if average citizens do not have confidence in their judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement agents, their faith in government institutions will ultimately erode, and those institutions will serve them less effectively.

As a Judge on the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, I saw firsthand how crime could tear families apart and ravage entire communities. I also gained an even greater appreciation for the work that law enforcement officers do, while risking life and limb, to promote justice and protect the public. I unfortunately also witnessed how mistreatment of citizens by those in law enforcement had a corrosive effect on the administration of justice. I saw verdicts returned that had little or nothing to do with the facts as presented in court and spoke to jurors who literally disdained the police. A substantial part of this negative feeling was a result of negative treatment that these people had experienced, had witnessed or had heard about. Those who believe that this negative conduct occurs in a vacuum and has no real consequences are extremely naive. Jurors who do not convict, witnesses who do not come forward, victims who take matters into their own hands -- all of these are the natural outgrowth of real or perceived police misconduct.

Later, as the U.S. Attorney for the District, I had a chance not only to prosecute criminals, but to reach out and build bridges to the community, too. We launched a new outreach program, for example, to reconnect the U.S. Attorney's Office with the citizens it serves. Our community prosecution effort, similar to community policing, partnered local residents with prosecutors to directly respond to criminal justice issues that afflicted their neighborhoods. The police must do the same. These initiatives, and others like them, must be supported because they help to create a feeling among many residents that law enforcement is on their side -- that it will work with them, not against them, in fighting crime. It is only through successful partnerships that we will win the battle against crime and the only way to build such relationships is to lay a strong foundation of trust and respect.

My commitment to these issues continues at the Department of Justice. With the leadership of President Clinton and Attorney General Reno, the Department has been working hard to address these challenges. We have spoken out at great length about these issues and have fought hard to implement a style of policing that gets officers into and engaged with the neighborhoods they serve. For the past seven years, this Administration has worked to strengthen the relationship between police departments and citizens. Our efforts have been aimed at making sure that police understand the concerns and experiences of their community residents and how the departments are viewed by the community. Police chiefs increasingly seek this type of information because they know that perceptions directly impact their ability to offer effective services. Last week, we released a report on citizen perceptions of crime and policing in 12 American cities. While the report showed that 85% of the residents surveyed thought their police were doing a good job, 24% of African Americans and 22% of other people of color expressed dissatisfaction. This disparity is serious and must be reversed. Over the past several months, the Attorney General and I have met with police chiefs, union representatives, community leaders, and young people and listened to their descriptions of the problems and suggestions for building additional trust that will eventually change negative perceptions.

As a result of these discussions, the Justice Department has undertaken a five-point plan to address issues of police integrity. First, we will expand and promote the king of partnership and dialogue that engenders confidence, by organizing regional roundtables nationwide in the months ahead. Second, we will insist on police accountability -- and begin here at home with the Department of Justice. We are conducting a self assessment of our own use of force and civil rights processes, to ensure that we have procedures in place to hold us accountable to all Americans. Third, we will focus on recruiting more officers who reflect the communities they serve, have high standards, and who are properly trained to handle the stress and dangers inherent in their jobs. Fourth, we will increase our civil rights enforcement efforts. We are currently investigating several law enforcement agencies that may have a pattern or practice of misconduct, and will exercise our statutory authority to bring suit if the facts warrant. Finally, we will take additional steps to gather data that will help define the scope of the problem and measure our efforts to solve it. Now, for example, we will include additional questions on police misconduct in our annual Crime Victimization Survey to more accurately assess the relationships people have with their local law enforcement agencies. And we have been working with the White House to devise a system to monitor the role of race in police stops, an issue that is crucial to improving perceptions of bias.

While we have done much, we have much left to do. During this conference, though, let us remember that law enforcement has done a remarkable job in recent years creating safer and stronger communities all over America. Officers everywhere are more professional than ever and are dedicated to doing right by those they serve. We must listen over the next two days not only to those who are representatives from the major civil rights organizations but also to those in law enforcement as they detail their needs and how we can help them to do their difficult jobs even better. This must truly be a dialogue and all must have patience and open minds. This process will assuredly not be an easy one. But it is very, very, necessary.

This Administration generally and this Justice Department specifically are committed to addressing issues of police integrity however we can to strengthen the bonds of trust between the public and its protectors. But we cannot do it alone -- we need your help. All of us share much in common, but we also have much to learn from one another. Today we have convened community and civil rights leaders, law enforcement, and members of the academic and faith communities to engage in a frank dialogue about how we can meet these vital challenges together. At base this is a discussion about respect. It is about how American citizens, regardless of their color or economic condition, are to be treated by those who serve them. It must also be a discussion of how those in the minority communities can help, can partner with those in law enforcement so that they can be most effective in their work. We, the conveners of this conference, do not come here with preconceived notions or biases- we only come here in a genuine search for answers. If we work with one another we can make great progress. And I have no doubt that, together, we will. So I thank you again for coming and look forward to working with all of you in the future to help realize the promise of effective policing, safe communities, and personal security and respect for all of our citizens.

Thank you.