Department of Justice Seal


"Cops and the Communities They Serve"

Metropolitan Black Bar Association Annual Awards Dinner

Puck Building, New York, N.Y.

April 27, 2000

Thank you. I am delighted to be here this evening to speak to this distinguished gathering and to accept this Special Merit award. As an attorney, it is always an honor to be recognized by a professional association of one's peers. As a native New Yorker, it is wonderful to receive such a warm welcome back to the Big Apple. And as an African American, I am especially proud to speak to the Metropolitan Black Bar Association, which has established such a fine tradition of public service and professional mentorship. I would not be standing here today, as the Deputy Attorney General of the United States, were it not for the guidance and support early in my career from attorneys like yourselves and the support in particular of my good friend Zach Carter.

This is not a gathering of law enforcement agents, but I suspect that the topic of my remarks this evening -- "Cops and the Communities They Serve" -- will still resonate with each of you. Sadly, we or our loved ones have all probably faced a police officer who has shown disrespect or falsely questioned our motives at one time in our lives. Those of you who are my age, or who are students of American history, will recollect many of the same vivid images from this country's not-too-distant past: police officers blasting young children with fire hoses in Birmingham, beating clergy members with batons in Selma, or firing upon residents of Newark, Watts, or dozens of other center cities. It is no secret that there is a deep legacy of distrust in America between law enforcement and minority communities.

Given this enduring reality, how can police officers effectively protect the communities they serve? This is perhaps the greatest challenge confronting law enforcement today. According to a Justice Department survey of attitudes towards law enforcement in twelve American cities, African Americans and other people of color are almost twice as likely to express dissatisfaction with their local police than whites. At the same time, racial and ethnic minorities are often those citizens most in need of police protection. Young black men comprise about 1 percent of the nation's population, yet they represent about 18 percent of the nation's homicide victims. The entire black population of the United States is about 13 percent of the whole, and yet blacks represent virtually half of the nation's homicide victims.

Tension and mutual suspicion between police and minority residents adversely affect all aspects of the criminal justice system. When citizens do not trust their local police officer, they are less willing to turn in suspects, less willing to report crimes, and less willing to serve as witnesses in criminal cases. Distrustful jurors may reject the testimony of police officers as a matter of course. The negative repercussions are cyclical. Police forces struggle to recruit officers from suspicious minority communities, officers who are desperately needed to bridge the credibility gap. And victims of crime take matters into their own hands because they lack faith in the criminal justice system.

Now, the good news. Over the past ten years, I have seen a remarkable change in law enforcement agencies throughout the nation. I have witnessed a growing level of police professionalism and a national shift towards community policing that closely integrates citizens into policing efforts and strategies. Police chiefs and beat officers are reaching out to young people, to parents and other care givers, and to the elderly to build understanding and trust, all with the aim of making our neighborhoods safer places to live. There are many factors that have contributed to the dramatic decrease in crime rates during the past seven years, but certainly one of the major influences has been the widespread institution of community-based policing.

Sustaining and building upon the law enforcement successes of the last decade is no easy task. Much of the progress we have seen during this time is still tenuous, built upon a fragile detente between police officers and local communities. Without vigilant efforts to sustain the community dialogue, high-profile incidents like the Abner Louima beating here in New York City or the Rampart scandal in Los Angeles have the potential to tear open old wounds in the minority community. Action by just a few police officers or even one false rumor can poison the well of confidence that is essential to effective policing. And make no mistake. These problems are by no means limited to any one police department or any one city. The actual problems and, equally important, the continuing perception of these problems, are national in scope. They touch people everywhere.

Throughout the country, there are nearly 700,000 federal, state, and local law enforcement officers. The overwhelming majority of these women and men perform their duties with honor and valor, putting their lives on the line daily so that you and I might live productively and in security. It is only a relatively small percentage of these 700,000 cops, a few bad seeds if you will, that wage war on the streets, engage in blatant racial profiling, exhibit open disdain for the communities they serve, or commit acts of severe brutality. But it is too easy, I fear, simply to attribute our present-day problems to this subset of police officers. Oftentimes, difficulties arise from poor leadership and outdated policing strategies, not necessarily bad seeds. Police officers, however well-intentioned, can only succeed with adequate training, sufficient resources, and performance standards that measure excellence according to the bridges they build to the community rather than the number of arrests they secure or tickets they write. To overcome the enduring legacy of distrust between cops and the communities they serve, to affect long-term change in the way minorities perceive law enforcement, we must conduct a wholesale reassessment of our methods for fighting crime.

For our part, the Department of Justice has instituted a five point plan to address issues of police integrity. First, we are working to expand the kind of partnership and dialogue that engenders community confidence by organizing regional roundtables throughout the country. Second, we are insisting on police accountability -- especially at home within our own law enforcement components. 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 the communities we serve. Third, through the Clinton Administration's COPS program, we are developing better training techniques for police officers, heightened standards for admission to the academy, and methods to increase the recruitment of more officers from the communities where they are most needed. Fourth, we are stepping up our civil rights enforcement efforts. We are investigating several law enforcement agencies, including the New York Police Department, that may have a pattern or practice of misconduct, and we will not hesitate to exercise our statutory authority and bring lawsuits if the facts warrant. Finally, we are taking concrete steps to gather data that will help define the scope of various problems, such as racial profiling, and help measure our efforts to solve it.

The Clinton Administration generally and this Justice Department specifically are committed to strengthening the bonds of trust between the public and its protectors. But we cannot do it alone -- we need your help. First, I call upon those of you here tonight to participate in the ongoing dialogue between your community and the local police department and other law enforcement agencies. Introduce yourself to the officers who walk your beat. Attend civic and community meetings. Fight for constructive change. Second, play a leadership role within your communities. You will be needed to act as a voice of calm in times of crisis. Serve as a mentor and role model for the children on your block and in your neighborhood.

Finally, perhaps most importantly, keep doing what you have been doing through organizations like the Metropolitan Black Bar Association. In fact, given the success of recent assaults on affirmative action policies and legal aid programs for the poor, redouble your efforts. The legal profession is in desperate need of racial diversity and of pro bono assistance. The lack of diversity throughout the ranks of the profession adversely impacts our ability as lawyers to serve those most in need. Notwithstanding the commendable free legal assistance that attorneys of all stripes and backgrounds provide, only a bar comprised of attorneys of all races can combat the sense of alienation that disadvantaged clients feel when regularly confronted by an establishment of a distinctly different color.

Together, police departments and local communities can work to put the past behind them and forge a strong alliance to combat crime. Let me make one thing absolutely clear: there need not be a tension between law enforcers and the communities they serve. The effort must be made to identify the problems that exist, the people responsible for them and determine where the solutions lie. This effort will not, cannot, succeed without your involvement. I hope you will each enlist in this fight for justice in our communities.

Thank you.