In a speech at a Justice Department ceremony honoring the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday that the nation must improve police officer safety at the same time that it confronts the sense of mistrust between law enforcement and the communities they serve. As an initial step, the Attorney General called for better reporting of data on both issues, noting that the current level of reporting by localities on both uses of force by police—as well as officer fatalities—was incomplete.
“The troubling reality is that we lack the ability right now to comprehensively track the number of incidents of either uses of force directed at police officers or uses of force by police,” the Attorney General said in his remarks. “This strikes many – including me – as unacceptable. Fixing this is an idea that we should all be able to unite behind.”
Currently, federal authorities publish annual figures on the number of “justifiable homicides” by law enforcement, as well as figures on the number of law enforcement officers killed or assaulted. But since reporting is voluntary, not all police departments participate, causing the figures to be incomplete. In his comments Thursday, the Attorney General urged improving the method for collecting both these sets of data.
“This would represent a commonsense step that would begin to address serious concerns about police officer safety, as well as the need to safeguard civil liberties,” he said.
A complete version of the Attorney General’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, appear below:
“Thank you, Vanita [Gupta], for those kind words – and thank you all for being here. It’s a privilege to welcome such a distinguished crowd to the Great Hall for this important observance and on what will be my last opportunity to share it with you as Attorney General. It’s a pleasure, as always, to join so many valued colleagues and good friends in paying tribute to the enduring legacy of an extraordinary leader; in celebrating the contributions of a singular figure in our nation’s history; and in honoring the memory of a lifelong champion for equality, for peace, and for justice: the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I am glad to share the stage this morning with Dorothy Williams, Richard Toscano, Thomas Wright, and of course Assistant Attorney General Gupta. I’d like to thank every member of the Junior ROTC Color Guard for opening today’s ceremony. I want to extend a special welcome to civil rights activist Dorie Ann Ladner, whom we’re honored to have with us today. And I particularly want to thank all of you for taking time out of your busy schedules to participate in this annual event – on what should have been Dr. King’s 86th birthday – as we join millions of our fellow citizens, throughout the country, in remembering the man who helped to lead a sweeping movement that forever changed the face of America – and inspired people around the world to reach for opportunity and inclusion.
“The remarkable and enduring achievements of the Civil Rights Era – in tearing down segregationist policies, expanding access to the ballot box, and enshrining key protections into law – did nothing less than alter the course of history. The impact of the Movement has been transformative, and its power impossible to measure, over the last five decades. Yet, as we’ve been reminded all too clearly in recent months – despite this once-unimaginable progress – there’s no denying, as we gather for this important commemoration, that a great deal of work remains to be done. Even today, in 2015, our journey is not yet complete. Economic progress remains uneven, educational opportunity is still not uniform, the right to vote is under siege. And we continue to live in a world that’s too often divided – a world riven by misunderstanding and despair. A world beset by momentous challenges, old and new. And a world badly in need of the compassion, the inclusion, and the healing that Dr. King stood for, and worked toward, throughout his too-short 39 years.
“Especially in this time of trial, it is not only fitting – but essential – that we rededicate ourselves to the vision, and the values, that guided Dr. King at every stage of his career. Today – just as they did 50 years ago – these values point us away from tired rhetoric and stale talking points. They move us toward open dialogue and constructive engagement. They impel us to remember the common humanity that Dr. King found in every person he met – in police officers as in protestors; in prisoners as in presidents. And they call us to the service of our fellow citizens, the betterment of our nation, and the protection of all that is exceptional about the country we love. After all, as Dr. King once said, “everybody can be great [. . .] because everybody can serve.”
“I am mindful, as we come together this morning, that there are few who answer this call to greatness more heroically – and fewer still who make more contributions and sacrifices in the name of public service – than those who stand on the front lines of our fight for public safety: America’s brave men and women in law enforcement.
“As the brother of a retired police officer, I know in a personal way that these courageous individuals perform their difficult and dangerous jobs with extraordinary valor, compassion, and honor. They serve as steadfast guardians of our rights and liberties – shouldering tremendous and often-unheralded burdens. They incur significant risks in order to keep the rest of us safe. And they are routinely called upon to make split-second decisions to protect themselves and those around them.
“In short, they are true American heroes – whose patriotism, integrity, and commitment to the highest standards of excellence are simply beyond question. I know this. And I have been troubled and deeply disturbed by recent mischaracterizations of this Administration’s regard for those who wear the badge.
“Over the past six years, our record of support for law enforcement has been both strong and unambiguous. This Justice Department, under my leadership, has taken significant, and in some cases unprecedented, steps to protect and empower our local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement colleagues. This is simple fact. In 2011, I created an Officer Safety Working Group in response to concerns about officer-directed violence. Through groundbreaking initiatives like VALOR, the Department is providing cutting-edge training to help prevent violence against law enforcement, to improve officer resilience, and to increase survivability during violent encounters. We’re currently funding thorough analysis of 2014 officer fatalities, including ambushes and other incidents, so we can mitigate risks going forward. Under our Bulletproof Vest Partnership Program, we’re helping to provide lifesaving equipment to those who serve on the front lines. And through programs like the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program, we’re offering our strongest support to brave officers and their loved ones during the toughest of times.
“As someone who knows firsthand the pride of seeing a family member in uniform – and the anguish that comes with knowing a loved one is in harm’s way, out patrolling the street – my personal support for those who serve has been steadfast throughout my career. I believe that every law enforcement officer is deserving not merely of our utmost respect, but our deepest gratitude. And that’s why last month’s devastating and barbaric attack – which claimed the lives of two of New York’s finest, Officers [Wenjian] Liu and [Rafael] Ramos – was so shocking, and so deplorable.
“These senseless murders were assaults on us all – on our nation, on the rule of law, and on everyone who stands for justice. They serve as tragic reminders of the dangers that all of our police officers regularly face. And they have lent new urgency to our ongoing, national conversation about the need to reduce crime – while at the same time building public trust wherever it has been eroded.
“This afternoon, I’ll be traveling to Philadelphia to convene the latest in a series of roundtable discussions – with law enforcement leaders, elected officials, community members, young people, and civil rights advocates – in order to keep advancing this dialogue. Over the course of my travels throughout the country, I’ve had the chance to discuss these critical issues with Americans of all ages, backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and walks of life – from Atlanta to Cleveland; from Memphis to Chicago.
“I’ve heard from police officers, protesters, faith leaders, and concerned citizens. On many occasions, I have been deeply moved by the stories and perspectives I’ve heard – from parents hoping to secure brighter and safer futures for their children; from passionate young people becoming engaged in our national debate; from police officers valiantly putting their lives on the line to make our neighborhoods just a little bit safer.
“Through all of these interactions, I have been struck not by the differences that have emerged, but by the remarkable commonalities. By the desire for peace, for safety, and for justice that drives everyone who’s engaged in this discussion. And by the shared vision of a better tomorrow, and a more secure and inclusive future, that unites all Americans.
“Let me be clear: none of these goals are in tension. None of our aims are in conflict. And so it is incumbent upon all of us to protect both the safety of our police officers and the rights and wellbeing of all of our citizens.
“We can, and we must, examine new ways to do both. The first step to achieving this is to obtain better, more accurate data on the scope of the challenges we face. For instance, I’ve heard from a number of people who have called on policymakers to ensure better record-keeping on injuries and deaths that occur at the hands of police. I’ve also spoken with law enforcement leaders – including the leadership of the Fraternal Order of Police – who have urged elected officials to consider strategies for collecting better data on officer fatalities. Today, my response to these legitimate concerns is simple: we need to do both.
“This would represent a commonsense step that would begin to address serious concerns about police officer safety, as well as the need to safeguard civil liberties. The troubling reality is that we lack the ability right now to comprehensively track the number of incidents of either uses of force directed at police officers or uses of force by police. There has been some effort to address this in the past – in the 1990s, for example, Congress enacted legislation intended to help the Justice Department collect data on officer-involved shootings. But since the reporting remains optional, and perhaps lacks sufficient incentives, many localities do not provide this data. Likewise, absent a requirement for reporting of injuries and deaths of police officers, many localities fail to report these statistics as well. This strikes many – including me – as unacceptable. Fixing this is an idea that we should all be able to unite behind.
“On a more fundamental level, our shared objectives also require that we work together to confront the mistrust that exists – in some places – between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. This is why President Obama and I have announced a variety of proposals that will enable us to bridge these divides wherever they are uncovered – from a National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, to new funding for body-worn cameras. In recent weeks, I have also announced improvements to racial profiling guidance that applies to all federal law enforcement agents conducting law enforcement activities. And the President has taken the historic step of convening a new Task Force on 21st Century Policing – which held its first hearing just two days ago, and which – under the leadership of Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, former Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson, and other law enforcement leaders and experts – will provide strong, national direction to the profession as a whole, on a scale not seen since the Johnson Administration.
“I want to emphasize that these reforms are not aimed at individual officers themselves – who perform their jobs with distinction each and every day. Rather, they are intended to strengthen the criminal justice system as a whole, as well as the policies and procedures that shape this system and govern the way it functions. This will improve public confidence – allowing law enforcement to operate with maximum safety, effectiveness, fairness, and legitimacy – in every case and circumstance. And it will help to ensure that our present dialogue can be translated into positive, meaningful action.
“We owe it to our brave law enforcement officers, to peaceful demonstrators – and, especially, to our youngest citizens – to talk forthrightly about the issues we face, no matter how difficult or complex they may be. We owe it to ourselves and our nation to seek areas of consensus, rather than to exploit old divisions and reopen old wounds. Most of all, we owe it to those who, throughout history, have fought, and sacrificed, and given their lives to bring our country to this moment – from Dr. King and the pioneers of the Civil Rights Era, to Officers Ramos and Liu and the colleagues who carry on their work – to lay aside meaningless grievances. To reject political posturing from those who only demonstrate their interest in front of television cameras. And to do everything in our power to confront the challenges of our time – and find a way to move forward – together.
“During my visit to Memphis last month, I had the opportunity to tour the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King’s room is preserved just as it was on April 4, 1968 – the night he was taken from us by the very same forces of intolerance against which he had stood throughout his life.
“I could not help but think, as I stood on that motel balcony, about this great leader’s unshakeable belief that promoting love – and condemning all forms of violence – is the only way to “cut off the chain of hate.”
“I thought, as well, of the words of my predecessor as Attorney General, Robert Kennedy – who spoke about Dr. King’s legacy, and what he called the “mindless menace of violence,” just one day after Dr. King’s untimely murder. In that emotional speech, then-Senator Kennedy urged a grieving nation to remember that “[t]he victims of . . . violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown.” And he reminded us that – no matter where they came from or who they were – in life, all of these victims were “. . . human beings whom other human beings loved and needed.”
“As we gather today, in the shadow of recent acts of senseless violence, I cannot help but reflect on the lives that have been lost over the past few months – in communities where tragic deaths have exposed rifts between citizens and law enforcement; in New York City, where two brave police officers were murdered because of the uniforms they wore; and in Paris, where heinous and cowardly acts of terror shocked the world and targeted the freedoms we all hold dear.
“Unfortunately, none of this is new to us. Senseless violence has coursed through the veins of this world for ages. And we have seen, throughout history, that acts of hatred breed only hatred. We understand that words of division only deepen division. And we know that our most serious and systemic challenges continue to demand the very best of us – just as they did in Dr. King’s time.
“So today, once again, let us not shy away from – but embrace – the noisy discord of honest, frank, and vigorous debate. Never forget – this great nation was born of protest – by residents of this land who took to the streets to demand fairness from those who governed them. Let us never fail to support those who wear the badge, or to work alongside them in building a constructive dialogue – a dialogue founded on our common humanity. Let us act on the crucial recognition that those who serve with honor serve greatly – and they deserve our deepest respect. And let us reject the empty rhetoric of anyone who would engage in cynical attempts to divide and cast blame – choosing instead to affirm once more that Americans from all backgrounds and perspectives must come together to be part of positive change.
“In this great country – a nation of laws and of high ideals – we have always had the power to forge our own future. Dr. King’s example offers inspiring proof of this fact. And that’s why, as our present work unfolds – so long as we continue to rely on the engagement of our citizens, the ongoing commitment of our police officers, and the singular expertise and experience of leaders like you – I believe there is good reason for confidence in where this effort will take us.
“I want to thank you all, once again, for your dedication to this work. Wherever I am and whatever I am doing, I will always be proud to count you as colleagues and partners in the work of making better the nation that we all love.
“Thank you for all that you have done these past six years and for all that you will do in the years ahead. “