Skip to main content

Associate Attorney General Tony West Delivers Remarks at the Strengthening the Relationship Between Law Enforcement and Communities of Color Forum


United States

Thank you, Ron, for that kind introduction and for your effective leadership of COPS at this important time. 

 I'd like also to take a moment to recognize my other Justice Department colleagues here today, individuals with whom it is both a privilege and pleasure to serve:  U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who hosts us in his district this morning; U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch from Brooklyn; Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs, Karol Mason; and Principal Deputy Director for the Office on Violence Against Women, Bea Hanson.   

 Let me also express appreciation to Reverend Al Sharpton, not only for joining us this morning but for his leadership, day in and day out, on issues of reconciliation and community restoration.

 And, of course, my thanks to the Ford Foundation for hosting this important event in this beautiful space. 

 A special thank you goes to the mayor of this great city, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and to Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, for welcoming us to New York and for their commitment to building bridges between law enforcement and community.  In the short time the Mayor has been in office, the Justice Department has established a productive working partnership with the City of New York. 

 Within weeks of assuming office, Mayor de Blasio helped broker a resolution to a long-running legal battle -- in which the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest -- over NYPD's stop-and-frisk practices, helping to ensure that reforms are in place throughout the police department to promote constitutional policing.

 It really is a privilege to be here with so many distinguished law enforcement and civil rights leaders, friends and colleagues, to advance a critical dialogue on how we can work together to build safer and healthier communities.  This is the first in a series of discussions that the COPS Office is convening to strengthen, establish and sometimes repair the fabric of trust between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve in order to enhance public safety and justice for all.

 I come to this discussion as one who has been privileged to work with law enforcement for most of my career -- for several years as a federal prosecutor in a U.S. Attorney's Office; as a lawyer in the California Attorney General's Office; and now as part of the United States Justice Department's leadership.  That experience has left me both profoundly grateful for and humbled by the dedication and commitment of so many in law enforcement who serve to keep our communities safer places to live, to work and to play; and who do so with integrity and in compliance with the law. 

 Theirs is not an easy task, and their duties are often performed under difficult and dangerous circumstances.  And the reality for most officers, I believe, is that policing is not a job; it's an honor and profession.  It's about service.  It's about promoting safety and security and fostering strong neighborhoods for the residents who live there. 

 I also come to this discussion as my father's son.  He was a man born and raised deep in the Jim Crow south.  And when the time came for his eldest child and only son to take up driving lessons, dad was my teacher, imparting all the familiar lessons of keeping my eyes on the road and signaling before I turned. 

 And then there were the lessons not found in any driver's manual; lessons informed by family history and community experience:  When -- not if -- you are pulled over by the police for no ostensible reason, keep your hands visibly planted at 10 and 2 until instructed otherwise.  Always ask permission before reaching for your license and registration, and even then verbally explain what you're doing.  No quick movements.  End every sentence with "sir."  Speak only when spoken to and never, ever talk back. 

 Dad called these "survival skills," and I put them into practice on more than a few occasions, well into adulthood.  I suspect that I'm not alone in bringing such divergent, perhaps even conflicting, perspectives to today's discussion. 

 Ours is a time when police departments are becoming increasingly diverse; when more and more police chiefs are embracing community policing as a core policing philosophy as opposed to an optional extracurricular activity; when the Justice Department, in the 20 years since the inception of the COPS Office, has invested more than $13 billion in grants to local law enforcement to promote strong police departments that implement approaches valuing the communities they serve, especially communities of color. 

 And yet it is also the case that ours is a time when, as the Attorney General said in his remarks, there are still too many pockets of America where folks are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration; when negative contacts with the criminal justice system are disproportionately felt by communities of color -- especially young men of color, half of whom, one recent study showed, will have at least one arrest by age 23.

 For Attorney General Holder and the Justice Department he leads, few things are as troubling or in need of our urgent attention as a criminal justice system that lacks integrity in the eyes of those it is supposed to serve.  Because notwithstanding our success in reducing violent crime over the last three decades, the disturbing fact is that same time period has witnessed the prison population explode by 800%, with communities of color bearing a disproportionate share of that increase. 

 That, in turn, has only led to more suspicion, more fear and more resentment, giving currency to self-fulfilling narratives that say, on one side, law enforcement is a threat, not an ally; or on the other, that community residents tolerate and even encourage disrespect for the law. 

 And as demographics shift and neighborhoods change, it is becoming more clear that the communities law enforcement must serve, on which they must rely and to which they are accountable, are increasingly communities of color.  

 Indeed, according to the Census, by 2043, people of color will become the majority in our country.  And by the end of this decade, the majority of young people in this country will be of color.  Given that the point of greatest tension between law enforcement and communities revolves around how young people of color are treated by police, restoring the trust and repairing this relationship is not an option; it's a necessity if law enforcement is to fulfill its mission in the 21st century.
 That's why today's convening is as necessary as it is significant.  It allows us to seize the opportunity to build, rebuild and maintain that foundation of trust which is essential to effective, productive law enforcement. 

 Because we know -- from research and from experience -- that individuals who come into contact with the police or other law enforcement agencies are more likely to accept decisions by those authorities as legitimate, and obey the law in the future, if they feel they’ve been treated fairly, even when they are penalized by criminal sanctions. 

 So today is about turning what we know into what we can do.  It's about exploring ways to do what my friend Pastor Michael McBride calls hitting the reset button, where we give ourselves the space to have a different kind of conversation, one where our narratives and histories inform the discussion but don't dictate how we move forward together.  It’s an opportunity to identify, as the Attorney General said in his remarks, promising strategies and actionable solutions that can facilitate lasting community confidence in law enforcement.

 It's in that spirit that I'm pleased to announce today a major new Department of Justice initiative aimed at enhancing public safety by strengthening relationships between law enforcement and communities.  Under a solicitation released this morning, we are committing up to $4.75 million to establish the National Center for Building Community Trust and Justice. 

 This initiative – which will be jointly supported by our Office of Justice Programs, COPS Office, Civil Rights Division, Office on Violence Against Women, and Community Relations Service – will expand our base of knowledge about what works to improve procedural fairness, reduce bias, and promote racial reconciliation.  It will help communities address the challenges arising from suspicion, distrust and lack of confidence in our law enforcement agencies.

 This effort will encompass a broad range of areas in which fairness and trust are implicated -- from stops and searches to wrongful convictions.  A team of cross-disciplinary experts will fuel the initiative by conducting research, piloting and testing innovative ideas, developing models for rigorous evaluation, and disseminating the latest research and best practices to the field.  And our U.S. Attorneys will lead coordination efforts with five pilot sites that will implement and test strategies focused on procedural justice, implicit bias, and racial reconciliation.

 The initiative will engage an array of criminal and juvenile justice agencies, including law enforcement, probation, parole, and the courts; as well as community stakeholders, like faith-based groups and victim service organizations -- indeed, all of you in this room will be important to the success of this initiative.

 Our goal is to build on the pioneering work already underway in some of America’s most challenged areas and to open doors of cooperation that will ultimately lead to safer and healthier communities.  It's the same aspiration that underlies the ambitious day ahead of us. 

 To be sure, none of this will be easy or come quickly.  But the good news is you have already sown the seeds of success.  You have, in the work that's already been done, begun to demonstrate what we can accomplish when we commit ourselves to improving public safety while strengthening community and respecting individual dignity.

 Thank you for all that you do, and I look forward to all we can accomplish together.

Updated September 17, 2014