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Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta Delivers Opening Remarks for “Leadership Reflections: Navigating Through Crisis”


San Diego, CA
United States

Thank you, President Letteney, for your leadership. Thank you to my friends at International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) for putting this important discussion together. Thank you to the law enforcement leaders coming up on stage, for your work and for sharing your experiences leading through crisis. And of course, I want to recognize our COPS Office Director Hugh Clements, for your leadership supporting law enforcement agencies across the country.

In April, I traveled to Uvalde, Texas, the site of a horrific mass shooting in an elementary school. I toured incredible murals painted to honor the children and teachers who were killed. I stood in the classrooms and saw bullet holes from that terrible day. And most importantly, I sat with the families. Many wore t-shirts with their child’s face or name, a personal memorial they carried with them. I saw the pain in their eyes. I heard the anger and frustration in their pleas for answers or information or to even begin to understand why this happened to their child. I wept with them.

This summer I went to Chicago. I visited Justice Department grantees engaged in inspiring community violence intervention efforts. And one evening, I sat in a small, un-air-conditioned room above a community food bank, and met with mothers who lost their children to gun violence. I looked at their pictures of lives cut short. I listened to stories of pain and heartache, but also bureaucracy that made it difficult to get support and services. I hugged them, with a stronger resolve to do more.

In 2015, I visited with families and survivors at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in the wake of the brutal hate crime that left nine Black parishioners dead. I saw them again two years ago, when they visited the Justice Department — parishioners who had hidden under tables, or played dead to survive and heard about their ongoing pain years later. The deep ache of long-lasting trauma was palpable.

In a nation that has become far too familiar with gun violence and the taking of lives, I believe each of these incidents galvanized our resolve do something, to stop the madness, end the hate, protect our families and communities from having to go through something like this. And I believe we all have an obligation to root out hate and bias, to keep deadly weapons away from those bent on committing harm, to support survivors who bear the scars and to learn from each other as leaders navigating what can seem both unprecedented and all too familiar.

Last week, the Justice Department announced a $9 million grant to the National Mass Violence Victimization Resource Center in Charleston. The center works with first responders, researchers and survivors to compile lessons learned from mass tragedies. The center’s research found that, following high-profile incidents in Parkland, El Paso and Pittsburgh, individuals in those communities suffered rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) four to five-and-a-half times higher than national estimates. Survivors of violence — the wounded, families, even entire communities — face extraordinary challenges. They are left deeply shaken, and often contend with guilt, a compromised sense of safety and symptoms of depression and PTSD.

Acts of hate, gun violence and mass violence occur in this country with disturbing regularity. Based on FBI data out today, we know hate crimes increased nearly 12% between 2020 and 2021, and remained steady in 2022; and that nearly 60% of hate crime victims were targeted because of their race or ethnicity. Gun violence continues to claim lives at alarming rates. Firearms were responsible for more than 48,000 deaths in 2022, according to the CDC, and have been the leading cause of death among children in this country since 2020.

None of this is news to you. You are on the front lines in your communities, and the sad reality is that too many of you have personal experience with mass violence, hate crimes, incidents involving your own officers, and the epidemic of gun violence, which is especially acute in communities of color. That is not okay, and it will take all of us to make real, lasting change. But as we work to interrupt and prevent violence, we must be prepared for the worst, learn from each other before a crisis, and provide support for communities and leaders when the unthinkable happens. This means not only better accessible services for victims and crisis communications training for leaders, but also trauma and mental health support for first responders, which the Justice Department is proud to fund. To take care of your communities, you have to take care of yourselves.

The Justice Department has many touchpoints following an act of mass violence or other critical incident. In the immediate aftermath, the FBI, ATF, DEA or U.S. Marshals and the local U.S. Attorney’s Office are often on the ground with our state, Tribal and local law enforcement partners to investigate and sometimes prosecute wrongdoers. But our footprint in the wake of these tragedies is much broader than that, including support for victims and law enforcement.

One way we support you — after crises and otherwise — is our revitalized Collaborative Reform Initiative. As many of you know, the COPS Office offers three levels of support, from targeted technical assistance, to critical incident reviews, to organizational assessments. The Collaborative Reform Initiative for Technical Assistance (or CRI-TAC) program is a partnership between the COPS Office and IACP and eight other leading law enforcement organizations. To date, COPS has invested over $12.7 million in CRI-TAC and served more than 820 jurisdictions through over 932 technical assistance engagements. This year, CRI-TAC has provided assistance to over 150 sites, and is actively working with 70 different sites. And we announced Friday that IACP is receiving an additional $1.75 million to support CRI-TAC.

The Justice Department’s Uvalde critical incident review, conducted at the request of Uvalde’s mayor, has been an enormous, and enormously important, undertaking. We have ten subject-matter experts, including several chiefs that led through mass violence crises, working with the COPS Office to review the law enforcement response to the shooting, with the goal of providing an independent account of the incident and identifying lessons learned for the field. The team has spent over 40 days in Uvalde; conducted, viewed or participated in over 200 interviews; reviewed thousands of documents, school safety and other policies, training materials, video, and photographs; conducted walkthroughs of the school; and observed active-shooter trainings. We know this process has taken a long time, but the work is difficult, and the issues are complex. We expect to issue the report in the coming months.

Our Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) also provides resources and funding to support law enforcement responses to crises. BJA collaborates with IACP on the Mass Violence Advisory Initiative, which provides peer-to-peer assistance to law enforcement leaders following a crisis, on issues such as communicating with community members and the media. And BJA administers the Emergency Federal Law Enforcement Assistance Program, which provides funds to help alleviate costs incurred by law enforcement agencies in responding to emergencies.

The Justice Department is also deeply committed to supporting victims. The FBI’s Victim Services Division includes resources and programs to assist victims, including the Victim Services Response Team, which can deploy to mass violence events like the shooting in Uvalde, as well as training and technical assistance to help law enforcement agencies build victim services programs, deliver death notifications in a trauma-informed way and brief victims and family members in the wake of serious tragedies.

Our Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) administers the Crime Victims Fund, which funds thousands of victim assistance programs and provides victims with compensation and assistance critical for emotional, physical, and financial well-being. OVC also administers Anti-Terrorism and Emergency Response Program funding, which can be used to supplement existing resources in the wake of a mass violence incident; funds programs to help law enforcement agencies improve responses to victims, including through partnerships with IACP; and trauma-informed peer-to-peer support programs.

We know that many victims encounter barriers that prevent them from accessing services, and some may not even know that help is available. OVC is committing some of its $1.8 billion in grant awards this year to supporting communities disproportionately impacted by crime and violence, and building the capacity of victim service programs to meet the needs of victims. OVC is also revising the Victim Compensation Guidelines — last updated in 2001 — to expand victim eligibility, provide more comprehensive coverage, and increase access to programs.

We have also heard the call for better coordination in response to critical incidents, and we recognize how hard it is to be in your shoes in the wake of a tragedy, and the confusion and fatigue that can set in for leaders, communities and families trying to navigate the numerous federal, state and local agencies on the ground following a tragedy — both short and long-term.

In March, the President directed federal agencies to propose ways the federal government can better support the recovery, mental health and other needs of those impacted by gun violence. The Justice Department worked with over a dozen agencies to develop recommendations focused on identifying ways to expand and better coordinate federal resources. And two weeks ago, the White House established the first-ever Office of Gun Violence Prevention, which will, among other things, work with federal agencies to expand and coordinate federal resources for communities devastated by mass shootings.

Every day, I think about the parents who have lost children, kids who have lost parents, first responders and communities grappling with the after-effects of violence. Some days I fear we as a society are becoming numb to it all. But I remain hopeful that as we work on the underlying problems that lead to these tragedies, we can also be more prepared, learn from experience and support each other through crisis. And if you find yourself navigating through one of these crises, I hope you’ll count on the Justice Department as a partner – for your community and for you.

Thank you all for what you do every day.

Updated October 16, 2023