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Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives Training Conference Award Luncheon


Cleveland, OH
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Vice President Rodney Bryant. It is an honor to be with NOBLE here in Cleveland. I would like to begin today by thanking President Brenda Goss Andrews and Executive Director Dwayne Crawford, for inviting me to speak here today and for their leadership and partnership. I would also like to thank the entire Executive Board, Dais, members, and guests here today. Let me also acknowledge that many DOJ colleagues are in attendance.

President Goss Andrews and I have met on several occasions and discussed her priorities – voting, gun safety and recruitment and retention – and I am proud to call her a partner in this work. To note just a couple of ways in which we are aligned in these priorities, the Justice Department has convened law enforcement associations, experts and other stakeholders to inform a forthcoming best practices guide on the law enforcement recruitment and retention crisis, and earlier this year, we published a fact sheet on regarding the safe storage of firearms at home.

I want to focus today on the importance of building and strengthening police-community trust. NOBLE has been at the forefront of having the often uncomfortable conversations we need to have on this topic. We all know that trust and legitimacy are necessary to ensuring public safety. And of course, I say “build” and “strengthen” for a reason – because we also know that trust doesn’t come unless we work for it and nurture it and prioritize it. Building and strengthening trust requires concrete action and real engagement with communities.

In May 2021, the Deputy Attorney General issued a memorandum outlining the Justice Department’s Comprehensive Strategy for Reducing Violent Crime. Two of the Comprehensive Strategy’s four core principles – indeed, the first two – are about building trust and empowering communities:

  • The first core principle is that any strategy to reduce violent crime must be based on a foundation of trust and legitimacy between law enforcement and the communities we serve.
  • And the second is that investment in community-based violence prevention and intervention programs can help prevent violence from occurring in the first place.

I want to talk about these two principles today and about the Justice Department’s work to ensure we are being as responsive as we can be to crime victims and their needs.

These issues are all intertwined. We know that often, the same communities that have high rates of arrests and incarceration also deal with high rates of gun violence and victimization. Investing in those communities – including supporting community violence prevention and intervention programs or providing services and resources to victims of crime – both fosters and reflects the trust that is so important to public safety. And caring for crime victims – who have often experienced significant trauma as a result of what happened to them – is a key part of our efforts to serve our communities while also earning their trust.

The first principle in the Justice Department’s Comprehensive Strategy is fostering trust and building and maintaining legitimacy in the communities we serve. It is important that this comes first, because trust and legitimacy are the foundation on which all our efforts must be based.

Law enforcement is a difficult job. Officers risk their lives every day in the line of duty. And for too long, we have placed entrenched and complex societal problems at your feet, expecting officers to do more than you can or should do with the limited tools of arrest and incarceration.

We are also aware of the toll, trauma and stress officers experience on the job. On that point, I want to underscore that the Justice Department is committed to ensuring officer safety and wellness. Our Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office), for example – and I’d like to acknowledge our terrific COPS office Director Hugh Clements, who is here today – administers grant funding under the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act Program.

Those grants help agencies build peer mentoring programs; develop resources based on the specific mental health challenges faced by law enforcement; and support training, suicide prevention programs, and other promising practices for the overall health and wellness of our nation’s deputies and officers. We must break down the stigma against confronting mental health needs and seeking support. All of us in this room know that you need to be healthy and well, and that you need the public’s trust, to do your job effectively and to keep our communities safe.

But we have all witnessed tragic events that shake a community’s trust in law enforcement and sometimes reveal deep fissures in policing, public safety and racial justice. When Tyre Nichols was killed in Memphis, there was swift, and almost uniform condemnation by NOBLE and other law enforcement groups and leaders across the country. I was heartened by that.

And I was encouraged to hear from many of those same leaders, in the wake of Mr. Nichols’s death, who were assessing their own use of specialized units, like the SCORPION unit in Memphis. So, I asked our COPS Office to conduct a review of the use of specialized units. That review is ongoing, and will result in a guide to support mayors, police chiefs and communities as they determine whether to employ specialized units, and if so, how to ensure such units operate with appropriate management, oversight and accountability.

When residents lose trust in the police, whether because of a particular incident or otherwise, that can make an already difficult job even harder. But the opposite is also true: When agencies have implemented programs and policies to build trust, the resulting positive community feedback and support increases officer and community safety and can strengthen officer mental health and wellness too.

The Justice Department has a broad array of tools to identify and address unconstitutional policing practices and to support jurisdictions that want to be proactive in tackling tough issues and building up trust in their communities.

People often think first about the Civil Rights Division’s pattern or practice authority, in which the department investigates law enforcement agencies that may be engaged in systemic violations of people’s rights. In March, we announced the findings of such an investigation in Louisville, Kentucky, and in June, we announced we announced the findings of our investigation in Minneapolis.

In both cases, the Justice Department underscored the need for appropriate training and supervision, as well as alternative approaches to public safety beyond relying on police officers alone. That includes behavioral health responders, violence interrupters or other public health prevention strategies that can improve public safety without relying on enforcement alone.

We have also taken important steps to increase the efficacy of consent decrees and monitorships. In September 2021, the Attorney General adopted my 19 recommendations to ensure that policing consent decrees minimize costs, enhance transparency, involve voices from the community and move a community as efficiently as possible to lasting change.

The Justice Department is also actively implementing the 92 deliverables in the President’s Executive Order on Advancing Effective, Accountable Policing, including use of force data reporting; accreditation; increased support for officer wellness; and strengthening law enforcement recruitment and retention practices, with a particular focus on creating an inclusive, diverse and expert workforce.

We also support agencies seeking to be proactive about building trust and making changes where needed.

Last spring, at NOBLE’s CEO symposium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the Attorney General and I announced the relaunch of the department’s Collaborative Reform Initiative. The updated initiative, run out of the COPS Office, offers three levels of voluntary technical assistance to police agencies that request it.

NOBLE has been a crucial partner in the Collaborative Reform Initiative Technical Assistance Center (CRI-TAC), which offers targeted technical assistance “for the field, by the field.” 

We also offer organizational assessments and an updated critical response program, through which agencies can request assistance in the wake of a high-profile incident. The COPS Office’s work on an after-action review of the horrific mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas last year, is an example of technical assistance available through Critical Response.

We will publish that review later this year, with the goal of providing the families a definitive accounting of what happened that terrible day, but also to provide lessons for the field learned from the pre-, during, and post-incident response. 

Beyond collaborative reform, the department offers funding and technical assistance through the COPS Office, the Office of Justice Programs and the Office on Violence Against Women. To give just one example of our efforts to make technical assistance more accessible and user-friendly for agencies and communities, last spring I also announced the creation of the National Law Enforcement Knowledge Lab, a website designed to be a one-stop shop gathering information and best practices from across the Department and beyond. It features a Federal Interventions Dashboard that provides information on DOJ consent decrees and settlement agreements.

Trust and legitimacy are essential foundations for addressing officer and public safety. And they also honor this nation’s core values of fairness and dignity for all. The Justice Department remains committed to working with all of you, your agencies and with NOBLE, to fully realize those values.

The second core principle in the Justice Department’s Comprehensive Strategy is investing in community prevention and intervention programs that aim to prevent crime before it occurs. Done right, these programs can help foster the trust and collaboration between law enforcement and communities that are necessary for public safety.

The term “community violence intervention and prevention,” or CVI, does not describe one particular kind of program or project. But all CVI work starts from the premise that violence is not inevitable – it is preventable. That work puts at its center the very communities that are impacted by violent crime.

It is both a frame and a strategy that provides opportunities for the community and law enforcement to work together to leverage their collective strengths and co-produce public safety. And it has the potential to completely transform our vision of public safety in communities.

CVI work takes different forms in communities across the country. In Los Angeles, it includes training and deploying peacemakers. In Baltimore, it is providing mental health services and peer mentoring to high-risk individuals. CVI work is providing conflict resolution, mediation and other important services to youth in Miami. And it’s also using violence interrupters and outreach workers in Philadelphia. These are just a few examples of the myriad types of programs that comprise CVI.

Last year, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, also known as BSCA, added $50 million in CVI funding for fiscal years 2022 and 2023, bringing the Justice Department’s total CVI investments to $200 million for both years combined.

The CVI programs we are funding are guided by some core principles: 

  • They must be community-centered, equitable and inclusive;
  • They must be evidence-informed—through research and evaluation, case studies and expert opinions; and
  • They must be effective and sustainable.

Our funding is comprehensive and designed to support programs with different levels of funding and support, including:

  • Site-based awards to nearly 50 communities across 24 states and territories to develop and implement violence intervention approaches;
  • Capacity-building awards to organizations who work with and provide assistance to smaller, community-based organizations that otherwise may not have access to federal funding;
  • Evaluation awards through the National Institute of Justice to support rigorous study and evaluation of programs, and to develop an evidence base to inform future work;
  • And training and technical assistance awards to organizations who work with both grantees and those who did not receive funding, to help ensure that every community can access the support they need to prevent shootings and save lives.

I recently traveled to Chicago to meet with groups doing CVI work on the ground there, including Metropolitan Family Services, a non-profit capacity-building grantee and their sub-grantee, Project H.O.O.D., a community-based group in Chicago’s South Side. During the site visit, I heard directly from our grantees and sub-grantees about the importance of working with law enforcement.

And I heard from researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago Crime Lab, who are studying CVI programs in Chicago – they, too, stressed the importance of building relationships between CVI programs and local law enforcement. That can and will look different in different communities, with different programs, but it seems clear that law enforcement support and buy-in is essential to the effectiveness of these life-saving programs.

Similarly, some of my colleagues in the Office of Justice Programs traveled to Los Angeles and had the opportunity to hear directly from community violence intervention workers and their partners in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD)’s Community Safety Partnership Bureau. The key word there is partners – officers and CVI outreach workers expressed a deep mutual respect for one another.

Outreach workers spoke of the ways in which their counterparts at LAPD were helping to heal wounds and forge trusting relationships in some of the city’s most historically disadvantaged neighborhoods. And officers shared how outreach workers were able to de-escalate conflicts and resolve issues before police needed to get involved, averting potentially dangerous situations for officers and residents alike.

The Justice Department also makes significant investments beyond CVI. In addition to historic CVI investments, BSCA funds crisis intervention and other gun violence prevention programs.

For example, the Justice Department recently awarded more than $238 million in Byrne State Crisis Intervention Program grants to fund state crisis intervention court proceedings, which allow communities to implement extreme risk protection order (ERPO) programs, drug and mental health courts, and other interventions to reduce gun violence and save lives. BSCA also provided an additional $40 million to our STOP School Violence program, and an additional $20 Million to our School Violence Prevention Program to make our schools and communities safer.

I am proud of the Justice Department’s investments in these programs, and I look forward to hearing more success stories about partnerships and trust-building. If any of you have CVI programs in your jurisdiction and you’d like to know how to get more involved, I encourage you to reach out to our Office of Justice Programs, which offers technical assistance and support to programs and communities across the country.

Another crucial aspect of building trust while we work to ensure public safety is support for victims. So often, those who commit crimes and the victims of those crimes come from the same community, sometimes even the same neighborhood. Understanding that and working to understand the ways in which that dynamic can affect police-community trust, is key to engaging with these issues holistically.

The Justice Department’s commitment to caring for victims is personal for me. In April, I traveled to Uvalde with the COPS Office’s Critical Incident Review team, to meet with families who lost children and loved ones in the mass shooting last year. And during my time in Chicago, I met with mothers who had lost their children to gun violence. I have thought about those meetings, and those families, every day since.

I was deeply affected, not only as a parent, but as a human being, by the continued suffering and retraumatization that is all too common in responses to violence. In both meetings, it was clear to me that as a society, we are not meeting the needs of all victims and families.

That is why I am excited about recent efforts by the Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) to reimagine crime victim compensation. OVC administers the Victims of Crime Act compensation program. That program provides funding to states to compensate eligible victims and their loved ones for certain expenses resulting from victimization, such as lost wages, mental health care and funeral and burial costs.

Last year, OVC started work on updating the Victim of Crime Act Victim Compensation Guidelines, which were last updated in 2001. Our aim is to ensure that all victims of crime have access to crime victim compensation. We at the department have been hearing that many communities are not aware of the benefits that should be available to them. We have also heard that some communities that do know these benefits exist and have applied for them are denied or deemed ineligible for compensation based on outdated views and inflexible rules.

OVC has undertaken an extensive process of outreach, research and stakeholder engagement to identify changes needed to enhance equity and access to compensation. Through this process, OVC is listening to survivors, direct service providers, state administrators, national advocacy organizations and federal and tribal leaders. Our goal is to publish recommended revisions to the Victim Compensation Guidelines this winter, which will be open for further public comment, and ultimately make the necessary changes to the Guidelines by the end of 2024.

I want to thank you all for your time today and for the work that you do every single day. Your efforts to build and maintain trust with the communities you serve, and to work creatively and collaboratively to make those communities healthier and safer are critical. I am proud of the strong partnership between the Justice Department and NOBLE, and I look forward to our continued collaboration on our shared quest for equal justice and safer communities.

Updated July 25, 2023