Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at the Justice Department’s Violent Crime Reduction Summit
Baton Rouge, LA
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Thank you, Rob, for that kind introduction and for your leadership at the COPS Office. I also want to extend my sincere thanks to everyone at NOBLE, including President Thomas and Executive Director Dwayne Crawford, for inviting me and for your continued leadership and support.
As Rob mentioned, NOBLE has been a longstanding and valuable partner to the Department of Justice – and we are very appreciative of that partnership and all that NOBLE does to advance policing and equity in our country. NOBLE has never run away from the hardest questions in policing and civil rights, and your moral leadership and practical thinking have pushed the much-needed national conversation on community policing and building community trust.
I am delighted to join you all here today, along with my colleagues from the department, including our newly appointed director for the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) – Karhlton Moore. We are very excited to have Karhlton on board and I would encourage you to make time to meet with him and Rob while you’re here, given the critical resources and support their offices can provide you and your agencies.
I am also looking forward to the conversation that Sheriff Tompkins will engage in with this panel, on two critical topics that are front and center for you and all of us at the Department of Justice: officer safety and wellness and recruitment and retention.
Even under the best of circumstances, law enforcement agencies face challenges with keeping their officers safe and healthy, and recruitment and retention rates up. But, over the past two years, you all have faced unprecedented challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the social division and polarization, as well as a significant uptick in violent crimes, including gun violence and hate crimes.
All of which has only added to the stress and trauma officers deal with on a regular basis that has made it even harder for officers to maintain their health and safety on the job, and for agencies to build and maintain a solid workforce.
This is why we have made promoting officer safety and wellness a top priority at the Department of Justice. We know law enforcement’s most valuable resources are the men and women who put their lives on the line every day to protect and serve our communities. We also know that healthy officers make healthy communities. It is essential for all of us to work together to restore and strengthen the trust between law enforcement and the communities we all serve. Such trust is not only necessary for public safety, it also honors this nation’s core values of fairness and dignity for all.
For over a decade, the department has developed and invested in mental health and wellness programs to assist law enforcement.
This includes the resources the COPS Office provides through programs such as the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act program (LEMHWA), as well as assistance available through the VALOR Program provided by BJA.
For example, BJA’s VALOR program has trained tens of thousands of officers in curricula focusing on wellness and safety and continues to offer training and technical assistance at no cost to state, local and Tribal law enforcement agencies. As a result of the VALOR program and LEMHWA, we have invested nearly $125 million to date in training and other assistance to support law enforcement mental health.
And just yesterday, we launched a new DOJ webpage on justice.gov that identifies all of our health and wellness resources for law enforcement. It draws heavily on the extensive libraries of tools and knowledge that have been sponsored by the COPS Office and BJA in recent years and puts them all together in one place to make it easier for agencies to access.
Going forward, we will continue to update this site with new material, with the hope that these resources will be a constant help to you and your colleagues.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not speak to you about BJA’s important Public Safety Officer Benefits (PSOB) program that assists the families of loved ones that are injured or killed in the line of duty. This program provides death, disability and survivor education benefits and has claims specialists available to consult with you or your agency to ensure your members and their families can access this critical support.
In addition to officer safety and wellness, we also know it is incredibly important for us to focus on recruitment and retention. Hiring and retaining the best law enforcement officers is critical for creating and maintaining safe and thriving communities. Moreover, a diverse and inclusive agency workforce that reflects the community residents leads to increased trust, collaboration and transparency. We need to create opportunities so that people who may not have ever seen themselves going into law enforcement are encouraged to join this noble profession.
One way we are helping law enforcement agencies meet this challenge is through the funding available through the COPS Office Hiring Program and BJA’s Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (or Byrne JAG) program to help agencies hire needed law enforcement personnel. The COPS Office has also published a number of reports on recruitment and retention in an effort to share promising approaches with the field, and we are also looking to conduct further research to develop best practices and guidance on officer hiring, recruitment and retention.
Another way we are seeking to help more broadly with recruitment and retention is to ease the burdens placed on law enforcement, by investing in alternative crisis response models and providing officers with the tools and training they need to be more effective in their communities.
Indeed, our law enforcement partners have repeatedly told us that, that change is needed because they cannot alone shoulder the responsibility of addressing the needs of people in crisis. In particular, I hear from law enforcement executives all the time about the difficulties their officers encounter dealing with issues of mental illness, substance use and homelessness. The stress and trauma of these jobs can take a heavy toll. We should not add to their burden by requiring them to address a wide array of social problems – problems that cannot, and should not, be solved by the criminal justice system alone.
To address these issues, we are promoting alternative approaches to responding to calls for service that have the potential to transform policing.
For instance, through BJA’s new Connect and Protect program, we are changing how we support law enforcement and advancing new policing practices to support the field. Connect and Protect provides grant funding to pair law enforcement and behavioral health professionals to respond to calls for service in innovative ways. Ensuring that more of these calls for service are handled effectively by mental health professionals trained to attend to people experiencing a crisis, will free up law enforcement officers to address more serious, violent offenses. Although no single program or service will prevent every tragedy, we know that a comprehensive approach that includes community-based mental health care is integral to effective solutions.
We’re also funding similar efforts for interventions across the criminal justice system through programs such as BJA’s Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program (JMHCP), which funds a wide array of programs involving people with behavioral health needs, including first responder programs, community courts, crisis stabilization units, training for public safety and mental health providers – and programs that support intergovernmental cooperation between state and local governments.
In FY21, we awarded more than $30 million under the JMHCP and Connect and Protect programs and in FY22 we anticipate awarding $34 million dollars. Additionally, the COPS Office is funding the implementation of crisis intervention teams and supporting de-escalation training through its Community Policing Development Grant program. In FY21, we awarded over $21 million in those two critical areas and we anticipate awarding the same in FY22.
In addition to the grant funds we award, we also offer training and technical assistance resources at no cost to law enforcement agencies to help you implement alternative responses. For example, BJA supports 14 model mental health learning sites across the nation that support on the ground peer-to-peer learning. If you are thinking of implementing a new program, one of our learning sites will host you, at no cost, so that you can learn from your peers. More information on this unique peer-to-peer learning opportunity is available on the BJA website.
As we all know, there are no easy fixes or solutions to this problem of recruitment and retention. But I am confident that together we can tackle many of the barriers – big and small – and make sure that people dedicated to this life of public service have all of the tools and supports that they need.
I also believe that as we continue to maintain a dedicated focus on improving officer safety and wellness that too will help retain a healthy workforce. Through our programs, more and more officers are acquiring the skills they need to be effective not only on the job, but with continuously exercising self-care on and off duty.
These are just some of the ways we at the department are working hard to support you and your colleagues, and I hope we will continue to find more ways to partner together on this critical work. Together we will advance civil rights, build community trust and keep communities – and our police – healthy, safe and strong.