Justice News

Attorney General Eric Holder Delivers Remarks During the Interfaith Service and Community Forum at Ebenezer Baptist Church
Atlanta, GA
United States
Monday, December 1, 2014

Thank you all for being here.  It is my honor to bring warm greetings from President Obama, who asked that I share his best wishes with you this evening.

I’d like to thank Reverend [Raphael] Warnock, and his colleagues and counterparts throughout Atlanta’s thriving community of faith, for inviting me to join you tonight.  I also want to thank Mayor [Kasim] Reed and Police Chief [George] Turner for welcoming me to this beautiful city.  Earlier today, I had the opportunity to meet with the two of them – along with a number of law enforcement, faith, civil rights, and community leaders from here in Atlanta – for the first in what will be a series of meetings with law enforcement, civic, and community leaders around the country in the coming weeks.  I heard about the great work they are doing to foster strong and mutually-respectful relationships throughout this region.  And I was particularly encouraged to learn about robust engagement strategies like the one that’s in place in this area – thanks to the leadership of DeKalb County Director of Public Safety Cedric Alexander and his colleagues – as people have reacted to events in Ferguson.

I want to take a moment to recognize the Justice Department leaders who took part in this meeting, and who are here with us tonight – including Karol Mason, the Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs; senior leaders from the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services; Vanita Gupta, the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division; and Atlanta’s very own Sally Yates, our outstanding U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia.

Most importantly, I want to thank each of the passionate citizens – and especially the young people – who has taken the time to reflect, to pray, and to engage with us this evening.  It is a privilege to stand with this community as you convene a forum to help build cooperation, to foster inclusion, and to make your voices heard.  And it is a particular honor to do so in the shadow of the historic sanctuary where a young man of faith named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. first found the voice that would stir millions to action; where he first articulated the vision that pushes us forward even today; and where he first bound himself to the enduring struggle for equal justice – a cause that he would pioneer, for which he would lay down his life, and in which every successive generation must be both trained and invested.

It was here at Ebenezer Baptist, well over half a century ago, that our nation’s greatest advocate for justice, for peace, and for righteousness began the work that would help to transform the nation – and usher in decades of extraordinary, once-unimaginable progress.  It was here that Dr. King set out not merely to change our laws, but to change the world – and to pull the country he loved ever closer to its founding principles.  And it was here, too, that he issued a prophetic warning that, although brighter days undoubtedly lay ahead, progress would not come without considerable hardship, struggle, setback – and profound sacrifice.

“The winds,” he told us, “are going to blow.  The storms of disappointment are coming.  The agonies and the anguishes of life are coming.”

Dr. King knew then – as we know, today – that with the strength conferred by abiding faith, together, we can “stand up amid the storms.”  By placing our trust in the Divine, and in one another, we can “walk with [our] feet solid to the ground and [our] head[s] to the air.”  He assured us that, come what may, we need not feel discouraged or afraid; in fact, we need not fear any challenge that comes before us.  But the struggles will continue.  The storms will come.  And the road ahead will be anything but smooth or straight.

As we look down this road tonight, it’s clear that our nation continues to face persistent challenges – along with the countless opportunities that Dr. King helped make possible, but that he himself did not live to see.  As we recommit ourselves to the cause with which he entrusted us, it’s apparent that our nation’s journey is not yet over.  And so we return once more to this hallowed place to seek shelter from a terrible storm – a storm that I’m certain we will weather, so long as we continue to stand united – and unafraid to address realities too long ignored.

Like millions of Americans, I know many of you have spent the past few days with family members, friends, and loved ones, giving thanks for the blessings of the past year – but also mindful of recent news, the anguished emotions, and the images of destruction that have once again focused this country’s attention on Ferguson, Missouri.

While the grand jury proceeding in St. Louis County has concluded, I can report this evening that the Justice Department’s investigation into the shooting death of Michael Brown, as well as our investigation into allegations of unconstitutional policing patterns or practices by the Ferguson Police Department, remain ongoing and active.  They have been rigorous and independent from the very beginning.  While federal civil rights law imposes an extremely high legal bar in these types of cases, we have resisted prejudging the evidence or forming premature conclusions.  And as these investigations proceed, I want to assure the American people that they will continue to be conducted both thoroughly and in a timely manner – following the facts and the law wherever they may lead.  We will see these investigations through to their appropriate conclusions, so that we can continue to work with the community to restore trust, to rebuild understanding, and to foster renewed cooperation between law enforcement and community members.

Like you, I understand that the need for this trust was made clear in the wake of the intense public reaction to last week’s grand jury announcement.  But the problems we must confront are not only found in Ferguson.  The issues raised in Missouri are not unique to that state or that small city.  We are dealing with concerns that are truly national in scope and that threaten the entire nation.  Broadly speaking, without mutual understanding between citizens – whose rights must be respected – and law enforcement officers – who make tremendous and often-unheralded personal sacrifices every day to preserve public safety – there can be no meaningful progress.  Our police officers cannot be seen as an occupying force disconnected from the communities they serve.  Bonds that have been broken must be restored.  Bonds that never existed must now be created.

But the issue is larger than just the police and the community.  Our overall system of justice must be strengthened and made more fair.  In this way, we can ensure faith in the justice system.  Without that deserved faith, without that reasoned belief, there can be no justice.  This is not an unreasonable desire – it is a fundamental American right enshrined in our founding documents.

There can be no question that Michael Brown’s death was a tragedy.  Any loss of life – and particularly the loss of someone so young – is heart-rending, regardless of the circumstances.  But in the months since this incident occurred, it has sparked a significant national conversation about the need to ensure confidence in the law enforcement and criminal justice processes.  The rifts that this tragedy exposed, in Ferguson and elsewhere, must be addressed – by all Americans – in a constructive manner.  And it is deeply unfortunate that this vital conversation was interrupted, and this young man’s memory dishonored, by destruction and looting on the part of a relatively small criminal element.

Dr. King would be the first to remind us that acts of mindless destruction are not only contrary to the rule of law and the aims of public safety; they threaten to stifle important debate, “adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”  They actively impede social progress by drowning out the legitimate voices of those attempting to make themselves heard.  And they are not consistent with the wishes of Michael Brown’s father, who asked that his son be remembered peacefully.

Time and again, America’s proud history has shown that the most successful and enduring movements for change are those that adhere to principles of non-aggression and nonviolence.  As this congregation knows better than most, peaceful protest has long been a hallmark, and a legacy, of past struggles for progress.  This is what Dr. King taught us, half a century ago, in his eloquent words from the Ebenezer pulpit and in the vision he shared from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

So this evening, I renew his call for all those who seek to lend their voices to important causes and discussions, and who seek to elevate these vital conversations, to do so in ways that respect the gravity of their subject matter.  I urge all Americans to stand in solidarity with those brave citizens, in Ferguson, who stopped looters from destroying even more local businesses, who isolated people responsible for acts of violence, and who rejected lawless and destructive tactics – just as I have urged them to stand with law enforcement personnel to ensure the rights of protestors and defuse tense situations whenever and wherever possible.

I also want to reaffirm my own steadfast dedication, and the commitment of my colleagues at every level of the U.S. Department of Justice, to keep working with citizens and law enforcement leaders alike in building this inclusive, national dialogue – so we can close these gaps, improve police and community relations, and open a new era of collaboration in pursuit of public safety, especially among the vulnerable and underserved populations that need our assistance the most.

This has been a top priority for my colleagues and me over the past six years.  In fact, in just the last few months, under the leadership of Assistant Attorney General Mason and COPS Director Ron Davis, our Office of Justice Programs and COPS Office have worked to develop and disseminate guidance to law enforcement officers about how to maintain order during peaceful protests and other First Amendment-protected events – while safeguarding the rights of demonstrators.  As we speak, the COPS Office and Community Relations Service are doing great work on the ground in Ferguson – conducting an after-action review, recommending constructive steps we can take to resolve persistent tensions, and identifying areas where law enforcement priorities and community concerns must fall into alignment.

As this critical effort unfolds, we will remain firmly resolved to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you in driving this work into the future.  And this commitment will also fuel our broader efforts to bring change – and meaningful reform – to urgent challenges far beyond the realm of community policing.

Through the Smart on Crime initiative I launched last year, we are already strengthening the federal criminal justice system, moving away from outdated sentencing regimes, and embracing a holistic approach to law enforcement, incarceration, rehabilitation, and reentry.  Through important, bipartisan legislation like the Smarter Sentencing Act – and in cooperation with Congressional leaders from both parties – we’re striving to give judges more discretion in determining sentences for people convicted of certain federal drug crimes.  And we’re marshaling a broad coalition of bipartisan leaders to urge state lawmakers to repeal and rethink misguided and unjust policies like felon disenfranchisement, so voting rights can be restored to those individuals who have served their time, paid their fines, and completed their probation or parole.

Through the groundbreaking My Brother’s Keeper initiative that President Obama announced in February, we are also working tirelessly to address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color – and to ensure that all young people can reach their full potential.  Under the leadership of Vanita Gupta, the Department’s Civil Rights Division is deeply engaged in reinvigorated police reform work.  Over the last five fiscal years, they’ve opened more than 20 investigations into police departments across the country – and entered into 15 consent decrees or memoranda of understanding – to correct unconstitutional policing practices.  And through the new National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, which I launched in September, we are forging robust relationships between police officers and their communities – so we can bridge long-simmering divides from coast to coast; so we can provide innovative training on bias reduction and procedural fairness, to ensure that everyone is treated equitably; and so we can minimize needless confrontation, preserve peace, and maintain the public trust at all times – particularly in moments of heightened community tension.

Earlier today, I was proud to join President Obama at the White House to discuss this ongoing work.  And I am pleased to note this evening that the President has announced a series of steps to take these efforts to a new level – to strengthen promising practices by local police while bolstering law enforcement and community relations.

First: based on an exhaustive, Administration-wide review of the distribution of military hardware to state and local police – which the President ordered in August, and which uncovered a lack of consistency in the way this equipment is distributed – the White House has released a detailed report outlining next steps for ensuring appropriate use of federal programs.  And the President has instructed his staff to draft an Executive Order directing relevant agencies to work with law enforcement and civil rights organizations to find ways to improve the effectiveness, integrity, accountability, and transparency of these initiatives.

Second: the President made clear that this Administration will continue to strongly support the use of body cameras by local police.  And he announced a commitment of more than $200 million to support a three-year initiative that will invest in body-worn cameras, expand training for law enforcement agencies, add more resources for police department reform, and multiply the number of cities where Justice Department leaders facilitate greater engagement between residents and local authorities.

Third: in the coming days, I will announce updated Justice Department guidance regarding profiling by federal law enforcement, which will institute rigorous new standards – and robust safeguards – to help end racial profiling, once and for all.  This new guidance will codify our commitment to the very highest standards of fair and effective policing.

Finally: the President took the historic step of creating a new Task Force on 21st Century Policing – a body composed of law enforcement executives and community leaders from around the country, led by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, former Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson, and COPS Director Ron Davis, who will convene in the coming weeks to examine the present state of policing, to identify best practices, and to make recommendations for the future.  This important Task Force will ask tough questions, examine thorny challenges, and consider the state of the law enforcement profession in a broad and inclusive way.  It will offer suggestions for new ways to advance community policing throughout the country.  And it will help to provide strong, national direction on a scale not seen since President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement nearly 50 years ago.

I want to be very clear that, although frank dialogue is a necessary first step and sign of commitment, these efforts aren’t just about talking – and they’re certainly not about imposing solutions from Washington.  They’re about bringing leaders together – from every perspective – to confront specific challenges, to spur renewed engagement, and to translate healthy dialogue into concrete, coordinated action and results.

Because police officers have an indispensable role to play in securing our neighborhoods and building a brighter future.  Because these public servants shoulder enormous burdens, and incur significant personal risks, to fulfill their critical responsibilities.  Because all lives matter and all lives must be valued.  And because all Americans deserve fair and equal treatment in the eyes of the law.

After all, at a fundamental level, this is about much more than effective policy.  It’s about the progress that can only spring from thoughtful, peaceful gatherings like this one.  It’s about leaders like all of you – the men and women in this crowd tonight.  And it’s about the power that passionate, engaged citizens can and must exercise in shaping our nation’s future: so we can reclaim the promise, and the singular opportunity born of tragedy, that brings us together – here and now.  So we can keep our steadfast commitment to prevent future tragedies and promote mutual understanding.  And so we can fulfill the sacred responsibility that all Americans share – a responsibility to Dr. King, and untold millions of others, who sacrificed everything they had to bring our nation to this point; a responsibility to our fellow citizens, as well as the law enforcement officers who keep us safe; and – most of all – a responsibility to our children, black and white, from all backgrounds, races, and walks of life, in cities and towns across this country – as to generations yet to come.

It was Dr. King who reminded us – in his very last speech, on the night before his life was taken – that it’s only when it is dark enough that the stars can be seen.

Tonight, once again, it is dark enough.  Yet even in recent weeks, there have arisen great sparks of humanity, and hope, that illuminate the way forward.

Out of this darkness shine the actions of those who reject destruction in favor of peaceful protest; the bravery of others who faced down mobs; the valor of law enforcement officers who risked their lives to restore public safety to their communities; and the humble words of a father who lost a son, but raised his voice in pursuit of peace.

These are the moments that remind us of the values that bind us together as a nation.  These are the times – of great challenge and great consequence – that point the way forward in our ongoing pursuit of a more perfect Union.  And these are the lights that will help us beat back the encroaching darkness – and the stars that will guide us, together, out of this storm.

May God grant us safe passage.  May He continue to watch over our journey.  And may He always bless the United States of America.

Civil Rights
Updated February 4, 2016