Skip to main content

Attorney General Eric Holder at the White House Conference on Gang Violence Prevention and Crime Control


Washington, DC
United States


Remarks as prepared for delivery.


Good morning. Thank you Tino Cuellar, Alan Hoffman, Cecilia Munoz, and Representative Scott for opening today’s conference. And I’d like to thank all of you who are in this room on a hot day in late August, for being here. I know that many of you have taken time out of your end-of-summer plans to be with us because you recognize the importance of building partnerships in public safety and of working together on a national level to combat criminal gangs and violence in American communities.

You, our mayors and police chiefs in this room, are innovators in the administration of justice. You are the people who work to make changes on the front-lines. You are constantly refining your approach to crime. You know what works, and what doesn’t work, to make our neighborhoods and communities safer. You field-test new strategies and you prove that solutions are possible to some of our most challenging crime problems.

Much of your success is attributable to your sensitivity to the specific needs of the communities you serve, and to your ability to understand what works in a given context. Indeed, crime-fighting is more than anything a local pursuit, and we all know that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all answer to the problem of crime. What works in Chicago may not work in Bismarck. So why come together in a gathering like this one?

I believe that, ultimately, we cannot get smart on crime in isolation. A rational, data-driven, evidence-based, smart approach to crime – the kind of approach that this Administration is dedicated to pursuing and supporting – must be part of a partnership in public safety. It requires the exchange and evaluation of experiences, and exposure to new ideas. That is what brings us together today.

I want to get us started on the day’s work by noting five principles that have guided my own approach to combating crime in my time as Attorney General and before. 1. Innovate. 2. Devise evidence-based strategies. 3. Show results. 4. Learn from peers. 5. Collaborate.

It is in the spirit of these principles that, for example, I have asked attorneys throughout the Department of Justice to conduct a comprehensive, evidence-based review of federal sentencing and corrections policy. The group is examining the federal sentencing guidelines, the Department’s charging and sentencing advocacy practices, mandatory minimums, crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparities, and other possible racial and ethnic disparities in sentencing. The group is also studying alternatives to incarceration, and strategies that help reduce recidivism when former offenders re-enter society.

In my view, the same principles behind that effort can also guide us in building successful partnerships in public safety.

Let me start with the first and perhaps most important principle. We need to make sure we regularly pursue innovation. Without abandoning what does work, we need to be courageous about developing and implementing new ideas. Throughout the day, you will hear from local officials who have been willing to think and act "outside the box," to great success.

One example is an ongoing effort in High Point, North Carolina, to disrupt drug markets. It is a model developed by David Kennedy whereby law enforcement officials target the most violent offenders for prosecution, then go to lower-level, non-violent offenders and say, "This is what will happen to you if you don’t get your act straight."

Here is an example of how this has worked in practice there. Police officers will round up young dealers, show videotapes of them dealing drugs, and let them know that their cases are being prepared for indictment, which of course would mean hard time in prison. These young dealers are then presented with a choice – they can stay on track for prison or, if they are willing to change their ways, there is help for them in the form of things like mentoring and job training. The message is clear: you have a chance to do the right thing. And the results have been just as clear: violent crime in High Point has dropped 57 percent in the target area. This strategy appears to have changed the relationship between law enforcement and residents, and it may have broken what seemed like a fixed cycle of drugs, crime and lives cut short.

I saw another, quite different, innovative approach to crime-fighting in Los Angeles last month, when I visited the Summer Night Lights program run by Mayor Villaraigosa’s Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development. Summer Night Lights, in partnership with community organizations, offers safe and healthy alternatives to crime and delinquency at night. It literally turns the lights on in parks where crimes often occur, and offers recreational, educational, and artistic activities instead. The program is an example of innovation upon innovation. The Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention helped fund a pilot "Gang Reduction and Youth Development Zone" in the Boyle Heights area of East Los Angeles, and the City of Los Angeles reported that this program helped reduce gang violence in that area by 40 percent. Now the city runs "zones" across the city and Summer Night Lights in 15 sites at zones.

Second, we need to develop evidence-based strategies for criminal law enforcement. This means moving beyond useless labels and instead embracing science and data as the foundations of policy. This is how we get past the traditional model of reacting to crime after it occurs, and shift instead to a preventive stance. "Hot spots" policing is a prime example of how this works. We can use data to map where criminal activity is concentrated and focus law enforcement resources in those areas. Research from our National Institute of Justice shows that even areas near targeted "hot spots" see reductions in crime.

The NYPD’s Real Time Crime Center, under Ray Kelly’s leadership, is another example of smart, data-driven prevention. In America’s largest city, officers and detectives use data-mining technology to quickly provide investigators in the field with information about the crime scene. For example, the Center uses satellite imaging and mapping techniques to point officers to the locations where suspects are likely to flee. This helps to neutralize some of the advantages that criminals may have over law enforcement, and it goes a long way toward preventing crime.

A third principle follows from the last one: we must show results. This means taking innovative programs and new evidence-based strategies, and evaluating them honestly. We have a robust evaluation agenda in our National Institute of Justice, but it’s also incumbent upon local officials to demonstrate that the approaches they have adopted are working. Evaluating results should be undertaken with serious investigative intent, not just as a cursory exercise to satisfy a funding authority. And in rigorous evaluations, we can extrapolate general lessons from the program under study. For example, from an evaluation of CeaseFire-Chicago, we learned the value of a public health approach to public safety. And we learned that targeting a small, high-risk population can have significant, broader benefits.

My fourth principle is what I call peer-to-peer learning. To really get smart on crime, we should learn from each others’ experiences – failures as well as successes. That happens in I like this conference. In fact, this conference is part of an ongoing conversation that this Administration began this spring with our partners in public safety. Back in April, we convened a Law Enforcement Summit to identify key priorities and to examine lessons learned from ongoing initiatives. That was not an academic exercise – we have already used what we learned at that summit in tangible ways, to formulate decisions about resources and strategies in partnership with state, local and tribal law enforcement.

We held a similar meeting in July with our colleagues in the Department of Homeland Security and other partners. We discussed how best to continue support for fusion centers and improve information sharing, while emphasizing the importance of privacy and civil liberty protections. Like the Law Enforcement Summit, we are using that feedback to guide our decision-making.

Moreover, a commitment to learning also means looking to non-traditional crime fighters. I have often thought that crime fighters exist outside the law enforcement community as it is typically strictly-defined. Their ranks include public health officials, educators and people who work on labor and other social issues. Many of you already recognize this, and some of your most successful initiatives have involved working with your counterparts across state and local government.

This brings us to my fifth and final principle: collaboration. After we innovate, after we develop data-driven strategies to combat crime, after we show results and learn from each other, we need to collaborate to ensure that our successes are sustained, magnified and replicated across the country. In this, the Department of Justice has a particular responsibility.

This Administration has been working from day one to provide law enforcement officials with the resources they need to do their jobs effectively. Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act alone, we have awarded more than 2 billion dollars through the Office of Justice Programs and a billion dollars through the COPS office already. But we have been careful to make sure that we are doing more than just moving money out the door. We must match resources effectively with local needs, and we can only do that by making decisions in true partnership with localities. Moreover, a true federal-local partnership in public safety must go beyond funding decisions.

It also means a commitment on the part of the federal government to be active in your efforts and you in ours. It means federal law enforcement participation in state and local task forces and your inclusion in ours. It means leveraging federal participation in areas where state, local, tribal and federal officials can and should work together. And it means helping these officials get their hands on data and research and other information that will help them to do their jobs better. It means taking what we know, and what we learn from each other, and making sure we all put it to good use.

Let us do that today. Let us learn from each other and then put what we learn to good use. I have no doubt that together, in partnership, we will develop law enforcement programs that are sophisticated, contemporary, effective, and, simply, smart. And, together, we can have a positive impact on the lives of the American people. Thank you.

Updated August 20, 2015