Thank you, Dean [Ron] Weich, for that kind introduction, and for welcoming me to the University of Baltimore Law School this afternoon. As many of you know, Ron led the Justice Department’s Office of Legislative Affairs from 2009 until 2012, and it is great to be with him today. I also want to thank University of Baltimore President [Kurt] Schmoke for his hospitality today. I want to thank Mayor [Catherine] Pugh for her outstanding partnership and leadership. I want to acknowledge U.S. Attorney [Rod] Rosenstein for his work in the District of Maryland. And finally, I want to thank all of you: the many students, professors, law enforcement officers, civic leaders and advocates who have taken the time to be here. I know that you are each making a difference in Baltimore in your own way, and I am grateful that you are choosing to be a part of our work to build stronger and more united communities for every American.
I am delighted to be back in Baltimore today. This is a wonderful city that boasts great achievements in history, the arts, sports and medicine. But Baltimore has also joined the group of places whose names have become shorthand for the breakdown of the relationship between the community and law enforcement. But while the issues certainly burst into view here, they also most certainly did not begin here.
To say that trust between police and the community, particularly the minority community, has been frayed, even broken, for some time is to utter a profound understatement. as a prosecutor in New York City in the 1990s, I saw these tensions – and they were not new then. After my office worked on the Abner Louima case – which was the shorthand of that day for the use of excessive force by law enforcement – we looked at these issues from a systemic standpoint. I spoke with the community and the police then – and I heard a similar refrain from both sides: “See me for who I am, not for who you assume I am.” “Everyone wants and needs respect.” And: “Everyone wants to get home safely at the end of the day.”
These issues didn’t go away when I left the government in 2001. They remained simmering beneath the surface of our public discourse.
But today, all of us – especially the younger generation – are facing these issues head on. The advent of viral videos, looping over and over on screens large and small, has allowed us to see these tensions playing out before our eyes. It has kept the issue in the forefront of the public consciousness. And it has engaged a larger group of voices. Matters that once galvanized neighborhoods now capture the attention of the nation and the world. But even in the midst of this new reality, Baltimore evokes a special resonance.
In the winter and spring of 2015, as I was preparing to take office, I knew that community-police relations would be one of my highest priorities at Department of Justice. The issue gained fresh urgency on the very day I was sworn in, because of events unfolding right here in Baltimore. I took the oath of office in Washington on April 27, 2015 – the day that Freddie Gray was laid to rest. Baltimore had already endured weeks of tension following Mr. Gray’s death. But on the day of the funeral, the protests swelled, and although many who took to the streets were peacefully exercising their constitutional right to free speech, some members of the community unfortunately resorted to destructive acts of violence that harmed property and persons. It was clear that here in Baltimore – as in so many American cities – deep-seated feelings of mistrust and hostility had gone unaddressed for too long. And it was clear that in order to repair the social fabric, those issues had to be dealt with honestly, comprehensively and immediately.
A few days later, on my first trip as Attorney General, I came to Baltimore. I met civic, faith and youth leaders struggling to forge unity and dialogue. I met protestors yearning to make their voices heard. And I met law enforcement officers who had been working around the clock to keep their city safe, and who had themselves suffered injuries. Those conversations left little doubt that emotions were high on all sides. But beneath the frustration, there were glimpses of real hope, as well as the same commonalities I had heard before. In talking to local leaders, protestors and police officers, I heard the same refrain: “I love my city. And I want to make it better.” They had different ideas about how to achieve that goal, but they all agreed that everyone who called this great city home should be able to live a life of safety, dignity, and opportunity. And everyone I talked to wanted to be a part of making that dream a reality.
Over the next 20 months, we at the Department of Justice have worked in a number of ways to build upon that shared aspiration – that common desire for unity and for peace. Shortly after I returned from Baltimore, I launched a 12-city Community Policing Tour to help advance the national conversation around policing, and to learn what various jurisdictions across the country are doing to find common ground and bridge painful divides. This past summer – after the awful week that saw the tragic deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, followed by the appalling murder of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge – Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and I convened a series of regional Justice Forums to help stakeholders devise concrete solutions to these deeply rooted challenges. And the Justice Department hosted more than 400 events around the country as part of the inaugural National Community Policing Week, which President Obama proclaimed in October in order to draw attention to this critical issue, and to highlight the many ways that municipalities are taking the lead in building trust and forming new partnerships.
All of these efforts reflect our belief that the best ideas about improving community-police relations won’t necessarily come from Washington. Ultimately, it is people like you – the officers and citizens who call a community home – who have the best understanding of its unique challenges and particular needs. One of the best things we can do at the Justice Department is to give your ideas and initiatives a national platform, so that jurisdictions across the country can learn from one another, and so best practices can spread. That is why today, I am proud to announce the publication of a report summarizing what we learned at each stop on my Community Policing Tour, and at each of the regional Justice Forums. Our hope is that the report – which is now available on the department’s website – will serve as a blueprint for other communities to follow, showing them that trust between citizens and police officers can be restored; that every citizen can be protected and respected; and that we all have a stake in stronger and more united neighborhoods. This can happen; I have seen it happen; and it can happen here.
Now, we haven’t just been working with state and local authorities to facilitate dialogue. The Department of Justice has also put significant time, effort, and funding into helping agencies and municipalities adopt the principles set forth in the final report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
Our Office of Community Oriented Policing, or COPS Office – led by Director Ron Davis – gives communities funding to hire more officers. It helps departments take care of their officers by empowering them to cope with the stresses and traumas of their jobs. It equips officers with the tools and resources needed to help them meet 21st Century policing challenges. And it helps train officers to treat every person they encounter with courtesy and respect.
Our Office of Justice Programs – led by Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason – helps departments purchase bulletproof vests and body-worn cameras. It gives local departments funding to improve their data collection and reporting. It sponsors a wide range of programs to expand opportunity, including faith-based initiatives and juvenile justice efforts. And it helps to lead the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, a long-term effort to advance procedural justice, reduce implicit bias, and support reconciliation.
Our Community Relations Service – led by Paul Monteiro – serves as the department’s peacemaker, working on the ground to mediate conflicts and reduce tensions – including here in Baltimore.
And our Civil Rights Division – led by Vanita Gupta – has investigated a number of police departments for engaging in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing. Although time-consuming and challenging for officers, these investigations are often the first step towards lasting change. That has been the case here in Baltimore where, as you know, the Justice Department announced earlier today that we have entered into a court-enforceable consent decree with the city. Although there is still plenty of work to be done in the months and years ahead, I am hopeful that this reform package will create a stronger and safer city for everyone who calls Baltimore home – both officers and citizens alike. The division’s police reform work focuses on addressing systemic breakdowns in community-police trust. In Baltimore and around the country, restoring that trust is essential to advancing public safety.
This is just a snapshot of the work the Department of Justice has done throughout the Obama Administration to address one of the most pressing civil rights issues of our time. I am deeply proud of all that we have accomplished with our federal, state, and local partners to help law enforcement officers and community members see themselves not as adversaries, but as allies.
Of course, that work is far from finished. It cannot be completed by a single department or a single administration. But over the last eight years, we have made a powerful start. We, as a nation, have at long last begun to hear the voices of those who do not feel protected by the police, who feel singled out because of where they live or what they look like. We have at long last begun to understand the unique stresses and dangers that our law enforcement officers face as they work to address violent crime, drug abuse, human trafficking, and so many of the other ills that afflict our communities. We have begun to understand that we all have a role to play in strengthening our communities, reducing crime, and improving trust. In short, we have at long last begun to recognize one another’s common humanity – to see each other as we really are, and not as we assume each other to be. To echo the officers and advocates I met right here in Baltimore, we have begun to realize that we all love our cities and our communities, and we all want to make them safer and better– not just for ourselves, but for our children.
That work is not just a job for the police, or advocates, or elected officials. It is a job for all of us – together. It is only by working together that we can create the kind of society we want to live in, the kind of society envisioned in our founding documents. It is only by working together that we can ensure that every American enjoys equal justice under law. It is only by working together that we can draw nearer to the day when every American – whether they wear the badge or depend upon it for protection – can look forward to coming home safely at the end of the day.
In our day and age, it can be easy to believe that that day is a long way off. It can be easy, amidst the deluge of headlines and tweets, to believe that bitterness and recrimination are overtaking compassion and cooperation. It can be tempting to believe that the cracks in our society are widening, not closing.
But history teaches us that the road of progress has always been strewn with setbacks and obstacles, hardships and pitfalls. It also shows us that times of unrest can spur real change and real progress. What is important is that over the last eight years, we have chosen to start down that road together, as one nation and one people, united by our desire for liberty, our thirst for justice, and our belief in equality. We have started down that road, and as I look out at this outstanding group of public servants, advocates, and citizens – many of you working tirelessly to heal the divisions in this proud city – I see just how far we have come. I see how far we can still go. And I know that we will not turn back.
So let me thank each of you for your dedication and your partnership over the last eight years. Nothing that we have done to advance community policing would be possible without people like you, and I am truly grateful. I want to thank you for the privilege of serving as your Attorney General. And I want you to know that as we continue down the road towards a brighter future, I will continue to stand alongside you, every step of the way. Thank you.