Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you, Chief [Terence] Cunningham, for that kind introduction; for your exemplary service as Chief of the Wellesley Police Department; and for your outstanding leadership of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). I also want to thank Vince Talucci and all of the IACP’s executive officers for their work on behalf of our nation’s law enforcement personnel. I want to acknowledge my friend and colleague Jürgen Stock, the Secretary General of Interpol, which has been a critical partner to the Department of Justice on a number of vital issues, from cybersecurity to human trafficking. And of course, I want to thank all of you, the dedicated men and women who wear the badge. You are the backbone not only of the IACP, but of the communities you serve throughout the United States. Each and every day, you and your colleagues offer your lives for ours to keep us safe and I am so grateful for your courage, your commitment and your selflessness. On countless days and in countless ways, you make real the commitment that is bone deep in all of you – to protect and to serve. Please know that you have a staunch ally and a willing partner in this Department of Justice.
It is a privilege to join you for the 123rd annual gathering of the IACP. As the world’s oldest and largest association of police executives, you provide vital leadership in maintaining high standards, advancing new policies and promoting best practices in the law enforcement field. That is not an easy role to play, especially now, when policing issues have come to rest at the heart of so many points of contention in our society. Leadership – particularly in these times and on these issues – places you at the center of controversy. It opens you to criticism. It requires you to take risks. But without courageous leadership, we cannot create positive change and the IACP should take immense pride in its willingness to always stand in the vanguard. That was true when you were founded in 1893 and it is no less true today, as you engage with the work of our time: the work of improving relationships between law enforcement officers and the communities we serve.
Every day, brave officers like you serve your communities with honor, integrity and distinction. I have seen your outstanding efforts firsthand. During my time as a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, I worked side-by-side with dedicated members of the rank and file. As Attorney General, I have had the privilege of traveling all over the country to talk to you at roll calls, to listen to your suggestions and ideas and to personally thank you for your service. Whether I was in Orlando, after the shooting at the Pulse Nightclub, in Baton Rouge at the memorial service for the officers who were taken from us too soon, or in Newark, where I met with the officers who risked their own safety to arrest a man suspected of setting off bombs in New York and New Jersey, one thing has always stood out to me. Your dedication never wavers. Your courage never fails, despite the very real dangers that you face. I have written too many letters to the loved ones of officers who gave their lives in the line of duty – officers like Lesley Zerebny and Jose Gilbert Vega, who were taken from us in a callous act of violence earlier this month in Palm Springs, not far from where we gather today. There is no question that the American people owe their law enforcement officers a debt of gratitude that can never be fully repaid. And so let me take this opportunity, as an American and as the Attorney General of the United States, to say thank you for all you do.
What’s more, your jobs are becoming more challenging by the day. The circumstances in which you do them are changing rapidly. Today, law enforcement is asked to do more than ever in our communities. We call upon you to respond to so many of the issues facing our communities today, from homelessness to drug addiction – issues that often fall outside traditional definitions of law enforcement. You may be asked to enforce laws you may not agree with, or enact policies you might not like. And through all of that, you are often the only face of government in your communities and when citizens are frustrated or angry at their government, that anger and frustration lands on you.
These challenges are just some of the reasons why it is more important than ever to have positive relationships with the communities we serve. But in many communities – especially communities of color – the bonds of trust between citizens and police have been frayed. And although this issue is as old as America itself, deeply rooted in our history’s long and painful history of racial tension, the latest iterations are as recent as the evening news. I know that this places exceptional pressures on you, the men and women who wear the uniform. But I also know that across the country, you and your colleagues are rising to the challenges before you.
My first day on the job – the day I was sworn in as Attorney General – was the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral – the day that violence and unrest erupted in Baltimore. In considering how to respond, I looked to the field – I looked to you. Shortly after taking office, I embarked on a 12-city Community Policing Tour in order to learn about what communities across the country are doing to surmount difficult pasts and to build brighter futures. In phase one of the tour, I traveled to six cities taking courageous steps to overcome histories of troubled community-police relations. And in phase two, I visited six cities that were doing exceptional work implementing the six pillars identified in the final report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Everywhere I went, I saw law enforcement and communities coming together to improve life for all their residents. I saw citizens and law enforcement replacing stereotypes and suspicion with understanding and outreach. And I saw proof that we are not fated to accept divisions between communities and police. I saw proof that if we can summon the will, we can begin to close the fault lines in our society.
I have been moved and inspired by the great work that is happening around this country. And it is not just happening in the field – the work that IACP is doing to restore trust and improve cooperation is important because it provides guidance and support. Through programs like the Institute for Community-Police Relations, which the Department of Justice is proud to help fund, you are helping bridge painful divides and close harmful rifts. You are making clear that law enforcement officers are not separate from the communities they serve, but integral to them. And you are doing your part to realize the promises that define our country – the promises of liberty, justice and equality for all.
The Department of Justice – and the entire Obama Administration – is lending its full support to that vital endeavor. Our roadmap is the final report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which was released last year. Among many other recommendations, the report called for better data on all officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths. This information is essential to an informed and productive dialogue about policing practices, and on Friday, I was proud to announce that the Justice Department is taking a number of steps to enable the nationwide collection of use-of-force data. Most notably, the FBI announced its National Use-of-Force Data Collection program in the Federal Register and the Bureau of Justice Statistics issued a proposal for collecting death-in-custody data from state and local agencies. These are preliminary actions, but their significance is unmistakable. They represent the framework for initiatives that will allow all of us to gain what we have sorely lacked: an accurate picture of what is actually happening out in the field. Better information helps everyone. But it is hard work to put something like this together. And we could not have done this work without you. I know we have only come this far because of the leadership of our state and local partners; many of you in this room worked with the FBI to create its collection portal. Your work will make a difference, and in the days ahead, I hope we will continue to work together as we develop these systems.
The department’s data initiatives exemplify our commitment to implementing the task force’s recommendations in our own work. But the real impact of community policing is felt at the local level, which is why we are working in a number of ways to help local agencies adapt best practices of community policing in their jurisdictions. IACP has been a valued partner in that effort, especially through the Initiative to Advance 21st Century Policing. This groundbreaking program – a partnership between IACP, CNA and the department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS Office – gives 15 jurisdictions expert guidance and hands-on assistance as they implement task force recommendations. Together, we are creating a series of model districts that other municipalities can learn from and I want to thank you for your critical support of this promising venture.
Partnerships with groups like IACP are just one way that we are working with local authorities to improve community-police relations. When tensions erupt into unrest – as they did last month in Charlotte, North Carolina – our Community Relations Service sends mediators to help ease tensions and facilitate dialogue, giving communities the space they need to begin the healing process. Through our collaborative reform process, we work with police departments nationwide who seek policy assistance as well as the latest in training and assistance. When there are indications that residents’ rights are being systematically violated, our Civil Rights Division stands ready to investigate patterns of unlawful police practices, including claims of bias and discrimination. And, when necessary, the division is prepared to seek court-enforceable consent decrees like those that we have reached with the police departments in Ferguson, Newark, and Cleveland. In all of these scenarios, our goal is to work alongside departments to guarantee the constitutional policing practices that are so essential to community trust, to effective law enforcement and to the safety of citizens and officers alike.
Of course, in order for you to do your jobs as safely and effectively as possible, you must have access to the best tools and training available. We’re helping you do that in a number of ways – from giving you the funds to hire additional officers through our COPS Office, to helping you purchase bulletproof vests through our Office of Justice Programs. Providing you with these resources has never been more important – because law enforcement has never been asked to meet so many challenges. I know that one of the challenges you are increasingly asked to address is people with untreated mental illness, a difficult issue that law enforcement officers raised at every stop on my Community Policing Tour. Without the proper training, encounters between officers and individuals in mental health crisis can quickly become dangerous for everyone involved and we have to do more to help you respond.
Obviously, that begins with improving services for individuals in need of specialized care. Mental illness is first and foremost a public health issue, not a law enforcement issue and the Obama Administration has taken a number of steps to expand access to the mental health treatment and services. As part of our commitment to helping you address this growing challenge, I am proud to announce that today, our Bureau of Justice Assistance has launched an online Police-Mental Health Collaboration Toolkit, available through the department’s website. This toolkit is designed to be a one-stop learning center to help departments craft comprehensive responses, offering guidance on everything from building relationships with behavioral health agencies to educating officers to be safe in encounters with people in mental health crisis. We are launching this toolkit today in coordination with IACP’s groundbreaking “One Mind” campaign, which asks law enforcement agencies to pledge partnership with mental health agencies and to ramp up crisis intervention training within their ranks. Once again, we have turned to you, and I am hopeful that together, our efforts will improve officer safety and bolster law enforcement’s capacity to get individuals with mental illness the help they need and deserve.
Your “One Mind” campaign is a perfect example of the kind of innovative partnerships that are at the very core of community policing. Such partnerships enable more effective responses to the challenges of our time – not only crime, but also poverty, health, education and employment. They foster an understanding that public safety is the responsibility of all the members of a community – not just those who wear the badge. And above all, these partnerships remind us that a community is defined by so much more than geography. They remind us that we share the same desire for peace, the same yearning for justice and the same hope that our children will enjoy lives of safety and prosperity. These are the aspirations that unite us and I know – because I have seen them – that they are so much stronger than the disagreements that divide us.
My challenge to you this morning is to continue building partnerships. Seek collaboration not just with the Department of Justice; not just with other law enforcement agencies; but with any groups that can help you build a stronger and more united community. From doctors to religious leaders, from employers to housing developers, and from schools to civil rights organizations, the opportunity for cooperation – and the potential for progress – is enormous. Mutual agreement may not be the first thing that occurs. Mutual trust will have to be earned. But we can only find the right approach – we can only build trust – by working together. Reaching out, forging coalitions, and finding common ground: that’s what leaders do – and if there is anything that IACP has demonstrated throughout your proud history, it is that this is an organization of leaders.
I want to thank each and every one of you for the leadership that you show in your communities each and every day. Thank you for your courage, your dedication, and your valor. Keep working to empower your communities – and know that the Department of Justice will continue to stand beside you at every step of the way. Thank you.