Remarks as prepared for delivery
Good afternoon, everyone and thank you so much for that warm welcome. I want to thank Congressman [John] Conyers and his staff for inviting me to this event for the second year in a row and for all their hard work in preparing this panel. And of course, I want to recognize Congressman Conyers for his decades of tireless commitment to these crucial issues. I want to thank our distinguished panelists today – including my outstanding colleague Ron Davis, the director of the department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS Office. I want to thank Dr. [Phil] Goff for serving as our moderator and for the outstanding work he and his colleagues do at the Center for Policing Equity. And I want to thank all of you. Looking out over this audience, I see a group of people who not only care deeply about these issues but have lived these issues – many of you in a deep and personal way. I see a group of people who are determined to realize our nation’s fundamental promise of equal justice under the law. In doing so, you are making our country a little stronger, a little more just and a little more perfect and so we all owe you a debt of gratitude.
We are here to discuss one of the defining issues of our time: the relationship between law enforcement officers and the communities we serve – especially communities of color. To say that the relationship between the minority community and law enforcement is a strained one is to utter a profound understatement. I first began speaking on these issues – and in fact uttered that very phrase – in the late 1990s, when I was serving as the United States Attorney in Brooklyn. I had just finished trying a case that encompassed so many of these issues – the Abner Louima case – wherein we prosecuted New York City police officers for their brutal abuse of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, as well as for the cover-up of their crimes. After the trial, I was leading our office’s pattern and practice investigation into the NYPD’s use of force policies.
But I am not the only one in this room who has lived these issues for some time. Someone asked me the other day if I was discouraged when I looked back over recent years. I am not. First, because working on these issues with all of you renews my strength and resolve every day. And also because of where we are today. That may sound counterproductive, as things are so much more visible today. The viral videos of tragic loss of life have dominated our field of vision and are incredibly painful to watch – to none more so than these victims’ families. The rhetoric around these issues can be harsh and divisive. But the very visibility of the problem has allowed us to move past the denials of the past, the refusal to even acknowledge the reality of the issues. We all recall those denials: “It can’t be that bad.” ”You must have misunderstood.” And the one that swirled around the Louima case: “No one would really do that.” But the world has now seen what so many in the minority community have been describing for years. And for so many this moment is reminiscent of the television images of the civil rights movement showing the harsh reality of police dogs lunging at children. It has moved us into a place where all are talking about these issues. And as painful as that is, it is exactly what needs to happen. Because that is the only way that progress happens. And it has allowed us to move beyond proving the point to finding the myriad solutions called for by these challenges. This gathering and this panel are emblematic of that very point.
But while the issues have been illuminated and the debate enlarged like never before, the problems have not been solved. Too many of our fellow Americans still feel unable to call on law enforcement when they feel threatened out of a fear that they will instead be regarded as the threat. Too many of our law enforcement officers – whose goal is to stand as the guardians of all our communities – find themselves rejected, unsupported, even demonized due to the actions of a few. And in too many of our communities, public safety is suffering because of this divide, which blinds us to our common desire for security, for peace and for justice.
That’s why one of my top priorities as Attorney General has been building trust between law enforcement officers and the people we serve. Shortly after taking office, I launched a 12-city community policing tour, which gave me an opportunity to learn about what communities across the country are doing to build bridges and foster cooperation. The six cities I visited during the first phase of my tour had all experienced profoundly challenging police-community relationships. Yet through the concerted and collaborative efforts of community members and law enforcement officials, each of those cities had made important progress towards meaningful change. During the second phase of my tour, I visited six cities that were effectively implementing different “pillars” of the 21st Century Policing Task Force Report – pillars like Building Trust and Legitimacy; Officer Training and Education; and Policy and Oversight. My travels gave me a chance to see a number of innovative and inspiring initiatives underway at the local level: from a program in Cincinnati that puts police officers into local schools as tutors and mentors, to cutting-edge de-escalation training in Phoenix, to a publicly accessible crime information center run by the police department in Fayetteville, North Carolina. At every stop, I sought to draw attention to the positive steps that law enforcement officers and community leaders are already taking in cities across the country, inspiring other municipalities and giving them successful examples to follow.
The Community Policing Tour was a wonderful way to share best practices and to learn about the work being done at the grassroots level. But after our nation was stunned by the tragic events in St. Paul, Baton Rouge and Dallas, it was clear that we needed to do more to help communities implement change and so I announced that the Justice Department would hold a series of regional justice forums. At these events, we bring together local stakeholders to discuss the particular challenges facing their communities and to commit to specific solutions that they can pursue together. We held the inaugural justice forum last month in Detroit – in Congressman Conyers’s district, as a matter of fact – and I was encouraged by the spirit of openness and goodwill that the participants brought to that gathering. I want to thank the Congressman for his support and participation and Deputy Attorney General [Sally] Yates and I look forward to hosting additional meetings in the weeks ahead.
The Department of Justice isn’t just elevating the great work that leaders like you are doing. We’re actively supporting it with funding and technical assistance, as well. In 2014, we launched the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, which uses training, evidence-based strategies and research to enhance procedural justice, encourage racial reconciliation and reduce implicit bias. Dr. Goff has served as one of the initiative’s principal partners and I want to thank him for his dedication to this promising effort. Additionally, Dr. Goff and his colleagues are working with our Civil Rights Division and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on a research project examining how law enforcement agencies– especially smaller police departments – can recruit, hire and retain an officer corps that reflects the diversity of the communities that they serve. Under Ron Davis’s leadership, the COPS Office is supporting jurisdictions working to build trust and expand community engagement. Last year, for instance, COPS awarded more than $120 million to state and local law enforcement agencies that adopted best practices of community policing. And in May, COPS, along with CNA and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, established the Advancing 21st Century Policing Initiative, which will offer intensive support and technical assistance to 15 municipalities who agree to implement recommendations of the President’s Task Force. And our Office of Justice Programs funds a wide range of initiatives that help law enforcement officers operate safely and with greater transparency.
We also stand ready to step in on the ground and in the heat of the moment. Our Community Relations Service helps communities undergoing times of crises or tension by facilitating productive dialogue and finding peaceful resolutions. The COPS Office’s Collaborative Reform program helps police departments identify and address issues that are harming their relationship to the community. And our Civil Rights Division works alongside jurisdictions to implement reforms necessary to advance constitutional policing, thereby enhancing trust and improving public safety. Just last month, the division published the findings of its investigation into the Baltimore Police Department, which found that the BPD has engaged in a pattern or practice of unlawful and unconstitutional conduct. We are working with department leaders and city officials to restore the public’s faith in its law enforcement and we are committed to continuing that vital effort in partnership with them in the days ahead.
This can be done. Common ground does exist. I know it because I’ve seen it. I saw it in Detroit, where I attended a National Night Out event that brought together police and community members to dance, to laugh and to break bread – and helping them realize that we’re not always adversaries and that more often than not, we’re actually neighbors. I saw it in East Haven, Connecticut, where Hispanic citizens and business owners who once literally feared the police now welcome them into their establishments with gratitude and where police officers speak of the fulfilment they find in truly serving their community. And I saw it in Baltimore, where I made my first trip as Attorney General. When I visited, the city was still reeling from the discord that had broken out on the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral – which was also the day I was sworn in to office. But even though tensions were still high, everywhere I went, I heard the same thing from police officers and protestors alike: “I love my city and I want to make it better.”
I love my city and I want to make it better. Could there be a better expression of the ties that bind us together? All of us want to be seen for who we truly are, whether our uniform of choice is baggy pants or dress blues. All of us want to live free from fear and violence. All of us want to raise our children in communities that provide safety and opportunity. And all of us want everyone to come home safely at the end of the day. These are the hopes and dreams that bind us together as fellow Americans and as fellow human beings. These are the goals that we all share as we continue this vital work. And because the hopes we hold in common are stronger than the fault lines that keep us apart – I am confident that we shall overcome these challenges. We shall bring peace to our communities and support to our guardians. And we shall emerge stronger and more united than ever.
Thank you for your tireless efforts to build that brighter future. Thank you for your ongoing work to create a stronger and more just society. And thank you – each of you – for all that you do each and every day for your communities and for our country.