Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you, District Attorney [William] Fitzpatrick, for that kind introduction, for your long and distinguished record of service to the people of Onondaga County and for setting a high bar of professional excellence for prosecutors throughout the country. I am grateful for everything that you, Executive Director [Kay] Chopard Cohen and the entire staff of the National District Attorneys Association have done to make this year’s conference possible. It’s a pleasure to welcome you to Washington this afternoon and it’s a privilege to stand with so many law enforcement leaders, dedicated public servants and indispensable partners in our shared and ongoing mission to ensure the safety of our communities and the security of our nation.
For more than 65 years, the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) has provided a strong and unified voice – an essential voice – for local prosecutors in our country’s conversation about law enforcement and criminal justice. By launching the National Center for Community Prosecution, you took on a national leadership role in promoting innovative community prosecution programs that help prevent crime in our neighborhoods – because you know that the seeds of crime are planted long before a case crosses any of our desks. And by training prosecutors to address the urgent challenges of our day – from child exploitation to gang activity and from gun violence to gender-based crimes – you are equipping those who stand on the front lines with the tools they need to keep the American people safe from a wide range of evolving threats.
That is heroic work. That is underappreciated work. And it is vital work. And as a prosecutor myself, I recognize how difficult your jobs are, how time-consuming your duties can be and how many challenges you face on a daily basis. You’ve all chosen to make immense sacrifices for the sake of the people you serve. So I want you to know how grateful I am that you raised your hands, that you put yourselves forward and that you rose to this challenge – because the task of empowering our communities and strengthening our nation has never been more important, nor more consequential.
That’s something I feel deeply in my role as Attorney General and it’s something that animates the wide variety of work performed by my colleagues at the Department of Justice every day. From our first priority of securing the homeland to our intensive efforts to prevent cybercrime, end corruption, eradicate human trafficking and improve relationships between law enforcement and the communities we serve, we are answering the call from all corners of the country to fortify the foundation of justice and opportunity that has always supported the exceptional success and enduring prosperity of our nation. And we are standing with you to make that promise real.
As law enforcement officers, we have an obligation and an opportunity to repair cracks and fissures in that foundation and to preserve the values that make us who we are. That is why protecting the most vulnerable among us – and particularly the victims of human trafficking, one of the most degrading and destructive crimes we see – is among my foremost priorities as Attorney General. Whether it’s forcing people to perform labor in horrific conditions for little or no pay, or selling human beings – including teenagers and children – into sexual servitude, human trafficking amounts to nothing less than modern-day slavery. Human trafficking seeks to disinherit the vulnerable of their essential human dignity and reduce them to a mere commodity, to chattel.
We cannot allow that – not in America. Not in a country that recently celebrated the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 13th Amendment. As a prosecutor in Brooklyn, I brought cases against brutal international traffickers and my work with human trafficking victims over the course of those cases made a profound impression on me. Hearing about the trauma those survivors endured – and observing the extraordinary courage they summoned to pursue justice against their tormentors – are experiences I won’t soon forget and they inform my insistent focus on human trafficking to this day.
Since becoming Attorney General last April, I have overseen the expansion of the Anti-Trafficking Coordination Team Initiative – a highly effective strategy for focusing federal resources on human trafficking cases. The initiative reflects our collaborative and victim-centered approach, which is also exemplified by our partnership with 16 federal agencies to implement the Federal Strategic Action Plan on Services to Victims of Human Trafficking – a landmark plan for bringing federal agencies and NGOs together to assist survivors as they take the first free steps of their new lives. The Justice Department has encouraged a similar victim-centered approach at the local level through our Enhanced Collaborative Model Program, which has distributed tens of millions of dollars in grant funding to municipalities in order to encourage collaboration between law enforcement and victims’ services providers. This past December, the White House introduced the first United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking – a body composed entirely of survivors aiming to ensure that no one is forced to endure what they did and that we learn how best to prevent this crime from those who have been closest to it. And in an effort to raise awareness and inspire action at the state and local levels, as well as within the general public, I was proud to release a video series two weeks ago called “The Faces of Human Trafficking,” which will serve as a resource for law enforcement and the public alike, covering topics like what to look for to identify when human trafficking is taking place and best practices for building survivor-centered cases. You can find the videos, along with a helpful resource guide, on the Office for Victims of Crime’s website at www.ovc.gov.
Through these various efforts, we are aspiring to make anti-trafficking work a priority for law enforcement at all levels – including for all of you gathered here today. That will help us send a powerful and unmistakable message to perpetrators from coast to coast: that they will be found and brought to justice. Even more importantly, when we unite to end this heinous crime, trafficking victims the world over will hear our promise that they are not invisible – they are not alone – and a brighter future is on the way.
Beyond human trafficking, many other issues stand to benefit from our collaboration and commitment – including the alarming and dangerous surge in heroin use we’re seeing in communities throughout the country. I know many of you have witnessed the ravaging effects of heroin in your home districts and it’s something that my colleagues and I are taking very seriously. Not only have we worked with a multi-agency Heroin Task Force to develop a comprehensive plan and allocated additional funding to address the uptick in heroin overdoses, we have also led several major actions recently to disrupt drug cartels and take down heroin traffickers. In one case just last week, we charged 20 individuals for their alleged participation in a Miami-based heroin trafficking network that extended as far north as Illinois and as far west as Texas – and we will continue to investigate and prosecute cases like that one going forward.
In addition, we are working with law enforcement officers on the ground to help them respond when encountering heroin-abuse emergencies in the field. My predecessor, Attorney General Eric Holder, urged law enforcement officers at all levels to consider the life-saving potential of carrying naloxone – a drug that can help restore breathing after a heroin overdose. Following Attorney General Holder’s recommendation, our Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) launched a Law Enforcement Naloxone Toolkit, which serves as an information clearinghouse for law enforcement agencies looking to establish their own naloxone programs.
Equipping police officers with tools like naloxone exemplifies an approach to law enforcement that responds to residents and communities holistically and with care – and which makes clear that we look to police officers not just to tally arrests, but to save lives. It’s the kind of approach that encourages more open dialogue between law enforcement and the communities we serve and it squares with one of my primary objectives as Attorney General: to shore up trust between law enforcement authorities and our constituents wherever that trust has been eroded.
We have all seen, particularly in recent months, the tragic consequences that can result when those fundamental civil bonds are strained. But this is not a new problem. It is an issue generations deep – one that I saw as a prosecutor in New York and one that many of you surely struggle with in your own communities. In fact, I began my tenure as Attorney General the same day that Freddie Gray was buried and riots erupted in Baltimore. And I recognized from the very beginning the deep challenges we were facing. In the following months, I convened a series of community policing roundtables in cities across the country because I wanted to see how some cities had successfully addressed problems that were roiling others and I wanted to draw attention to some of the innovative programs that citizens and law enforcement had created together to cultivate trust, respect and mutual understanding. In each of the communities I visited – Cincinnati, Ohio; Birmingham, Alabama; East Haven, Connecticut; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Seattle, Washington; and Richmond, California – I saw community members and law enforcement officers working together to make real progress. I saw goodwill and good faith creating a space for communication and collaboration. And I saw officers and young people moving beyond long-held assumptions to develop new relationships of trust and admiration.
That’s how I know that real and lasting change is possible and it’s why I am personally committed to doing my part – a commitment shared by my colleagues at the Department of Justice. Through the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, we are pursuing a wide-ranging new approach to training, policy and research that will help to ensure that interactions between officers and residents are positive and mutually supportive. Our Civil Rights Division, led by Vanita Gupta, has worked with a number of police departments to implement constitutional safeguards, creating a blueprint that jurisdictions across the country can adapt and follow. Our Office of Justice Programs, under the direction of Assistant Attorney General [Karol] Mason, is promoting effective law enforcement at the state and local levels with resources like grants, training and technical assistance. And through our Office of Community Oriented Policing Services – under the leadership of Ron Davis – we are helping to hire and train officers; to protect officer safety and wellness; and to assist state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies as they implement the recommendations of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
Our goal of enhancing community-police relations is one component of this administration’s strong emphasis on law enforcement that is smart, fair, collaborative and effective. The success of the Justice Department’s groundbreaking Smart on Crime Initiative, which Attorney General Holder discussed with this group two years ago, set the stage for the moment we’re in now – a moment of rare bipartisan unity in which law enforcement professionals and government officials from across the political spectrum agree that the criminal justice system deserves a hard look; and in which we are all committed to making progress. I am confident that, by working together, we can reduce crime, build community trust and strengthen the core of equality and opportunity that has always been at the heart of this exceptional nation.
Those are goals we all support. They are the impetus for why we do what we do – to protect the weak from the strong. To guard our nation. To do justice. Ours is a noble profession and it is our responsibility to always learn from our experiences and seek to grow in our understanding, our commitment and our ability to bring justice to all those under our protection. We must continue striving to improve our profession, to become better prosecutors and to understand the role we play – and the influence we can have – within the broader criminal justice system. The challenges we face as a nation are daunting – but when I look out across this room, I don’t see fear or uncertainty. I see stamina that will help drive us forward. I see determination that will fuel our progress. And I see leadership that is more than equal to the task we will face together.
I want you to know how proud I am – and how fortunate I feel – to count you as my allies and partners in this crucial work at this pivotal time. I look forward to all that we will achieve on behalf of the American people we are privileged to serve. I am confident that we will succeed in bringing about a safer, stronger and more secure future for generations to come.