Thank you, [National President] Chuck [Canterbury], for that kind introduction – and for your longstanding and expert leadership of the Fraternal Order of Police. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak with this distinguished group today. It’s a pleasure to stand with so many dedicated public servants, inspiring partners and good friends. And it’s a privilege to talk with you not only about the vital work you’re doing to keep Americans safe, but also about the opportunity we have at this critical moment to strengthen our nation and empower our communities.
Along that note, I would like to say a few words about last evening’s events in Ferguson, Missouri. I strongly condemn the violence against the community, including police officers, in Ferguson. As we have seen over the recent months and years, not only does violence obscure any message of peaceful protest, it places the community, as well as the officers who seek to protect it, in harm’s way.
The weekend’s events were peaceful and promoted a message of reconciliation and healing. But incidents of violence, such as we saw last night, are contrary to both that message, along with everything that all of us, including this group, have worked to achieve over the past year.
But this group has been working on these and so many other issues of national importance, for more than just the last year. Indeed, this is your heritage.
One hundred years ago, two patrol officers here in Pittsburgh – Martin Toole and Delbert Nagle – shared a groundbreaking idea. They believed that by banding together, officers like themselves could elevate the practice of law enforcement, secure and improve the profession and transform it into a more effective means of protecting and defending the communities they love. They recruited 21 of their fellow officers to form a new organization they called Fort Pitt Lodge #1. Out of that meeting came a group; out of that group came an organization; out of that organization came a brotherhood that is now over 300,000 strong. And in the century since their first meeting, Toole and Nagle’s vision has not only improved their profession; it has revolutionized it. By winning legislative reforms, building a network of support for officers in need and instilling confidence in the work we do among the public we serve, Fort Pitt Lodge #1 established a model for the more than 2,100 local lodges that would follow. Today, the Fraternal Order of Police is the largest professional police organization in the nation, with more than 325,000 proud members carrying its banner, expanding its legacy and extending its mission into a second century.
That mission has never been more essential than it is now. As the women and men who patrol our neighborhoods, you serve on the front lines of our fight for national security, identifying and neutralizing threats as they emerge. You tackle new and evolving challenges like cybersecurity and information theft. And you protect the most vulnerable among us, including victims and survivors of human trafficking – individuals caught up in a brutal web of modern-day slavery. In every case and every instance, you serve as defenders of our most cherished values; guardians of men, women and children who need protection; and sentinels holding the line against those who would do them harm.
I want you to know that the Department of Justice is committed to doing all that we can to ensure that you have the tools and resources you need to perform these difficult jobs as effectively – and as safely – as possible. Through our Office of Justice Programs, under the leadership of Assistant Attorney General [Karol] Mason and our Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, led by Director [Ron] Davis, we are engaged in a strong, systematic and sustained approach to officer safety and wellness, from initiatives like the Officer Safety and Wellness Group hosted by the COPS Office and the Bureau of Justice Assistance, to key officer-safety programs like VALOR and the Bulletproof Vest Partnership. We are providing trainings on active-shooter scenarios and ambush-style assaults to enhance law enforcement responses to critical incidents and to minimize the risk to officers. And just this past May, the Department of Justice announced a $20 million Body-Worn Camera Pilot Partnership Program to help address the immediate needs of local and tribal law enforcement organizations as they seek to ensure officer protection and accountability. Some of these programs were initiated by my predecessor, Attorney General Eric Holder. Others began on my watch. Still others were designed by our predecessors in years past. But together, they demonstrate an enduring and ever-deepening commitment to keeping our officers safe and secure, and they deserve our continued investment.
After all, I know very well that this profession – this role of the guardian – carries grave risks and asks you to summon tremendous courage on a daily basis. We saw that just days ago in Memphis, Tennessee, when Officer Sean Bolton, a 33-year-old former Marine, was senselessly gunned down during a roadside encounter that turned violent. And we saw it here in Pittsburgh in 2009 when officers responding to a 911 call were caught in a shootout that left three of them dead and two others wounded. As I think of the families, colleagues and communities devastated by these tragedies and mourn the loss of these American heroes, I think back to one of the first events I took part in as Attorney General – a memorial ceremony for law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. In the company of officers from around the country, I stood at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial and cast my eyes over the 20,000 names etched in its walls. I thought about the brave individuals whose lives were lost in the performance of their duties; in the protection of their communities; and in the service of their country. I grieved for those who fell and the friends and loved ones they left behind – cherished neighbors and colleagues, devoted children and parents, loving husbands and wives. And I considered the work that we must do together to advance the principles for which they gave their lives; to form the more perfect Union they sought to build; and to make this nation worthy of their ultimate sacrifice.
That work has long been underway, but there is more we must do. Recent events in communities across the country have served as stark and tragic reminders of the tensions that exist in too many neighborhoods between law enforcement officers and the people we serve. One year after the tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri, we have yet again seen the consequences for officers and residents when those tensions erupt into unrest and violence. And we know that trust is not just a benefit of good police work – it is essential to its fulfillment. When officers and residents share a foundation of mutual trust and a reservoir of goodwill, residents are more likely to help with investigations; victims and witnesses of crime are more likely to speak up; and all of us in law enforcement are better able to assist community members when they face difficult circumstances.
Bridging the rifts that divide us will take all of our best efforts and cannot rest on the shoulders of law enforcement alone. This is a shared responsibility and includes those of us who prosecute crimes as well as those community leaders and members who represent the communities we all care for deeply. And I am committed to doing my part. Bolstering trust where relationships have frayed is one of my top priorities as Attorney General and I intend to use the full resources of the Department of Justice to support the progress that all Americans need and deserve.
Last September, we launched the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, which is investing in training; developing evidence-based strategies; promoting policy development; and advancing research that will bolster credibility, enhance procedural justice, reduce implicit bias and drive racial reconciliation. In pilot sites across the country – including right here in Pittsburgh – we are working alongside community leaders to develop plans for progress that are tailored to local needs. Our Civil Rights Division is also working productively with police departments across the country to ensure constitutional policing throughout their jurisdictions. And three months ago, I launched a six-city community-policing tour to highlight some of the exciting and innovative work that communities and law enforcement are doing together to promote partnership, shore up trust and improve public safety. I’ve already visited East Haven, Connecticut; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Birmingham, Alabama. In the coming weeks, I’ll travel to Seattle, Washington; and Richmond, California. And later today, I’ll be speaking with individuals here in Pittsburgh – including law enforcement officers, faith leaders, student representatives and community officials – in order to discuss the work this city has done to build the kind of infrastructure of trust, respect and mutual understanding that makes truly extraordinary progress possible.
I know that kind of progress is achievable – because I have seen it happen. When I was in Cincinnati – a city that has experienced real and difficult challenges – I visited an elementary school that brings police officers into third-grade reading classrooms to serve as mentors and tutors to the students. The program has been remarkably effective in establishing close bonds of friendship and respect between the officers and students who are just beginning to chart their own way forward. While I was there, I asked the students if any of them wanted to be a police officer when they got older – and every hand went up. When I asked them why, they told me that police officers keep us safe. They protect people who need protection. They get the bad guys. And then a quiet boy in the back of the classroom raised his hand and said, “Because they are the peacemakers.”
I wish everyone in this country could have witnessed that moment. I want every American to have a chance to know a law enforcement officer as well as those students do. And I want every American to share the appreciation that I have always felt for the incredible work law enforcement officers perform each and every day. That’s why, as this important national conversation unfolds, we need to hear from you. We need your voice because the places that have seen growth and change are places where the police are an integral part of discussion and thought and reform. These are reforms and changes that must be informed by your views, your experience and your expertise.
There is another reason we need your voice. People who look at you and see a uniform and make assumptions – both positive and negative – will always try to tell your story for you. But no one knows your story like you do. No one else can talk about that moment when you have to decide how to defuse a situation, always aware that all may walk away alive or none, including you. You are the ones who must tell the story of policing in this country because this country needs to hear it. People need to hear some of the stories I have already heard, from officers committed to this career because of family honor and tradition, or because they saw young people in their communities going in the wrong direction and wanted to be a role model to help keep others on the right path, or those who take pride in knowing every small business owner on their beat and their families. We need to hear your stories so that you, too, can be truly seen and heard. But most of all we need to hear your stories so that we can say “thank you.” Thank you for always running towards danger, when others are headed in the opposite direction. Thank you for working to maintain the peace when many around you have no peace in their hearts. Thank you for holding our safety in the palm of your hand. Thank you for being the peacemakers.
I know the path forward will not always be easy. But I am convinced that if we forge ahead with the dedication this organization has always shown, we can create the stronger country and more empowered communities that every American deserves. As we assemble here today – in this City of Bridges – let us pledge to build bridges of understanding to every neighborhood and every community; to every citizen and every resident; across every boundary and every division that has for too long separated us from one another. Let us recommit ourselves to carrying out the stated mission of this legendary brotherhood: to support and defend the Constitution; to improve the proficiency of officers in the performance of their responsibilities; to ensure fidelity to duty under all conditions and circumstances; and to more firmly establish the confidence of the public in the service dedicated to its protection.
These are not only the goals of the Fraternal Order of Police – they are a central objective of the Department of Justice. And they are among my highest priorities. As you go forward, I want you to know that the Department of Justice is dedicated – and I am committed – to using every tool, every resource and every strategy that will support your efforts and advance our shared mission. I will never lose sight of the work you do or the difference you make. And I will stay engaged with you not just for now, but for the long term. I promise you that.
Thanks to extraordinary leaders like you, I have no doubt about what we can accomplish together. I am excited about this opportunity to strengthen our country and empower our communities. And I am eager to move forward – together – in the days and months ahead.