Justice News

Attorney General Sessions Delivers Remarks to the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives
Birmingham, AL
United States
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Friday, March 23, 2018

Remarks as prepared by delivery.

Thank you, Vera, for that kind introduction, and thank you for your decades of loyal service to the people of Texas.  I know that the people of Houston appreciate all that you have done to keep the METRO transit system safe.

On behalf of President Trump, I want to thank all of you for your service.

I want to thank Clarence for his leadership here at NOBLE and for his nearly four decades in law enforcement, as well as Dwayne Crawford for the invitation to join you today.

I also want to thank some notable members of our law enforcement community for being here with us: Acting Director Brandon from ATF, Acting Director Washington from our COPS office, Chief De Lucca of IACP, Richard Myers with the Major Cities Chiefs’, Ronal Serpas, and Chief Ted Cook of Mountain Brook, Alabama, who is also President of the Alabama Association of Chiefs of Police.

I also want to mention one person without whom none of this would be possible: Chief Johnnie Johnson of Birmingham, Alabama.  He was the first black police chief in this city and only its second black police officer.  Of course, he is also a founding member of NOBLE. 

Chief Johnson instituted community policing in Birmingham—going door-to-door, starting a police choir, and playing baseball games.  He told his officers to get to know the community, and “to treat people like they’re somebody.”  That’s good advice for all of us.

And the results were positive: crime went down, and today the Birmingham Police Department is majority African-American.  Chief, you paved the way for that.  Thank you for your service to this city.

I am honored to be here with you all today for the William R. Bracey CEO Symposium.  In the 42 years since Chief Johnnie Johnson and Chief Bracey and several other officers joined together to found NOBLE, this organization has grown into one of the preeminent law enforcement groups in our country.  With nearly 60 chapters representing more than 3,000 members, you continue the critical work of improving community relationships with the police, encouraging the development, hiring, and promotion of black law enforcement officers, and reducing crime in America. Your work was very important in ending the policies that kept the number of black officers too low. I know you take great pride in that progress and look for even more.

This work was important 42 years ago, and it is still important now.  I’m grateful for you – the women and men in this room – who do it faithfully and effectively each day. You have made our Departments better.

I admire NOBLE. The NOBLE people I have met over the years have been people of integrity and professionalism. I was pleased in my first year to be with you in Atlanta. You had a great meeting, and I especially enjoyed meeting and having a good discussion with your leadership team afterwards.

About the same time that NOBLE was founded, I was just starting out as a federal prosecutor in Mobile.  A few years later I was made United States Attorney. 

We were a small office, and I worked closely with many African American police officers and federal agents. I know firsthand the excellence of your work and the unique skills you have. We prosecuted domestic and international fraud schemes, civil rights offenders, violent gang members, and gun carrying criminals. That work made minority communities safer. There is nothing I am more proud of or that was more satisfying than those years of hands on work.

And I know that we could not have succeeded without the help of the 85 percent of law officers who serve at the state and local levels.

You are the thin blue line that stands between good and peaceful people and the criminals that can destroy communities. They put good grocery stores and even fast food places out of business. They drive down home values. They seduce young people into crime. But you protect our families, our communities, and you secure our country from drugs and violence.  And you consistently go above-and-beyond the call of duty to improve the lives of those in your communities.

That spirit of selflessness is exemplified by the women and men of the State Patrols of Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana – the recipients of this year’s “NOBLE President’s Award for Leadership.”  In response to the natural disasters that struck our region in the last few years, these courageous officers have been instrumental in delivering the “Convoy of Care” to thousands of residents along the Gulf Coast. 

I want to thank our award winners for their heroism—and I want to thank NOBLE for holding them up as examples for us all.

When we recognize service, we encourage service.  When we reward excellence, that leads to more excellence.

I know well that there are many unsung heroes wearing a badge in America today. We need to recognize them. 

And that’s why I want to ask your help. 

I am accepting nominations for the Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service in Policing.  I want to invite each of you to nominate officers and deputies for this award whom you think are worthy of that honor.  We want to give them the recognition that they deserve, and we want to encourage others to follow their example.

The Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services – or COPS Office – will administer the award process, and it will be my honor to present the awards later this year.  The deadline for nominations is April 23rd — so it’s coming up very soon.

We need to remember that it was the increased training, professionalism, leadership, and more effective enforcement policies of our departments nationwide and over several decades that has been the critical factor in reversing the dramatic rise in crime that we saw into and through the 1970s. More and more departments correctly teach the importance of community relations.

Over 22 years we saw homicide rates fall by half, youth drug use fall by almost half, and violent crime fall dramatically.  Whole neighborhoods benefitted, especially minority communities. It was an achievement few would have ever expected.

But that progress is in danger, because crime rates started going up again and drug addiction and overdose have skyrocketed.

From 2014 to 2016, the violent crime rate went up by nearly seven percent.  Robberies went up.  Assaults went up nearly 10 percent.  Rape went up by nearly 11 percent.  Murder shot up by more than 20 percent – the largest increase since 1968.

Meanwhile, we have suffered from the deadliest drug epidemic in American history.  Approximately 64,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses in 2016 – the highest drug death toll and the fastest increase in that death toll in American history.

That’s nearly the equivalent of the entire city of Dothan, Alabama, dying from drug overdoses in a single year.

Preliminary data show another—but what appears to be a smaller—increase for 2017.  Amazingly, for Americans under the age of 50, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death.

This epidemic is being driven primarily by opioids – prescription painkillers, heroin, or even synthetic drugs like fentanyl.  In 2016, opioid overdoses killed five times the number from 17 years ago.  Over those 17 years, it is estimated that the opioid crisis cost this country $1 trillion.

By the time I have finished speaking, another American will have died of an opioid overdose, and another baby will be born in the who is physically dependent on opioids.

And this epidemic affects all of us.

From 2010 to 2016, fatal overdoses went up by 55 percent among whites, and more than doubled for African-Americans.

According to the New York Times, fatal overdoses among African-Americans who live in urban counties went up by 41 percent in 2016—the fastest increase of any racial group.

Later today, I will have the opportunity to visit the University of Alabama Birmingham’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.  I’m looking forward to meeting with some of the compassionate doctors, nurses, and social workers there, like Dr. Lorie Harper, Brandi Duke, Donna Purvis, Jody O’Bryant, and so many others.  They do incredible work to help women and children suffering from the effects of drug abuse.

I received a letter recently from the National Black Church Initiative, and they urged me to vigorously prosecute corrupt opioid manufacturers and distributors.  They told me that their churches are feeling overwhelmed in dealing with this crisis.

We filed a supportive statement of interest in the ongoing multidistrict litigation by more than 500 jurisdictions across the country against opioid manufacturers and distributors. Every community in this country is hurting because of the drug epidemic—and every community stands to benefit from ending it.

That’s why we will not stand by and watch violence and addiction rise.  We will not cede one community, one block, or one street corner to violent thugs or poison peddlers.

On Monday, President Trump announced our next steps in this effort. We are also looking at other civil actions against unscrupulous opioid peddlers to hold them accountable for their actions.

He announced his support for a number of new steps we have taken over the past year.  I want to thank him for his leadership on this issue.

He strongly supports our new Prescription Interdiction and Litigation—or PIL—Task Force—which will target the opioid manufacturers and distributors who have contributed to this epidemic.

He strongly supports our Opioid Fraud and Detection Unit—which is a new data analytics program that helps us find evidence of opioid fraud. 

He wants to expand our Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement team—or J-CODE. 

J-CODE coordinates across the FBI’s 120 offices all around the world to target and disrupt the sale of synthetic opioids and other drugs on the darknet.

And he wants federal law enforcement to pursue tough sentences for drug traffickers. And that is exactly what we are going to do. Average federal sentences over the last few years have fallen by 19 percent, while total federal prison populations have fallen by 14 percent.

Drug dealers take lives every day in America.  And as President Trump has said, some career traffickers can take more lives than a mass murderer.

Plain and simple, drug traffickers show no respect for human dignity.  They put their own greed ahead of the safety and even the lives of others.

Drug trafficking spreads addiction and death across our country.  And it is also an inherently violent and deadly business.  If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’t file a lawsuit in court; you collect it with the barrel of a gun.

As surely as night follows day, violence and death follow drug trafficking, and murder is often a tool of drug traffickers.

We will prosecute aggressively drug traffickers.

Our message is clear: business as usual is over. 

We cannot allow drug dealers to walk our streets thinking that they will get away with their crimes or that they will only get a slap on the wrist. A big part of the increase in homicides comes from murder by drug gangs. Tough smart prosecutions will work to reverse trends.

Some laws need to be strengthened, especially where the killer drug fentanyl is concerned, and Congress should strengthen them. 

They can also be sure that we will get results.

We at the Department of Justice are well aware that 85 percent of law enforcement is state, local, and tribal.  And we want to be a force-multiplier for that 85 percent – we want to be a force-multiplier for you.  We are most effective when experienced state and local investigators are paired with the resources, expertise, and trans-jurisdictional reach of our federal law enforcement.

I want to close by reiterating my deep appreciation and profound thanks to you – the law enforcement executives here at NOBLE – as well as all the women and men of law enforcement.  The work that you do is difficult—but it is noble.  It is essential. 

I believe it.  The Department of Justice believes it.  And President Trump believes it.

You can be certain about this: we have your back and you have our thanks.

Updated March 23, 2018