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Attorney General William P. Barr Delivers Remarks at the Major County Sheriffs of America Winter Conference


Washington, DC
United States

Good morning.  Thank you all for traveling to be here today in our nation’s capital.  Grady, thank you for that kind introduction, and, furthermore, for leading this great organization, which serves as a united and powerful voice on many issues of public concern.

It is a tremendous honor to accept the MCSA President’s Award.  The Major County Sheriffs of America are guardians of our nation’s rule of law.  You play a central role in keeping the American people safe.

The Department of Justice has no higher priority than the safety and security of this country.  We can only accomplish that mission through a close partnership with you, our local law enforcement partners.  This administration is dedicated to strengthening our partnerships, enhancing cooperation, and delivering the resources that state, local, and tribal law enforcement need to succeed.                                                     

Each of you has selflessly chosen to devote your lives to law enforcement.  As I have said before, there is no more noble profession in our country today.  

You and your deputies face unprecedented challenges.  Every day, deputies head out on patrol, never knowing precisely what trials they will face.  And the list of assignments we give our deputies and officers keeps getting longer and longer.  We no longer merely ask them to keep us safe – we ask them to manage the fallout from a vast range of social pathologies, such as mental illness, widespread homelessness, and drug abuse.  It is quite a lot to ask men and women trained to protect the public from dangerous criminals to simultaneously do the jobs of social workers and psychiatrists.  Yet our committed law enforcement officers do their best to carry these ever-expanding burdens.

This administration understands that.  Rest assured that we will continue to have your back as we work together to protect the public.

A week ago today, President Trump delivered his third State of the Union Address.  He said there – as he has said many times before – that we need to support the men and women of law enforcement at every level.  Indeed, I think I can safely say that our police officers have no greater champion today than President Trump.  And we all know that, unlike most politicians, when this President promises to do something, he does it.  He loves this country.  He especially loves you, those who strive every day to keep the country safe.

In his State of the Union, President Trump delivered a message of genuine optimism, filled with an unapologetic faith in God, in American greatness, and in the common virtues of the American people: altruism, industriousness, self-reliance, and generosity.

But he also emphasized something I fully believe.  That is that the people cannot enjoy freedom and achieve prosperity without the rule of law to protect them.  And there can be no rule of law without brave deputies and police officers on the front lines upholding it. 

Our shared commitment to the rule of law is central to the Department of Justice initiatives in which many of you participate.  For example, Project Safe Neighborhoods, Operation Relentless Pursuit, and Project Guardian are reducing violent crime across our country.  Together, we are battling gun violence, gangs, and human trafficking.  We are aggressively fighting the drug war.  As the President mentioned last week, we have begun to successfully overcome the opioid epidemic – drug overdose deaths have declined for the first time in nearly three decades.  And we are escalating our fight against methamphetamine.

Last month, we implemented President Trump’s Executive Order directing us to establish the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice.  This is the first commission on law enforcement since President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission in 1965, and I think we can all agree that it is long overdue.  This Commission is bringing together all of the law enforcement community of our country to study the unique challenges facing us today and develop strategies to address them.  I am looking forward to working with the Major County Sheriffs on this important effort.

I know the department’s grant funding provides crucial support to state and local law enforcement.  After I took office, I directed the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) and Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) to implement a series of changes designed to streamline the grant-making process. 

It was brought to my attention that some jurisdictions are foregoing grant opportunities because of onerous application and compliance requirements.  I directed both OJP and COPS to reduce these burdens.  To this end, COPS is decreasing the number of monitoring reports an agency is subject to from quarterly to semi-annually.  And it is my intent that we go to a yearly reporting system.  Additionally, COPS has reduced the length of its grant applications by 40 percent.  More can, and will, be done.

We are trying to be responsive to the field and the feedback we received from our listening sessions conducted by COPS, and the Bureau of Justice Assistance has proven invaluable.  Your comments on violent crime issues, the meth epidemic, and grant application process and its frustrations are being addressed

Lastly, I am aware that the funding a sheriff ultimately receives from our grants is significantly reduced because of state or local government pass-through costs.  I support your request for sheriffs to have access to direct funding, which would alleviate the administrative burdens and costs of the current system. 

Let me turn my attention to two substantial challenges to the rule of law we face today: so-called “sanctuary” jurisdictions and, what I’ve been calling them, rogue DAs, who undermine – rather than advance – our ability to carry out effective law enforcement.

We will only be able to effectively support our over-burdened police and overcome their daunting challenges if federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies trust each other and work together. 

But some state and local politicians have taken the precise opposite approach.  Rather than work together with the federal government to discharge our shared duty, they do everything they can to impede federal law enforcement.  The politicians who have established sanctuary jurisdictions apparently believe it is more important to help criminal aliens evade the law than it is to protect the safety of law-abiding individuals. 

And I want to be clear who I am talking about.  These policies are designed to protect, and do protect, criminal aliens – that is, aliens whom state or local police have arrested for some other state or local crime.

These policies have nothing to do with people who came to this country illegally, but have otherwise tried to be productive and peaceful members of our society.  The very purpose of these policies is to release criminals onto the streets rather than turn them over to federal law enforcement for deportation as federal law requires. 

Americans everywhere bear the cost of such policies.  Innocent people are threatened and hurt by criminal aliens whom local jurisdictions have set free in the face of federal immigration detainers.  Law enforcement officers in the field are put in harm’s way when criminals are freed rather than deported.  And tragically, it is often the very immigrant communities that these policies supposedly protect that are most harmed when criminal aliens are returned to the streets.

These sorts of sanctuary policies also put several of you in an impossible position.  State or local political leaders pass laws or enact policies that forbid you from cooperating with federal law enforcement.  And you are then caught between these misguided rules and your duty to protect your community by turning over criminal aliens to federal law enforcement.

But help is on the way.  We at the Justice Department believe, and are currently arguing in court, that many of the laws and rules in sanctuary jurisdictions are unlawful.  States do not have the power to regulate the presence of aliens in the United States in a way that obstructs Congress’s regulation of aliens. 

The Department of Justice has therefore taken concrete steps to eliminate the dangerous laws and policies in these sanctuary jurisdictions.

  • Foremost, the department sued the State of California to enjoin numerous state laws that attempted to frustrate federal immigration enforcement.  We prevailed on several of our claims in the lower courts, and we are hopeful that the Supreme Court will grant our request to review the remaining issues and side with us against California’s obstructionist policies.
  • The department yesterday filed a complaint against the State of New Jersey seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against its laws that forbid state and local law enforcement from sharing vital information about criminal aliens with DHS.
  • Yesterday, we also filed a complaint seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against King County, Washington – which includes the city of Seattle – for a policy it recently adopted that forbids DHS from deporting aliens from the United States using King County International Airport.
  • We have filed legal briefs in dozens of cases at the federal, state, and local levels to defend the lawful authority of our state and local law enforcement partners to work with DHS.  We filed the most recent of these briefs about two weeks ago to support a case involving Sheriff Robert A. Nolan of Cape May County, New Jersey.
  • We are reviewing the practices, policies, and laws of other jurisdictions across the country.  This includes assessing whether jurisdictions are complying with our criminal laws, in particular the criminal statute that prohibits the harboring or shielding of aliens in the United States.
  • We are supporting DHS in its effort to use all lawful means to obtain the information it needs to carry out its mission.  That includes the use of federal subpoenas to access information about criminal aliens in the custody of uncooperative jurisdictions.  We have taken and will take all appropriate action in federal court to ensure compliance with these federal subpoenas.
  • We have prioritized our discretionary grant programs to give preference to jurisdictions that cooperate with federal immigration enforcement efforts, and the Ninth Circuit has upheld our authority to do so. 
  • We are continuing to fight for our authority to condition certain formula grants upon compliance with all applicable federal laws, including statutes prohibiting states from enacting laws and policies that restrict information sharing with the federal government. 
  • We have made clear to various jurisdictions that public areas of public facilities, like courthouses in states across the country, must be accessible to federal law enforcement officers. 

The Department of Justice will continue to be vigilant and will take action against any jurisdiction that or individual politician who unlawfully obstructs the enforcement of federal immigration law.

Another similar problem is the increasing number of district attorneys who have fashioned for themselves a new role of judge-legislator-prosecutor.  These self-styled “social justice” reformers are refusing to enforce entire categories of law, including law against resisting police officers.  In so doing, these DAs are putting everyone in danger.

Their policies are pushing a number of America’s cities back toward a more dangerous past.  Under the district attorney in Philadelphia, the murder rate in that city is at its highest point in over a decade.  Other cities with these “progressive” DAs – like San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, Chicago, and Baltimore – have all suffered historic levels of homicide and other violent crime.  This is while crime nationwide, generally, is going down.

The policies of these DAs strike at the very root of our law enforcement system.  Our system is based on graduated response, where we impose increasingly severe punishments based on an individual’s criminal history.  This means we have to have accurate criminal histories if we are going to be able to protect the community.  Even if we are going to treat early, and petty offenses leniently, we still need them charged and recorded so we know who we are dealing with as time goes by.  Our whole system is undermined by the practice of ignoring whole categories of criminal offenses.

The policies of these DAs also sabotage the effectiveness of community policing and “precision” policing, which depend heavily on obtaining information from members of the community.  When DAs engage in catch-and-release and revolving-door policies, people in the neighborhood who might otherwise provide information are scared to come forward.  These innocent people are rightly worried that the offender will be right back out on the street in a position to do them harm.  In some jurisdictions we are already seeing effective policing – that has taken decades of painstaking work to build – being dramatically undermined.  Just in New York the other day, there was the case involving the MS-13 member who was released.  A member of the community provided evidence, and was killed by an MS-13 member who was released under new legal reforms in New York state.

These DAs think they are helping people, but they end up hurting them.  These policies actually lead to greater criminality.  Not always, but often enough, early intervention can help – with young people, in particular.  By allowing young lawbreakers entirely off the hook the first time – or the second time or even the third time – these DAs are potentially placing them on a conveyor to further and heightened criminality, which puts them at greater peril – both on the street from other criminals and from law enforcement when these young offenders graduate from petty to serious offenses, as many will if there is no intervention early on.

We have seen these policies before.  They reigned supreme at the state level from the 1960s to the early 1990s.  During this time, violent crime rates tripled in our country.  They peaked in 1991 and 1992.  By that time, the country had had enough.  Following the lead of the policies of the Reagan, H.W. Bush administrations, the states started to make their systems tougher on crime.

We understood that because crime, particularly violent crime, is committed by a small segment of our population, repeat offenders need to be taken off the streets.  Federal, state, and local law enforcement formed a strong partnership to get these violent offenders off our streets and keep them off.

We had tremendous success.  Since 1992, violent crime was cut in half nationwide.  It went up a bit in the last two years of the Obama administration, but since the beginning of the Trump administration, we have succeeded in pushing it back down.  We cannot allow all our hard work over the last 30 years to be undone by the wrong-headed policies of these so-called “reform” DAs. 

We have to strengthen our partnership and stand together as never before.  We have to be a strong voice for sensible law enforcement policies that protect our communities from violent predators.  Our freedom depends on our ability to preserve the rule of law.  I thank you, the department thanks you, and the American people thank you for dedicating your lives to defending it.

I appreciate this Award, and that you have shared your time with me today, and I eagerly look forward to pushing ahead together in the name of justice.

Updated February 11, 2020