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Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein Delivers Remarks at the National Sheriffs Association Annual Conference


Reno, NV
United States

Thank you, Sheriff Champagne, for that kind introduction. I am honored to be here at your annual conference. I am always happy to leave Washington, D.C. for a few hours, especially when I get to spend that time with brave men and women of law enforcement. Thank you for your willingness to protect and to serve.

There is a story about two police officers who pull over a fancy car for a traffic stop. One officer walks to the driver’s side while his partner stands behind the car. As the first officer approaches, the driver rolls down the window and leans out, shaking his fist. “Do you know who I am? Do you know who I am!?” The second officer hears the ruckus and calls out, “Is there a problem here?” And the first officer replies, “Yes, it seems that this fellow doesn’t know who he is.”

Law enforcement officers can never forget who they are. When you take the oath, you are the job. You are never fully off duty. You always represent your agency. You benefit from the reputation earned by people who served before you. Protect it, and encourage others to protect it, too. That requires vigilance, a commitment to truth and justice, and a realization that our own actions, and the conduct of each of our colleagues, affect all of us.

For many citizens, their most significant contacts with the government are contacts with the police. Interactions with law enforcement officers form indelible memories. To them, you are the government. Keep in mind that maintaining public confidence is part of your job. Make sure everybody understands the pride that you take in your work.

Two weeks ago, my 15 year old daughter gave a presentation about North Korea to her 9th grade government class. She focused on the case of Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia college student who allegedly took a poster off a hotel wall and was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. While my daughter was giving her speech, one of her classmates checked his cell phone – they aren’t supposed to do that, but sometimes kids break the rules -- and they learned that Otto had returned home.

But North Korea sent Otto home with brain damage. And last week brought the tragic news about Otto’s death. North Korea will not hold anyone accountable for Otto’s death. It is a totalitarian government with no concept of the rule of law. No civil rights. No due process. No justice. No apology for concealing Otto’s condition from his country and from his family.

My daughter could not believe that a place as evil as North Korea exists in the 21st century. Sometimes people get so caught up complaining about the imperfections in our own system that they fail to appreciate how fortunate we are. But my daughter will not forget. She and her classmates are grateful to live in a country filled with law enforcement officers who obey the rules and protect civilians from harm. People who run toward gunfire so the rest of us can get away safely. People like you.

Your National Sheriff’s Association has a proud history. The NSA was chartered in 1940, and now represents more than 20,000 law enforcement officers. But long before your association existed, the sheriff was already a legendary figure in American history. Sheriffs were essential in bringing law and order to new American territories and states. Their civilizing influence assured settlers that it was safe to bring their families west. Sheriffs kept the peace. Today, more than a century later, the sheriff’s star represents the rule of law.

Some people who wore that star are legends now. Bat Masterson, a close friend of Wyatt Earp, was a sheriff in Ford County, Kansas, during the late 1870s. Pat Garrett was a sheriff in Lincoln County, New Mexico in 1880. He is credited with killing Billy the Kid. Two American presidents served in sheriffs’ offices. Theodore Roosevelt was a deputy sheriff in Billings County, North Dakota, and Grover Cleveland was the elected sheriff in Erie County, New York.

The Andy Griffith Show depicted a supposedly simpler era when officers relied on folksy humor and common sense to outwit backwoods bootleggers and law-breaking city slickers. Sheriff Andy didn’t even carry a gun. That show bears little in common with the realities that you face on the streets today.

Similarly, the Old West image of the sheriff wearing a cowboy hat, and holstering a Colt. 45 single action revolver on his gun belt while riding his white horse to the rescue has mostly vanished into legend.

In the 21st century, sheriffs still ride to the rescue, with all the tools and training of modern law enforcement at the ready to face the challenges of the day. Those challenges are many.

After nearly three decades of decline, violent crime is rising at an alarming rate. In 2015, violent crime increased nationwide by 3%. The murder rate during that same time increased by more than 10%. Some major cities have suffered even larger increases. Baltimore’s murder rate has skyrocketed, with more people killed in the first five months of 2017 than any other year on record. Those numbers represent real victims and families. We cannot afford to sit back and allow the violent crime rate to increase.

The President and Attorney General Sessions have made reducing violent crime a priority. As part of the effort to turn back the tide, the President issued an Executive Order establishing the Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety. The Department of Justice is leading the Task Force, and it is hard at work.

That work included a successful National Summit on Crime Reduction and Public Safety last week in Bethesda, Maryland. The Summit brought together federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement officers, victims’ rights advocates, prosecutors, and academics from 37 different states. The Task Force will incorporate the ideas generated at the Summit into a report that will include a series of recommendations. I expect those recommendations to lead to results.

The White House has further demonstrated its commitment to the fight against violent crime by announcing a budget that calls for hiring 300 new Assistant U.S. Attorneys. Those new federal prosecutors will work in your communities to prosecute dangerous criminals. But, make no mistake, the federal government alone cannot reduce violent crime. This will be a team effort, and the Department of Justice stands ready to fight this worthy battle alongside you.

There are too many places in America where fighting crime is like a game of “whack a mole.” Does anybody know that game? Most children’s games are electronic now, but you still see that one from time to time at arcades. Players use a rubber mallet to hit toy moles that pop up through holes. Each time you hit one, another one pops up in a different place. Then the one you just hit pops up again, in exactly the same place.

Law enforcement should not work that way. When we play by the rules and gather sufficient evidence to convict a dangerous repeat offender, we should be able to rely on the justice system to keep that criminal off the streets. Law enforcement is not a taxi service.

In some American cities, criminals no longer fear the justice system. Those cities are failing in one of government’s most fundamental duties: to keep people safe. The first principle of law enforcement is deterrence. That is what we should strive for. Filling prisons is not our goal. Our goal is to prevent crime.

Deterrence is a very simple concept. You will understand it if you watch how people react to automated speed cameras. Some people ignore speed limit signs. But they slow down right before the cameras. Then they speed up again. The lesson is that laws do not regulate conduct. Enforcement changes conduct. More importantly, the expectation of enforcement deters prohibited conduct.

If we are serious about reducing violent crime, we need to keep violent repeat offenders behind bars, so they cannot do any more harm, and so others will be deterred from following in their footsteps.

Along with violent crime, drug abuse is rising in America, and it is wreaking havoc on our children.

Some people say that we should be more permissive and tolerant about drug abuse. I think we should be more honest about the clear and present threat to America.

If you look at a graph of drug overdose deaths, it is frightening. In 1968, there were 5,000 deaths. In 1990, there were 8,000. The rate was relatively constant as a proportion of the American population for decades. Then it increased more than 500 percent over the next 25 years.

In 2015, more than 52,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses – 1,000 dead every week. To put that in perspective, the United States lost almost the same number of lives in battle during the entire Vietnam War.

The preliminary numbers for 2016 show an increase to almost 60,000 total overdose deaths. That will be the largest annual increase in American history.

For Americans under the age of 50, drug overdoses now are the leading cause of death.

Most overdose deaths are caused by heroin and other opioids. Opioid drugs are causing unprecedented destruction in our communities. More than 33,000 Americans died from heroin, fentanyl and other opioid drugs in 2015. On an average day, 90 Americans will die from an opioid-related overdose. About four people will overdose and die while we sit here this morning. They leave behind parents, spouses, children, and friends.

I know that many of you come face-to-face with this destruction on every shift. In many jurisdictions, law enforcement officers respond to so many overdose calls on a daily basis that Narcan is now as indispensable to their work as handcuffs. As law enforcement officers, you are often the first person on the scene. And, you are all too often the person who bears the burden of delivering the tragic news to a shattered family.

This killer knows no geographic, socioeconomic, or age limits. It strikes city dwellers and farmers, Hollywood stars and homeless veterans, grandparents and unborn grandchildren.

The opioid problem is partly a result of doctors and pharmacies overprescribing and diverting pharmaceutical drugs. Last week, a doctor in New York was arrested for running a pill mill operation. He allegedly distributed 4 million oxycodone and Xanax pills.

Another major cause of the increase in overdose deaths is a synthetic opioid known as fentanyl. Fentanyl is up to 50 times more potent than heroin, and ruthless drug dealers are using it to cut their heroin. It is so powerful that a quantity equal to a few grains of table salt can kill a person. As if that isn’t bad enough, we are now seeing another synthetic opioid known as carfentanil. It is 100 times more potent than fentanyl and 10,000 times more potent than morphine. In fact, it is, literally, designed to tranquilize elephants. It is manufactured in Chinese laboratories, shipped to the United States directly or through Mexico, then mixed with heroin, and sold to people whose lives are destroyed by addiction.

Touching or accidentally inhaling fentanyl or carfentanil can be deadly. Law enforcement officers and paramedics in several jurisdictions have required medical treatment due to inadvertent exposure. Those incidents led the DEA to issue a law enforcement advisory two weeks ago regarding the safe handling of fentanyl. DEA also posted a training video on its website. If you have not read the advisory and watched the video, please do so. And tell your colleagues back home about it.

We must work together to do everything within our collective power to stop people who distribute poison. Success will require sustained and coordinated efforts by all levels of government.

Most federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies are engaged on this issue. You will read more headlines like the one last week from Lubbock, Texas, where a defendant received 135 months—that’s 11 years—in federal prison for conspiring to distribute fentanyl. We will also continue to aggressively prosecute corrupt physicians, like a physician from New York who was recently sentenced to 50 months in federal prison for prescribing large quantities of a highly addictive opioid painkiller without a medical basis.

As part of the effort to reduce violent crime and address the opioid epidemic, the Department of Justice is ramping up immigration enforcement. Securing our border is essential to protecting our national security. It is also essential to preventing MS-13 and other transnational gangs and drug cartels from gaining ground in the United States. We have already made progress. Illegal border crossings have fallen precipitously in recent months, and we are taking steps to ensure that progress continues.

For example, we surged 25 immigration judges to courtrooms along the southwestern border. We will add more judges to the immigration bench over the next two years. The Department temporarily detailed Assistant U.S. Attorneys to border districts where they will help prosecute immigration-related crimes. Our U.S. Attorneys are making those cases a priority.

In addition, the Department of Justice is working with local jurisdictions to make sure they comply with federal law and assist the Department of Homeland Security in carrying out its duty to combat illegal immigration.

These measures will help us to secure the border. And securing the border will make our communities more safe.

Mentioning those specific categories of crime does not diminish the tremendously important work that is being done in other areas. The Department of Justice is unwavering in its commitment to prosecute terrorists, fraudsters, child pornographers, corrupt politicians, civil rights violators, and human traffickers. No matter what the crime, we need your support to fight it. And you will have our support.

Most law enforcement occurs in your agencies, not in mine. The overwhelming majority of American law enforcement officers are state and local. When citizens back home in your communities think about law enforcement, they picture the men and women in this room. They see people like Lt. James Creed of the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Office in Massachusetts.

Last May, Lt. Creed was dining at a local restaurant with his wife when a man began stabbing a waitress and a restaurant patron. Lt. Creed rose to his feet, drew his weapon, and ordered the man to the ground. The suspect instead charged at Lt. Creed with the knife, and the officer shot him. It turned out the man had murdered a woman moments earlier. More innocent people would have died had it not been for Lt. Creed’s heroic actions.

This room is full of heroes like Lt. Creed. I know that every time you pull over a car, execute a search warrant, or respond to a call for service, you put your life on the line. You do that even though you may be afraid, even though you have families of your own at home. I want you to know that the Department of Justice has your back. We are committed to keeping you safe.

Officer safety is a priority for us, as reflected by the President’s Executive Order on Preventing Violence Against Federal, State, Tribal, and Local Law Enforcement Officers. The Executive Order is known as the “Back the Blue Order.” The Justice Department is carrying out that order by working to provide you with additional protection.

We recently joined with the Department of Homeland Security to roll out the National Blue Alert Network. The Blue Alert Network is similar to the Amber Alert Network. Whenever a criminal engages in violence against a law enforcement officer, the new network provides rapid dissemination of information to law enforcement, media, and the public to aid in apprehending the suspect. Members of my staff are meeting with law enforcement agencies to get their input about what more the Department can do to protect officers.

It is essential that our agencies work together. Terrorists, violent gangs, drug cartels, sophisticated fraudsters, and other dangerous criminals are unconcerned with jurisdictional boundaries. So we cannot afford to let boundaries prevent us from catching them.

The Department of Justice and federal law enforcement agencies need to partner with other law enforcement agencies. Perhaps the best example is the joint federal, state, and local task force model. The use of joint task forces increases our crime fighting abilities exponentially. Task forces bring together federal, state, and local law enforcement officers with the goal of sharing resources and information to combat a particular crime problem. There are terrorism task forces, violent crime task forces, drug task forces, fugitive task forces, identity theft task forces, and others. Task forces are resource-multipliers, and they result in thousands of successful prosecutions at the state and federal levels. By sharing information, discussing investigations, and collaborating on strategy, we can combat crime in ways none of us could do alone.

Engaging with state and local law enforcement agencies has been one of the Attorney General’s goals over the past few months. He has visited many states, and he has spent considerable time meeting with law enforcement officers. And, a member of my staff who started his law enforcement career as a deputy sheriff is serving as the Department’s liaison to state and local law enforcement. He is already working with NSA’s Executive Director, as well as the leadership of other law enforcement groups.

Back in Washington, we are busy interviewing candidates for the 93 U.S. Attorney positions. During those interviews, we discuss the importance of the Department’s partnerships with state and local law enforcement. Those partnerships are as important now as ever, given the threats facing our nation.

I want to leave you with one final thought. We are privileged to live in a country governed by a Constitution that protects the rule of law.

And the rule of law is not just about words on paper. It is about the character of the people who enforce the law. As Thomas Jefferson said, “the execution of the laws is more important than the making of them.”

The rule of law is about the traditions that we learned from our trainers and pass on to our trainees. The rule of law is about each of you.

America's sheriffs are on the front lines of the battle against crime today, just as they have been throughout American history. Your fellow citizens trust you to protect their families from harm. The men and women who serve in more than 3,000 sheriff’s offices across the United States do that every day with honor, bravery and devotion to duty.

Thank you for answering the call to public service. It is an honor for me to work with each of you.

Updated December 8, 2017