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Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein Delivers Remarks at the Chicago Crime Commission Annual Stars of Distinction Awards Dinner


Chicago, IL
United States

Thank you, Rob for that kind introduction. 

The Chicago Crime Commission unites private citizens and law enforcement in a great partnership that has battled crime in Chicago for almost a century. It is a pleasure to celebrate this pioneering and historic crime-fighting organization and to honor your award recipients. 

I am also honored to be here because my personal philosophy about fighting crime is based on a case prosecuted here in Chicago almost 90 years ago.

“The Stars of Distinction Awards” is an appropriate name for this event. In this room, there are more than 500 men and women united in our common cause – defending the rule of law and protecting people from harm. 

Let us take the opportunity tonight to rededicate ourselves to the nonpartisan principles of law enforcement.

When I walk the stately hallways of the Justice Department’s headquarters, I am reminded that giants of the law like Attorneys General Robert Jackson and Edward Levi once walked the same halls. They confronted the challenges of their era in the same rooms where Attorney General Sessions and I deal with the issues of our time. Their portraits hang proudly in my conference room. That is a source of comfort and inspiration.

Of course, it is not just the famous Department leaders who inspire me. My heroes include men and women who never ascended to leadership positions, but who demonstrate a steadfast commitment to the rule of law.

Priorities change, but the principles of the Department of Justice are timeless. We will defend those principles, and we will pass them on to future generations.

I am always happy to get away from Washington for a few hours to visit America beyond the D.C. Beltway. But I know that Chicago is suspicious of outsiders. 

Former Chicago Congressman Abner Mikva once told a story about that local tradition.

Mikva visited a ward committeeman to volunteer in an election campaign. 

Mikva walked in and said, “I want to help.”

The committeeman said, “Who sent you?”

“Nobody,” Mikva replied.

The committeeman said, “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”

Then he added, “And by the way, we ain’t got no jobs.” 

Mikva explained that he wasn’t looking for a job. The man responded, “Well, we don’t want nobody that don’t want a job.”

Mikva persisted. He said, “But I’m from the University of Chicago!” 

The man said, “We don’t want nobody from the University of Chicago.”

Now, ladies and gentlemen, I need to apologize because … nobody sent me. 

As President Reagan once joked, I am from Washington, and I’m here to help!

But I am not really from Washington. Over the past two decades, I worked there for only four years. I grew up in Pennsylvania, and I spent 16 of the past 20 years working in Maryland.

I spent today in Chicago for a reason.

Chicago is famous for its beautiful lakefront, architecture and skyscrapers, and its museums, restaurants, and other attractions. Your city has one of the world’s great research universities. Chicago is also renowned for its Mid-Western candor.  

More than 100 years ago, when the Prince of Wales visited Chicago, Mayor “Long John” Wentworth did not stand on ceremony.  Wentworth took the Prince to the Tremont Hotel, and he introduced his local cronies and supporters.

The mayor said, “Boys, this is the Prince.  Prince, these are the boys.” 

Last night I met with the leadership of the Crime Commission.  We had a frank conversation, and I learned from them.

I am going to be frank with you tonight, because lives are at stake.

My morning began with a visit to Englewood, one of Chicago’s historically challenged communities.  That is a politically correct way to describe a high-crime neighborhood.

At the 7th District on West 63rd Street, I met with Chicago Police Department officers.  Then I met with federal ATF agents.  I spent much of the afternoon at the U.S. Attorney’s office, where I met with supervisors, prosecutors, and staff.  Then I visited with local leaders of our federal law enforcement agencies, and with local police chiefs and sheriffs.

It was a full day. I relished the opportunity to talk with those dedicated professionals.  They taught me a few things. And I took the opportunity to thank them for the professionalism and dedication that they bring to their work.

Before tonight’s awards dinner, I visited with students at the John Marshall Law School.  I participated in a fireside chat at the school. Then I enjoyed a lengthy question-and-answer session with the students. 

I have not answered so many questions since my last congressional hearing.

One of my favorite facts about Illinois is that Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous “House Divided” speech in Springfield in June of 1858. Lincoln said that “[i]f we could first know where we are, and [where] we are [heading], we could then judge better what to do, and how to do it.”

I think we all know where we are. Chicago is one of America’s greatest cities. But it has a serious crime problem. This city is afflicted with gangs, drugs, violent crime, shootings, and murder.  

We could spend hours debating about the root causes; the historical circumstances that impel people to commit crimes.

Some causes are rooted immutably in human nature, while others stem from societal influences and can be changed over time. But we do not have the luxury of time to stop the killers who plague our neighborhoods.

In the first few decades after its creation in 1919, the Chicago Crime Commission battled bootleggers, gangs, and public corruption.  It famously named Al Capone as Public Enemy Number One, which inspired the FBI to create its Ten Most Wanted List.

The challenges Chicago faces today demand a similar approach. In 2016, more than 4,300 Chicagoans were shot, and 760 were killed.  On average, one person was shot every two hours, and two people were killed every day. 

This year, with more than 600 homicides so far, Chicago is on track to report the second-highest murder total this century.

Over the 4th of July holiday weekend, more than 100 Chicagoans were shot and at least 15 were killed.

Gang violence accounts for the majority of the shootings and killings.  Most of the violence relates to drug trafficking.  Gang members do not just kill each other. The also murder innocent bystanders – men, women, and even children.

I mentioned earlier that I have a particular interest in a Chicago case from almost a century ago. It arose following the most notorious Chicago gang murder in history, known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. In 1929, seven victims were lined up against a wall and shot with machine guns. The sensational crime shocked the city and provoked a public outcry to crack down on crime.

One victim was still alive when the police arrived. Despite 14 bullet wounds, the bleeding gangster obstinately lied. Who knows what he said?

I will give you a hint. He was from Chicago.

He said, “Nobody shot me.”

Now, the police could not arrest “nobody” for murder.

So Eliot Ness and his allies sent Capone to prison for a more readily provable crime – tax evasion.

Attorney General Robert Kennedy adopted a similar approach in 1961, when he counseled agents to fight organized crime with all available tools, even if it required prosecuting gangsters for minor offenses.

In this century, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered prosecutors to disrupt terrorist plots by pursuing any lawful charges to put suspects behind bars before they carry out their murderous plans.

The lesson of Ness, Kennedy and Ashcroft informs my approach to violent crime. The lesson is that if we really want to save lives, we must have the courage to order our law enforcement agencies to employ proactive policing.

To prevent crime, you need to identify killers and remove them from the community before they strike again.

I support education, job-training, rehabilitation, and other efforts to teach people not to commit crimes.

But  for police and prosecutors, our unique power is the ability to send people to prison. The challenge is to focus on the right people and to make it count.

Local police agencies spend much of their time reacting to emergency calls and investigating past crimes, but they convict only a fraction of the perpetrators.

During my briefings with the leaders of the Chicago Police Department this morning, I learned that Chicago is now working to drive down violent crime through proactive policing. We know that proactive policing works.

Proactive police and prosecutors identify violent repeat offenders, then they commit the resources needed to gather evidence of any readily prosecutable crimes.

Targeting dangerous repeat offenders for proactive enforcement is not a "zero tolerance" strategy of arresting random people for minor offenses.

It is a thoughtful strategy of identifying the career criminals and gangs that are fomenting violence in our communities, and using constitutional policing to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate them.

For twelve years, I commuted 40 miles each way from Bethesda to Baltimore, mostly on Interstate 95. The speed limit is 65 miles per hour. Some people take that as a suggestion. They know the enforcement strategy.

During those long drives, I sometimes thought about how well traffic laws illustrate the mission of law enforcement.

Speed limit signs deter law-abiding people. If the rules are clear, most people obey them out of a sense of duty and honor.

But some people are not deterred by rules. If we announce a speed limit, but we do not enforce it, then law-breakers always get ahead of law-abiding people.

What if we post a speed camera? A speed camera deters many law-breakers. They slow down as they approach the camera. Then they speed up again. It is not a complete solution. Nonetheless, it does illustrate deterrence.

But some people do not bother to slow down at all. Those people are thinking one of two things. Either they do not believe the government will enforce the penalty, or they calculate that the likely benefit of breaking the rule outweighs the potential penalty.

The lesson is that deterrence requires enforcement andrules that matter to criminals are the ones that carry expected penalties the criminals are unwilling to pay.

Deterrence is about fear of consequences. We want criminals to fear the police and the consequences of committing crimes. If dangerous criminals are not afraid, then law-abiding citizens are in jeopardy.

When we see a surge in violent crime that follows a dramatic disruption in policing, as happened in Baltimore and Chicago, it is obvious that there is a lapse in the deterrent effect of law enforcement.

The debate about what caused the recent lapse in deterrence will endure, as will efforts to remedy root causes and improve relationships between police officers and residents of crime-ridden neighborhoods.

In the meantime, the crime surge can be suppressed if law enforcement agencies work together to secure lengthy sentences for armed felons, build proactive drug and conspiracy cases against members of gangs that foment violence, and prosecute dangerous offenders who violate probation or parole conditions.

I saw that approach work in Baltimore from 2007 to 2014. Both shootings and arrests fell dramatically. It can work again.

The first and most important job of government is to secure the rights of its citizens.  The preamble of our Constitution affirms that government exists “to establish justice” and to “ensure domestic tranquility.”

We cannot enjoy liberty and pursue happiness unless we are safe on our streets and in our homes.  We cannot exercise our right to free speech, our right to assembly, or our right to worship, if we are afraid to leave the house.  

If a parent cannot send her child out the front door to walk to school without fear that he will be will recruited by gangs, preyed upon by drug dealers, or shot to death, government has failed that parent.

I view a lot of homicide maps. When you zoom in, you can see dots, and each dot indicates a murder victim. But when you zoom out, you see something different. You see blobs made up of many dots, because most shootings and killings happen in a few struggling neighborhoods.

We must never give up on the people who live in those communities.  The majority of the residents are not violent people.  They struggle every day to survive the violence that surrounds them. 

They are our people, and it is our duty to protect them.

Every city should be a sanctuary, a place where America’s citizens and invited guests live in peace and unafraid.

April 26 was my final day as U.S. Attorney in Maryland. Before I headed to Washington to be sworn in to my new job that morning, I met with a woman named Nina Epps.  There is a street in Baltimore named for her daughter, McKenzie Elliott.

McKenzie was shot and killed on the front porch of her home.  She was three years old.

McKenzie’s murder went unsolved for a long time. Then federal prosecutors and agents joined with local authorities to help.  We caught the alleged killer and six fellow gang members and charged them with a federal conspiracy that included drug-related offenses. 

I took a poster with McKenzie’s photo to Washington as a reminder that lives are at stake.  We need the courage to be serious about violent crime, so we can stop naming streets after murdered children. 

Several months ago, a six-year-old boy in St. Louis named Jeffrey Laney recorded a heartbreaking video, after his cousin was shot and killed outside a school.

Jeffrey said, “I’m really scared for my family to die  . . . I’m a kid . . . I’m not supposed to be knowing about all these guns.  I know about bad stuff I shouldn’t know about.  I’m supposed to be learning about school.”

Jeffrey’s advice was simple: “Just act good!”

Unfortunately, some people will not act good.  The national violent crime rate rose nearly seven percent over the past two years.  The homicide rate increased more than 20 percent. 

Proactive policing can help reverse that trend.

Many of you work for private sector and civic organizations. We know that police and prosecutors cannot defeat violent crime alone.  Partnerships with churches, business leaders, the media, community organizations, victim advocates, and crime policy experts are all valuable to the effort.

The Department of Justice has an important role to play, in collaboration with state, local and tribal partners.  In February, President Trump issued an executive order that charged the Department of Justice to lead a national effort to reduce violent crime. The president directed the Attorney General to establish a Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety.  I chair that Task Force, which includes the relevant components of the Department of Justice.

In June, the Department of Justice created the Chicago gun crime strike force.  Attorney General Sessions announced that we would send 20 additional ATF agents to Chicago, reallocate federal prosecutors and prioritize prosecutions to reduce gun violence, and work with our local law enforcement partners to stop lawlessness.  

Today, I visited the Chicago ATF office to meet the 20 new ATF agents who already are working with police detectives to target violent criminals. Our ATF supervisor, Celinez Nunez, brings tremendous talent, energy and enthusiasm.

ATF is using the most advanced technology here in Chicago to trace bullet casings, mine the internet for clues, and partner with local and federal agencies to identify Chicago’s most violent offenders and send them to federal prison.

The Attorney General also announced the creation of the National Public Safety Partnership to combat violent crime, and we hosted a National Summit on Crime Reduction and Public Safety.

The Attorney General established a new charging policy that authorizes prosecutors to charge defendants with the most serious offense.  It is not really a new policy; it is a return to the policy that worked when crime was falling.

We also reinvigorated Project Safe Neighborhoods, by improving and updating the original program that was first launched in 2001.  PSN is the centerpiece of our efforts. It is a nationwide strategy to reduce gun crime by tasking our United States Attorneys to work cooperatively with our partners and use all available tools to make our streets safe again.

We also are hiring additional federal prosecutors to focus on violent crime.

More police officers will patrol the streets with COPS hiring grants. The Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Forces helps implement a National Gang Strategy Initiative.  We offer training and technical assistance to state and local partners, and we collaborate with local law enforcement and exchange best practices.

There are many other things that we do to help reduce crime, but I want to conclude by talking about one of the most important.

We fight crime by promoting respect for the police.

We need police to serve as role models. Contacts with the police create indelible memories in the minds of citizens.  Police have a special responsibility to follow ethical and professional standards.

And citizens should show respect for law enforcement.  There is no excuse for people to harass law enforcement officers.

Policing is a tough job. Police rarely deliver good news. Officers do not stop motorists to congratulate them for obeying traffic laws, and nobody calls 911 to report that everything is OK. 

But when danger lurks or tragedy strikes, people hope to find a police officer nearby.  Officers risk their lives every day to protect the rest us.  When there is danger, they run toward it.

As in any profession, there are some police officers who commit crimes. One of the last cases that I prosecuted as U.S. Attorney was against seven Baltimore police officers for abusing their power.  Cases like that are extremely important. 

But I know from personal experience that most police officers are honorable people who try to do the right thing.

Every day, all across America, honest police officers put on the uniform and the badge. They are men and women of every race, religion and ethnicity. They say goodbye to their families and take they risk that they might never come home. Sometimes they do not.

Yesterday afternoon in Baltimore, a homicide detective who worked closely with my office was shot in the head and passed away this afternoon. So today, we are praying for Sean Suiter's family and the Baltimore Police Department. But prayer is not enough.

The Baltimore City mayor admits that crime is “out of control.” If that is true, people should be held accountable. Crime is not like the weather. If crime is out of control, it is because people failed to control it.

In Baltimore, local authorities lost confidence in their ability to manage public safety, the most important function of government.

Here in Chicago, Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson understands that a consent decree is not a crime strategy. He measures his success by the crime rate.  

Chicago Police are still burdened by the requirement that they spend up to 45 minutes filling out a form every time they make a routine investigative stop. People who impose those requirements may be well-intentioned, but they usually fail to weigh the benefit of more bureaucracy against the cost of human lives lost to criminals who now are not stopped.

Fortunately, Superintendent Johnson’s police commanders are working to overcome their hurdles and give officers the tools and support they need to fight crime.

Those tools include crime cameras, crime-mapping and predictive patrolling. I saw those tools demonstrated this morning at the Chicago Police Department’s Seventh District, where Commander Kenny Johnson and his crime analysts hold daily strategy meetings to decide where to assign patrol officers. They also run weekly shooting reviews attended by both state and federal prosecutors.

I also learned this morning that Chicago police data reports show that drug arrests lead to violent crime reductions. 

That is just a fact. As John Adams famously said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of the facts and evidence.”

It is good to see police leaders who are stubborn about facts.   Superintendent Johnson’s police officers do not mindlessly make mass drug arrests. They arrest drug dealers who disrupt neighborhoods and foment violence. They do exactly what Ness, Kennedy and Ashcroft did.

They do their job. They fight crime.

Before I conclude, I want to thank the Chicago Crime Commission.  Your organization is a model of what a nonpartisan, anticrime organization should be.  For almost a century, you have worked to make Chicago a better and safer place by serving as a watchdog, educator, and enemy of public corruption, organized crime, violence, and gangs.

Because your organization is private, you can help hold government accountable through constructive criticism.

You also can help government work better. Your book about Chicago gangs documents gang culture, practices, and leadership. It includes an illustrated catalog that decodes the tattoos, signals, tagging, social media and even the music of gang life. 

I also congratulate you on your successful anonymous tip line, which allows citizens to call and report crimes without fear.

Over the coming years, I hope that you will support our Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative. Your new U.S. Attorney, John Lausch, will take office here in Chicago soon. John is exceptionally qualified for the job. John has a lot of ideas about how you can partner with him to reduce crime and make Chicago safer for people and more prosperous for business.

I want to conclude with a commitment. Our Department of Justice works for you.  We will work with you to reduce crime.  We will continue to protect civil rights.  And we will defend the rule of law. 

I came here from Washington to make that commitment. I will return to Washington early tomorrow morning to work with my colleagues to deliver on it.

And I will remember what I learned in Chicago today.

Thank you very much.

Updated November 17, 2017