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Head of the Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at the National Action Network’s Annual Legislative and Policy Conference


Washington, DC
United States

Good morning and thank you all for that warm welcome.  I want to start by thanking Reverend [Al] Sharpton and Ebonie Riley – along with so many others here today – for inviting me to speak at this energizing conference and for their steadfast leadership of the National Action Network.  And I want to congratulate the National Action Network on 25 years of successful organizing and effective advocacy on a range of critical issues.  As your mission statement puts it, you believe in “the fight for one standard of justice, decency and equal opportunities for all people.”  The Civil Rights Division that I have the privilege to lead at the Department of Justice is dedicated to advancing these goals.

In communities around the country – from Ferguson, Missouri; to Baltimore; to Chicago – we have conducted evidence-driven investigations into the practices of local police departments to determine whether they’re engaged in a systemic “pattern or practice” of unconstitutional policing.  Just last month in Baltimore, we announced the findings from our investigation into the Baltimore City Police Department.  We found that the police department’s “zero tolerance” street enforcement strategy became a quest to produce large numbers of enforcement actions – pedestrian stops in particular – often without enough consideration of their limited impact on solving crime and their caustic damage to community relationships.  To take just one example, officers routinely approached people lawfully standing on sidewalks in front of housing complexes or businesses and arrested them unless they could “justify” their presence.  We also found a pattern of excessive force, discriminatory policing and interference with First Amendment rights.  These practices deeply eroded trust between Baltimore police and the communities they serve – trust that is essential to effective policing, public safety and officer well-being.  We found incident reports that documented how witnesses wouldn’t share basic information with officers.  And we read several reports where the person who originally called the police or needed assistance refused to cooperate after becoming upset by the police response.  When residents don’t trust the police, that distrust makes it harder for officers to prevent and solve crimes.

We know that in Baltimore and elsewhere, these problems didn’t develop overnight.  For many communities, our findings validate the frustration they’ve felt and the injustice they’ve experienced for decades.

Around the country we’re partnering with law enforcement, community members and civil rights advocates to engage in the tough, vital work of sustainable reform.  We’re focusing on policies, training and guidance so that officers can prevent racial bias, de-escalate tense encounters and reduce the use of unnecessary force.  We’re working with police departments to invest in officer wellness so that men and women who wear the badge receive the care and support they need.  We’re promoting community-oriented policing so that all stakeholders get a voice in the process of ensuring public safety.  We’re improving accountability mechanisms, supervision structures and data collection measures to ensure adequate oversight.  We’re facilitating partnerships between law enforcement and mental health professionals to help people with mental illness access community-based treatment and services.  And we’re working with police departments to help them better reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.

Beyond policing, we’re using a range of tools to address harmful policies and practices across the justice system.  At the front end, we’re combating the school-to-prison pipeline, where discriminatory discipline practices too often result in children of color and children with disabilities getting sentences of incarceration rather than diplomas.  We’re addressing unlawful fine and fee practices that trap the poor in cycles of debt and incarceration.  Growing out of our work in Ferguson, earlier this year we sent a dear colleague letter to state and local judges to help them reform these unlawful practices.  We’ve also filed briefs in federal court arguing that bail practices that result in people being jailed simply because they are poor violate the Constitution.  In corrections, we’re helping local officials make transformative cultural changes.  In response to the President’s call last year to review “the overuse of solitary confinement across American prisons” – and building on our decades of enforcement work in this space – in January the Justice Department issued a landmark report calling for a range of reforms: using solitary confinement rarely, not by default; banning its use on juveniles; treating – not punishing – mental illness and prioritizing reentry to the general prison population and free society.  We’re pushing these same reforms in our investigations of prisons and jails around the country.

These reform efforts extend well beyond the Civil Rights Division.  Since 2013, the department has used the Smart on Crime Initiative to focus federal resources on the most serious cases and to reserve harsh mandatory minimums for the most dangerous offenders.  As Deputy Attorney General [Sally Q.] Yates announced last month, the department is also phasing out its use of private prisons.  Through the administration’s clemency initiative, the President has commuted 673 sentences, more than the past 10 presidents combined.  At the end of last month, the Deputy Attorney General also announced that the department will review and make a recommendation on every single clemency petition that had already been submitted by people with drug convictions, many of whom face disproportionately long sentences due to outdated laws.  And we remain hopeful that Congress will enact a much needed, bipartisan and lasting solution by passing the Sentencing Reforms and Corrections Act.

In policing, criminal justice reform or other areas, the ballot box is the American gateway to all of the policy issues we care about most.  Yet, because of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, for the first time in half a century, our country will elect a new president in November without the full protections and safeguards of the Voting Rights Act in place.  The Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision dealt a powerful blow to this landmark civil rights law.  And as Attorney General [Loretta E.] Lynch has said many times, I repeat that same call today for Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act to its full and proper strength.

Of course, we’ve litigated cases in North Carolina, Texas and elsewhere to combat discriminatory laws that drown out voices in districts and block voters at the polls.  And we’ve won some major decisions this year.  Yet these are measures that, prior to Shelby County, we used to prevent before they took effect.  Now, it takes us years of litigation to protect the most fundamental right of our democracy.  Shelby County also significantly curtailed our ability to find out about problems.  We know about big statewide changes.  But the local jurisdictions that once had to tell federal authorities about smaller election-related shifts no longer have that obligation.  That makes it much harder for us to find out about changes on the ground that impact eligible voters.  We are watching to the best of our ability, but there is no substitute for engaged residents watching and participating in the sorts of city council meetings that make local democracy work.  Beyond the work we do in the field, we also need you as our eyes and ears on the ground to help us make sure elections comply with federal law.

Voting transcends partisanship.  It makes no difference to us at the Department of Justice what candidate a voter selects or what party he or she supports.  We want to have the most robust democracy possible.  We will do everything within our power, and we will use every tool at our disposal, to protect the integrity of our democracy.  Yet we also know that self-government – that always complex and ever-evolving process of making our democracy stronger – requires each of us to do our part, to make our voices heard and to lead with action – action that strengthens our communities and improves our country.

The mission of the National Action Network, including the causes you all believe in so deeply, won’t be fulfilled overnight.  And the ambitious agenda of this organization won’t get passed in one day or even in one session of Congress.  It will take sustained effort, dedicated commitment and relentless focus from all of us – public officials and community leaders alike – working to translate ideas into action.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – whose wisdom and courage is engrained into the core ethos of this organization – once said, “true peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”  In the days ahead, let us measure the impact of our efforts not merely by the absence of discrimination, but the real, palpable presence of fairness, dignity and equality in every community across our country.  Thank you. 

Civil Rights
Updated September 6, 2016