Justice News

Head of the Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks Before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Oversight, Agency Action, Federal Rights and Federal Courts
Washington, DC
United States
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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Chairman [Ted] Cruz, Ranking Member [Christopher] Coons and distinguished members of the committee – good afternoon.  Thank you for the opportunity to participate in today’s hearing and to share with you the Justice Department’s efforts to support state and local law enforcement, and to promote effective constitutional policing and public safety.       

Our nation is in the midst of an important conversation about policing and the relationship between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.  As part of this conversation, we must all recognize the dedication and bravery of America’s law enforcement officers.  They put themselves in harm’s way every day to keep the rest of us safe.  We must also recognize the pain in communities subjected to excessive force, discriminatory policing and other misconduct.  We are committed to working together to restore trust between law enforcement officers and community members where it has eroded.

We all want the same things: safe streets, officers who come home safely every night and the protection of the rights of all people to be treated fairly and justly.

We want thriving communities in which residents and law enforcement officers work hand-in-hand to ensure peace and safety.  Mistrust between police and citizens, however, breaks down collaboration, impedes the sharing of information and leads to less effective policing.  This is dangerous for everyone – residents and officers alike.

The Justice Department is committed to supporting state and local law enforcement and to strengthening local communities – through funding for more officers and vital equipment, through training and research, and, at times, through investigation of misconduct.

Let no one mistake this: the overwhelming majority of the women and men who police our streets do their jobs with honor, pride and distinction.  They are driven to the police academy out of a commitment to public service and a desire to make an impact in their communities.  As several recent assassinations of police officers remind us, they do all of this at considerable risk to themselves.  Moreover, the vast majority of law enforcement agencies police their communities professionally, successfully and within the bounds of the law. 

As Congress has recognized, however, there are times when the federal government has a role to play in protecting Americans’ constitutional rights.

The department’s Civil Rights Division has longstanding authority to investigate individual officers for criminal violations of constitutional rights.  In carrying out this mandate, we are committed to impartial, fact-driven investigations.  This means pursuing criminal charges when the evidence supports them and closing cases when it does not.

In addition, Congress in 1994 charged the division with the responsibility to investigate law enforcement agencies for a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution or federal statutes, and to develop remedies to eliminate such misconduct where it is found.  During the last 20 years, we have incorporated lessons learned into our work and continually strive to achieve constitutional policing and promote public safety in the most effective and collaborative manner possible.

As part of these civil investigations, we speak directly with line officers and learn first-hand what challenges officers face and what changes they think are necessary. 

They report a lack of adequate support, training and even equipment to keep themselves –and their communities – safe.  And the truth is we ask more from our police officers than anyone reasonably can expect.  Daily, they encounter people in crisis, people struggling with mental illness, alcohol and drug addiction, or anger management problems, all social problems they never envisioned consuming so much of their time.  In pursuing remedies, then, we aim to ensure that officers receive the equipment, tools and specialized training they need to do their jobs consistent with the Constitution and the law.  And we also strive to provide them critically important professional support to cope with the stress and trauma they encounter on the job.

The remedies we seek – clearer policy, modernized data systems, better training, closer supervision, fair accountability mechanisms and more positive community engagement – are substantially informed by the input of policing experts and the work of professional organizations, such as the Police Executive Research Forum, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Major Cities Chiefs Association.  I routinely engage with these groups and others, such as the Fraternal Order of Police, the National Association of Police Organizations and the National Sheriffs Association to ensure we take into account their expertise and experiences. 

Informed by these perspectives, the Civil Rights Division’s reform agreements are helping to reduce unnecessary force, ensure bias-free policing, enhance public safety efforts and strengthen the relationship between police departments and their communities.  From Portland, Oregon, to East Haven, Connecticut; from Seattle to Missoula, Montana, we are seeing meaningful change.

Thank you for the opportunity to discuss this important work, at this critical moment.  I look forward to answering your questions.

Topic(s): 
Civil Rights
Component(s): 
Updated September 29, 2016