Justice News

Head of the Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta Testifies Before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security
Washington, DC
United States
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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Testimony as prepared for delivery

Good morning, Chairman [Trey] Gowdy, Ranking Member [Zoe] Lofgren and distinguished members of the subcommittee.  Thank you for the opportunity to speak before you today about the Justice Department’s work to advance public safety and promote effective, constitutional and community-oriented policing.  Around the country, state and local law enforcement serve as the first line of defense for public safety.  They keep our families safe from harm.  They fight crime on our streets.  And as recent events painfully remind us, they do this demanding, often dangerous work at great personal risk and sacrifice.  So let us make no mistake.  The vast majority of men and women who wear the badge serve our communities with professionalism, with integrity and with distinction.  They deserve our deepest respect and our steadfast support.  Yet when police departments engage in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing, their actions can severely erode community trust and profoundly undermine public safety.

In 1994, Congress charged the Justice Department with the responsibility to investigate law enforcement agencies for a pattern or practice of conduct that violates federal law, and when necessary, to develop remedies to eliminate such misconduct.  Today, I’ll discuss our work with the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) by explaining the problems we found and the reforms the city agreed to implement.  In May 2010, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu requested that the Justice Department conduct an independent investigation of NOPD’s systems and operations.  In a letter, Mayor Landrieu stated that he “inherited a police force … described by many as one of the worst police departments in the country.”  Following our fact-driven and comprehensive investigation, we published our findings in a detailed 141-page letter.

Among other violations, we found evidence that NOPD unfairly enforced the law – or failed to enforce the law – based on race, ethnicity, national origin and other protected characteristics.  These discriminatory policing practices eroded trust.  Crime victims and witnesses, especially in Latino communities, felt afraid to share information with the police.  This hurt public safety.  In the context of reporting crime, one community member told us: “Out of fear, we stay quiet.”  I know many law enforcement officials around the country understand these concerns and recognize the important link between community trust and public safety.

In 2012, New Orleans and the Justice Department entered into a comprehensive consent decree – approved by the federal court in 2013 – to resolve our allegations of unlawful police misconduct.  The decree requires NOPD to make important changes in policies and practices related to the use of force; stops, searches and arrests; the prevention of discriminatory policing; and officer training, oversight and supervision.  In February of this year – after seeking input from the New Orleans community, the court-appointed monitor and the federal district court, as well as the U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security – NOPD issued a new policy to help officers provide services effectively and fairly to all people in the city, regardless of their immigration status or the color of their skin.

Last week, NOPD updated its policy to clarify that it complies with a specific federal statute, 8 U.S.C. § 1373; to ensure that officers understand they can send and receive information regarding an individual’s immigration status and to most effectively advance non-discriminatory policing.  The policy also states that NOPD officers can take law enforcement action and assist in immigration enforcement – when there is a threat to public safety, to execute criminal warrants and to safely execute a court order.     

By facilitating a culture of trust and cooperation, the policy will help local and federal law enforcement protect public safety.  The hard-working men and women of the NOPD continue to do precisely that by fighting crime and partnering with federal law enforcement to identify and prosecute people who have committed violent crimes.  We strongly believe that this policy will help restore trust with crime victims and witnesses, enhance the sharing of information and – in so doing – make the entire New Orleans community safer. 

In New Orleans, and in any city the Justice Department works with, real and lasting reform can’t happen overnight.  And we recognize the vital role of sustained collaboration with the entire community: from public officials, to police officers, to community members.  I want to commend officials from the city and NOPD for their partnership throughout this process.  And I view our dialogue today as an important part of that same process about how police reform can make the residents and officers of New Orleans safer for generations to come.  I look forward to your questions.

Updated December 12, 2016