Justice News

Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at Community Policing Summit Hosted by the U.S. Attorney's Office of the District of New Jersey
Trenton, NJ
United States
Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Good morning.  It’s an honor to speak with you this morning about one of the most timely and urgent matters of the day in this country: building trust to strengthen police and community relationships.  I want to thank Paul Fishman for his leadership.  The U.S. Attorney’s Office here in New Jersey and the Civil Rights Division are doing important work together in New Jersey, and I truly value our partnership on these critical issues.  I also want to thank the New Jersey Attorney General’s office and all of the co-sponsors of this event for having the vision to bring us all together today for some hard but essential conversations.  I am in a room with incredible law enforcement and community leadership.  It is good to see inspiring and thoughtful leaders like Chief Scott Thompson who challenge us to ask the hard questions and to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.

We’ve all heard the names.  Eric Garner.  John Crawford.  Tamir Rice.  We know the tragic stories.  Rekia Boyd.  Walter Scott.  Freddie Gray.

And we’ve witnessed the sobering public reactions in Ferguson, New York, Baltimore and right here in New Jersey.

While the facts of many of these cases have been disputed or remain under investigation, we can all agree that the deaths of these individuals have been tragic.  And they have revealed the distance between law enforcement and local communities, particularly low-income communities of color.

Over the past year, this job has taken me to cities across the country.  I have sat down with those who have lost children in officer-involved shootings—their pain is real and profound.  I have spoken with young people who tell me they have lost faith in our justice system.  Many of them see police as preying on, rather than protecting them.  They complain that the police don’t value their rights, or indeed, their lives.  They speak of the frequent humiliation in encounters with the police.  They talk about being tired of being viewed as criminals first, human beings second.

In the very same cities where residents tell me they feel marginalized, I hear from officers who feel attacked and undervalued.  They talk about slashed department budgets, resulting in drastic cuts for community policing and neighborhood patrols.  They talk about how the actions of a few bad actors have tarnished the whole profession.  They speak about being blamed for policies not of their making.  They point out that no one talks about the tens of thousands of times situations don’t escalate.  They talk about how the daily stress of their jobs takes a toll.

There is truth in both of these perspectives.  But the thing I’m struck most by is the wide gap between these two sets of conversations.  At times, law enforcement and community members don’t see each other with enough empathy.  We speak about each other as us vs. them when in fact law enforcement and the community should be one and the same.  And as a nation, we lack a common language to discuss these problems and are therefore unable to understand the source of the respective frustration, making it easier for us to assume the worst about each other.

There is one thing, though, that everyone agrees on: we are facing serious challenges when it comes to the erosion of trust between America’s law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.

The level of mistrust and resentment is unsettling.  NYPD Commissioner William Bratton has called it a “crisis.”

And the consequences of this distrust can be devastating.  Where people perceive the criminal justice system to be arbitrary, biased and unfair, they are less likely to cooperate with law enforcement, to help law enforcement solve or prevent crime, making us all less safe.  And, over time, the distrust and alienation experienced in some communities can build into a powder keg of resentment, ready to be ignited by a single tragic incident.  We have seen this over and over—at least as far back as Watts in 1965, in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict in 1992, in Ferguson in 2014, and in Baltimore this year.

The first step in addressing the lack of trust is acknowledging its sources.  Mistrust can’t be explained away as the kneejerk reaction of the ill-informed or the hyperbolic. 

FBI Director James Comey has noted that, “[a]t many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups.”  As Commissioner Bratton explained, this history has an enduring effect.  “None of us did these things,” he told an audience of officers.  He said, “None of us were troopers on the bridge at Selma.  But it doesn’t matter that these things happened before many of us were even born.  What matters is that our history follows us like a second shadow.”

The mistrust is also the product of lived experience, of negative interactions that communities have had with law enforcement.  Something as quietly humiliating as being mistreated during a traffic stop.  Stories can circulate through a neighborhood—or these days, across the nation via social media.  Over time, they can build into a painful narrative that divides community members and police.

The lack of trust also undeniably results from our criminal justice policies over the last few decades, and the concentrated impact they have had on poor and minority communities.  Law enforcement practices such as we saw in Ferguson regarding the targeting of the community to generate revenue.  Sentencing policies that result in mass incarceration, particularly of people of color accused of low-level crimes.  And the devastating consequences that convictions have had on individuals’ ability to find work, secure stable housing and reintegrate into society.  We are now witnessing a tectonic shift on these issues as people on both sides of the political aisle are reevaluating our approach to criminal justice so that we can take a more targeted, effective and fair approach to public safety.

At the Civil Rights Division, rebuilding police-community trust is not just a civil rights priority but also a public safety and officer safety priority. 

Partly, we contribute to this process by holding individual officers accountable for criminal misconduct.  We have prosecuted over 350 law enforcement officers since 2009.  Under federal law, we have a single criminal statute, which requires us to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officer willfully deprived the victim of his constitutional rights.  It’s the highest intent standard in criminal law.  We are aggressive, but thorough and fair, following the evidence where it leads, whether that means an indictment or closing the case.

Criminal prosecution, though important, is a limited tool.  It’s appropriate in some cases, but it is less effective at bringing about widespread change.  That’s why we also engage in systemic reform—investigating local law enforcement agencies where we believe there may be a pattern or practice of constitutional violations, such as excessive force or racial profiling.  Our investigations rely on intensive community and law enforcement input, experts including current or former police chiefs and extensive document and data review.

Over the past six years, we have opened 22 investigations of law enforcement agencies across the country and have reached agreements in 19 jurisdictions to correct unconstitutional police practices.  We are currently in negotiations with the city of Newark to resolve our findings in July 2014 that the Newark Police Department had engaged in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional stops and arrests; interference with First Amendment rights; use of excessive force; and theft.  We already have an agreement in principle, and intend to work together to reach a court-enforceable agreement that will ensure lawful policing and to strengthen police-community relations.

Our agreements can serve as blueprints for reform around the country.  They incorporate elements we have found are essential to rebuilding trust and police legitimacy. 

Each is locally tailored but there are common themes among them:

  • Police commanders must create opportunities for line officers to have positive interactions, outside of the enforcement context, with individuals they may encounter as victims, witnesses or subjects.  This is a fundamental component of community policing. 

  • Structured community engagement is vital.There are a host of models for that and each community must determine which works best for it. 

  • Improper bias—both explicit and implicit bias—must be identified and corrected.  The science shows that we all hold biases we aren’t aware of.But by identifying them, we can learn to manage them.And of course, positive interactions are key to reducing unconscious stereotyping.

  • Training, of course, is key.There is particularly groundbreaking and innovative research and training on de-escalation that is changing use of force norms.PERF (Police Executive Research Forum) and police departments around the country, like Seattle, are helping to lead the charge.

  • We need better research and data.To ensure policing is done constitutionally and without discrimination, police departments must collect data on their pedestrian and vehicle stops, frisks, searches, arrests—covering important demographic information, such as race and gender.  There is simply too much we don’t know that we should.

  • Departments must also commit to transparency, because the more communities know about police activity, the more operations can reflect community values and priorities.

  • There must also be fair, consistent, and robust internal and external systems of accountability so that police departments can course correct when problems are identified.  It’s not fair to the public or to officers, for example, if internal affairs investigations are inconsistent, or if there’s a mismatch between officer conduct and discipline.

  • Officer safety and wellness is vitally important and too often ignored.I will speak about that shortly.

  • And procedural justice matters.  Research shows that being treated fairly and respectfully matters more than the ultimate result of a person’s interaction with police.People want and need to trust the police.Trust is formed not just through words but through deeds as well.At its core, constitutional policing must involve the treatment of fellow human beings, regardless of salary, race or stature, with compassion, respect and dignity.

These principles guide our pattern-or-practice work.  They also animate other Justice Department efforts aimed at building trust, such as assessments through the Diagnostic Center at the Office of Justice Programs, and the COPS Office’s (Office of Community Oriented Policing Services’) Collaborative Reform Project and technical assistance programs, which you’ll hear more about from Director Ron Davis at lunch.  The reality is that we aren't going to enforce our way to building trust with 16,000 to 18,000 police departments.  Our consent decrees and the 21st Century Policing Task Force findings are documents for communities to look at and incorporate long before there is a critical incident and a need for DOJ intervention. 

I want to return to the issue of officer safety and wellness because of its importance.  Reform requires that officers be given the resources to do their jobs consistent with community values and the professional support to cope with trauma they encounter on the job. 

The overwhelming majority of the women and men who police our streets do their jobs with honor, pride and distinction.  Most of these individuals are driven to the police academy out of a commitment to public service and a desire to make an impact in their communities.  As we are reminded by senseless and tragic assassinations of Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in New York, the shooting of two officers in Ferguson in March, and several tragedies since, officers do all of this at considerable risk to themselves.

But the truth is, we ask more from our police officers that anyone reasonably can expect.  Daily, they encounter mental illness, alcohol and drug addiction, anger management problems and school discipline problems.  We have thrown the criminal justice system at all of these social problems and asked officers to figure them out.  And we have by and large given them one set of tools to address them: arrest and incarceration.

At the same time, too often line officers lack adequate policy guidance, supervision and even equipment to keep them safe and allow them to follow the Constitution.  Sometimes, we find that line officers are unfairly blamed for decisions made far above their rank, or even by local officials outside of the police department.

For all these reasons, in our systemic reform work, we directly engage line officers to learn first-hand what challenges they face, and what changes they would like to see.  It is why we go to roll calls and do ride alongs.  We speak to police union leadership because the unions should be part of any reform effort.  This is why I have been engaged with police unions like the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) and organizations like NAPO (National Association of Police Organizations) from the moment I was appointed to this position.  It is why USA Paul Fishman spoke at the state FOP convention.  We will not achieve sustained results without these perspectives and buy in.

Ultimately, our reform agreements aim to get officers back to doing the job they signed up for.  We also try to make sure officers have the tools and specialized training to do their jobs consistent with community values.  They need training to ensure de-escalation with the mentally ill and others in crisis, as well as to ensure respectful interactions with LGBTI persons, immigrants with language barriers and other vulnerable populations.  Critically, we also owe it to officers to provide them the professional support to cope with the stress and trauma they encounter on the job.

Before I finish, there are a few things I hope we don’t lose track of over the course of this summit.

First, there is no contradiction between constitutional policing and public safety.  There is no contradiction between us caring about police officers and making sure our laws are applied fairly.  In fact, if we do this right, police practices that accord with the law will result in greater trust, more mutual respect and less crime.  The community will work with law enforcement to solve and to prevent crime. 

Second, we cannot have a conversation about policing in isolation of broader systemic inequality.  Many of the problems in our criminal justice system reflect structural barriers to opportunity.  The elevated conversation gives us an opportunity to connect these dots and address inequalities in housing, education, access to transportation, good jobs and more.  These things are undeniably related.

Third, ensuring fair, constitutional policing and building community trust is a national challenge but it calls for local solutions.  Yes, the commitment of the Justice Department is important.  Ultimately, however, police departments and communities will achieve progress because of the hard work of officers, union leaders, advocates, elected officials and everyday people.  Residents who have experienced crime and who have ideas about how to fight it.  Local leaders who have the courage to reorient law enforcement culture.  It will be people like all of you, locally, who move New Jersey forward, and the same is true across the country.

Finally, let’s remember that building trust is a long, ongoing process.  Like in any part of life, relationships can take years to form but can be easily broken.  We can repair these relationships, but it won’t happen quickly and it can’t start the day after a critical incident.  It takes years of commitment.

This work is like being part of a family—it’s loud, large and messy.  And let’s be real, no one likes everyone in their family, so we’re not always going to agree.  We’re going to get on each other’s nerves sometimes.  We’re going to offend each other sometimes.  We’re going to argue.  But ultimately, we’re all in this together and should try to assume the best rather than the worst about each other.

If we would take the time to listen—really listen—and understand why most protestors take to the streets, why police officers risk their lives every day, we would find that, while perspectives may differ, people’s aspirations—and their values—tend to be very similar.

We all want safer streets.  We all want stronger communities.  We all believe in justice.  Working together, we can accomplish all three.

Thank you.

Civil Rights
Updated November 8, 2016