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Remarks by Attorney General Eric Holder at "Making Cities Safe Through Community Policing," an Event of the U.S. Conference of Mayors


Little Rock, AR
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Mayor [Kevin] Johnson, for that kind introduction; for your work in instituting community policing and reducing gang violence in Sacramento; and of course for your leadership as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.  It is a pleasure to stand with this distinguished group, and to be back in Little Rock today.  It’s a privilege to join you at this remarkable venue.  And it’s an honor to share the stage this morning with this center’s namesake – a truly great president in whose administration I was honored to serve, and whose living legacy and transformative, ongoing work we gather to build upon today.

For over 80 years, the U.S. Conference of Mayors has brought together dedicated public servants from some of America’s greatest cities to address shared challenges and common concerns; to advance policy solutions and share best practices; and to extend the collective expertise of its members – and strengthen local governance – from coast to coast.  Over the past six years, I have had the opportunity to work closely with many of you – and with a number of the law enforcement leaders who are with us this morning – to address emerging threats, to confront urgent needs, and to uphold the promise of equal justice for every member of our society.

Together – block by block, city by city – we’ve made tremendous progress.  Our nation has witnessed a dramatic reduction in the crime rate over the last 20 years.  Just since President Obama took office, we’ve seen both crime and incarceration decline considerably – the first time these two critical markers have gone down at the same time in more than 40 years.  And thanks to the “Smart on Crime” initiative I launched just over a year ago, the robust anti-violence partnerships that are in place in so many of the cities represented here, and the strong and steady leadership of the mayors and public safety professionals in this room, it’s clear that we stand poised to build upon these successes – and further institutionalize the gains we’ve seen – in the days ahead.

As we do so, it’s crucial that we account for the fact that – although recent advances have been laudable, and are worth celebrating – they have not been entirely uniform.  Too many of America’s communities, including some within our most vibrant cities, are not sharing in these gains.  In some places – despite the valiant efforts of elected leaders and public safety officials at every level – social ills like poverty, unemployment, and widespread lack of opportunity continue to trap people in lives of criminality and incarceration.  And these conditions can give rise to tense and often tragic circumstances in which systemic violence can take root.

This is something we saw all too clearly this past August, as the eyes of the nation turned to events in Ferguson, Missouri – where the shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager sparked widespread unrest and focused a national spotlight on the rifts that can develop between police officials and the citizens they are entrusted to protect.  When I traveled to Ferguson in the days after that incident, my pledge to the people of that community was that our nation’s Department of Justice would remain focused on the challenges they faced – and the deep-seated issues and difficult conversations that the shooting brought to the surface – long after national headlines had faded.

This week, as we gather to confront these issues, to consider ways to rebuild trust where it has been eroded – and to redouble our commitment to the community policing strategies that lie at the heart of this important work – we’re taking robust and sweeping action to make good on that pledge.  And I believe it’s fitting that we do so here at the William J. Clinton Presidential Center.

It was 20 years ago last month that, with the essential support of President Clinton, the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 was made into law – a landmark statute, authored by then-Senator Joe Biden, that created the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS.  This was an audacious, new concept – and it required, for its passage, guts by the young, Arkansas-bred president who signed the law.  Since its inception, immediately, this important office became a crucial part of the Department I am now honored to lead.  And through the investments it has made – and the approaches it has championed – in the intervening years, the COPS Office has emerged as a strong partner to local leaders throughout America – and a positive force for change and progress at the national level.

Over the past two decades, the COPS Office has invested more than $14 billion to keep our streets and communities safer through community policing.  It has funded more than 126,000 officers who have served in nearly three-quarters of this nation’s law enforcement agencies.  It has awarded approximately 39,000 grants to state, local, tribal, and territorial law enforcement agencies.  And it has provided training to more than 700,000 law enforcement personnel, community members, and government leaders – including many of you.

Just two weeks ago, I announced that – under the leadership of Director Ron Davis, who you you’ll be hearing from later today – my colleagues and I will continue to build on this work by awarding a new round of grants under the COPS Hiring Program.  Through this initiative, we are providing nearly $124 million in new funding to support the hiring and retention of 944 officers at 215 agencies and municipalities throughout America.  These targeted investments will help to address acute needs – such as high rates of violent crime – by funding 75 percent of the salary and benefits of every newly-hired or re-hired officer for three full years.  And the impact of this critical support will extend far beyond the creation and preservation of law enforcement jobs.  It will strengthen relationships between these officers and the communities they serve, improve public safety, and keep law enforcement officers on the beat.

Of course, this is merely the latest installment in a long-running effort that has had clear benefits – and in some cases transformative results – in communities across the country.  As I noted just a moment ago, the crime rate has declined considerably over the last two decades – with FBI statistics indicating that the national rate of violent crime in 2012 was roughly half the rate reported in 1993.  This period roughly coincides with the great work that’s been led by our COPS Office, in partnership with so many of you.  And that’s no accident.

In fact, when the Government Accountability Office studied the effectiveness of the COPS Office, in 2005, it found that COPS funding produced significant reductions not only in the overall crime rate, but in rates of violent crime and property crime in particular.  I know everyone here has seen – in city after city – that community policing simply works.  Strong relationships, founded on mutual respect, can result in enhanced cooperation between local residents and law enforcement officials.  And renewed trust in the fairness of criminal justice proceedings, even when citizens disagree with particular outcomes, can result in safer neighborhoods and closer engagement with community members in establishing clear expectations of compliance with the law.

The effectiveness of community policing – and the power of the work that Ron and his colleagues are completing every single day – has been demonstrated in numerous studies and anecdotal reports.  But it’s also something that I, and many of you, have witnessed firsthand.

When President Clinton asked me to serve as United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, in 1993, I was a judge on the D.C. Superior Court.  I had spent roughly five years watching as lines of defendants – and most often young men of color – streamed through my courtroom.  Some of the faces I saw became familiar, because some of the people I sentenced served their time, were released from prison, and quickly returned to the conduct that had brought them before me in the first place.

So I knew from experience – from the moment I accepted President Clinton’s nomination – that Washington was a city in crisis.  Statistics showed my city to be the so-called “murder capital” of the United States.  And I had seen with my own eyes that mistrust between residents and law enforcement was – in some areas – both corrosive and widespread.

In response, my colleagues and I turned to some of the very same strategies we’ve gathered to expand upon today.  With the support of President Clinton and a great Attorney General, Janet Reno, my office launched the first-ever community policing and community prosecution effort in our nation’s capital.  We worked hard to build engagement and establish rapport between prosecutors, law enforcement officials, community leaders, and the residents we were sworn to protect.  Over time, those essential connections helped to strengthen the fabric of the community.  And they contributed to a decline in the crime rate that has mirrored the national reductions we’ve seen.

In the years since then, the COPS Office has provided indispensable leadership in replicating these results – and forging locally-tailored solutions – in order to address a range of public safety priorities in Washington and countless other cities from coast to coast.  In response to specific problems faced by individual cities, we’ve marshaled a range of new resources and rallied experts from around the country to help make a positive difference.  And with the recent launch of our National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, COPS and other Justice Department offices are taking major steps to help resolve longstanding tensions – and to continue the pioneering work that a number of our law enforcement partners are leading.

After all, the events in Ferguson reminded us that we cannot – and we must not – allow tensions, which are present in so many neighborhoods across America, to go unresolved.  With this gathering of leaders – thanks to the promise of community policing – we are declaring, together, that we will not.  We are renewing our shared commitment to stand with those on the front lines of our fight for public safety – the police officers and sheriff’s deputies who put their lives on the line to keep us safe.  And we are reaffirming our broad-based commitment not just to continue, but to expand upon, the exemplary efforts that are currently underway – a commitment we reinvigorate, here and now, with new financial support for the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

This morning, I am proud to announce that – through the COPS Office – the Department of Justice is awarding a Community Policing Development grant, totaling $100,000, to advance the Conference of Mayors’ work to reduce youth violence through enhanced collaboration.  This brand-new funding will enable your Research and Education Foundation to thoroughly examine ways in which mayors, police chiefs, and school leaders have come together to reduce youth violence.  The Foundation will then identify – and report on – the most successful strategies uncovered.  And this will allow cities where such violence is endemic to learn from, and to emulate, the approaches that have proven most effective.

This intensive study will not only strengthen community policing and build on this conference’s storied tradition of enhancing local governance through collaboration; it will complement the Obama Administration’s historic efforts to improve public safety and build a brighter future by ensuring that every American has the chance to grow, to learn, and to thrive, regardless of who they are or where they come from.

This past February, President Obama launched a groundbreaking initiative – known as My Brother’s Keeper – to address opportunity gaps and tear down barriers that too often prevent boys and young men of color, and other youth, from realizing their full potential.  Through this initiative, the Administration is joining with cities and towns, businesses, and foundations that are taking important steps to connect young people to mentoring, support networks, and the skills they need to find a good job – or go to college – and work their way into the middle class.

I want to commend the Conference of Mayors for establishing a My Brother’s Keeper Task Force, for fully embracing this initiative in nearly every facet, and for tracking its robust implementation in cities across the country.  Mayors like my good friend Michael Nutter of Philadelphia – who is here with us today – are standing on the forefront of this important work.  You are enabling us to make an important, positive difference in the lives of countless young people.  And you’re spearheading efforts to take it to a new level.

Just last week, the President launched a significant expansion of this work, known as the My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge – to encourage cities, counties, and tribal nations to implement coherent “cradle to college and career” strategies that will keep our youth on paths to success.  I am pleased to note that over 140 mayors, county officials, and tribal leaders – including Little Rock Mayor [Mark] Stodola – have already accepted the President’s call to action.  And within the next several months, they will be launching locally-tailored strategies for raising the likelihood that at-risk young people will graduate from school, find good jobs, and stay safe from violent crime.

This Administration-wide effort is broad in scope – and potentially transformative in its intended impact.  But like all of our work – and like community policing in particular – it depends squarely on the experience, the leadership, and the guidance that local officials and community partners like you are uniquely situated to provide.  And with your help, in the months and years ahead, I believe we need to take these efforts even further.

That’s why, under the leadership of our COPS Office, the Justice Department is working with major police associations to conduct a broad review of policing tactics, techniques, and training – so we can help the field swiftly confront emerging threats, better address persistent challenges, and thoroughly examine the latest tools and technologies to enhance the safety, and the effectiveness, of law enforcement.  Going forward, I will support not only continuing this timely review, but expanding it – to consider the profession in a comprehensive way – and to provide strong, national direction on a scale not seen since President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement nearly half a century ago.

Thanks to your continued leadership, I am confident that – by standing and working together – we will continue to leverage relationships with experts and proven community advocates to build an ever-stronger network of committed public servants.  We will continue to see trust increase, and crime and violence decline, in all of the jurisdictions represented here.  And although this progress may not come as swiftly or as smoothly as we might like – with the persistence of everyone here, and the guidance, inspiration, and singular vision of great leaders like President Clinton and President Obama – we will continue to bring about the gains that our citizens, and particularly our youngest citizens, need and deserve.

At every stage of my career, I have been both honored and humbled to count you as colleagues and partners in this important work.  Although my path will soon lead me in a new direction, I want you to know that I will never stop seeking new ways to contribute, to lead, and to give back to the country I love so dearly.  I have always viewed the issues on our agenda today as some of the most critical we face – both as law enforcement leaders and as Americans.  No matter where my individual journey may take me, that will never change.  This work will only grow stronger.  And I look forward to where our shared efforts will lead us in the months and years to come.

Thank you.

Updated August 18, 2015