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Remarks by Attorney General Holder at the Celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the COPS Office


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Ron [Davis], for that kind introduction – and for your outstanding leadership of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.  In the time you’ve been with us, you’ve already made invaluable contributions to the incredible legacy we celebrate this morning.  And I am proud to join you in commending every current and former member of the COPS Office staff for their exceptional efforts.

It’s a pleasure to welcome so many distinguished guests to the Department of Justice today.  It’s a tremendous privilege to help recognize the achievements of each of the former COPS directors and staff members who is here with us.  And it’s a distinct honor to do so alongside leaders from the White House, from Congress, from offices throughout the Justice Department – and from several police departments – as we pay tribute to this office, reaffirm its mission, and redouble our commitment to its vital work.

When President Bill Clinton signed the 1994 Crime Bill that created the COPS Office – a landmark piece of legislation authored by then-Senator Joe Biden – he envisioned “a national effort at the grassroots level in each and every community … to enshrine the values and common sense the crime bill represents.”  Over the past 20 years, this critical office – and the dedicated public servants who lead it – has stood on the literal front lines of that effort.  In every corner of the nation, you, your colleagues, and your predecessors have done the hard work of building trust in neighborhoods long characterized by disorder and suspicion.  You have forged strong relationships – and unbreakable bonds – between law enforcement leaders and community members.  And you have confronted all manner of seemingly-intractable crime problems and other persistent challenges that have – in far too many cases – contributed to an unacceptable status quo.

Over the years, this work has paid dividends – in lives improved and saved; in communities strengthened and made more secure; in law enforcement officers made safer; and in taxpayer resources used more effectively.  During the last two decades, the COPS Office has built a record of remarkable – and I would even say unparalleled and unprecedented – achievement.  Together, we have invested $14 billion in community policing initiatives to make our streets safer and our communities more secure.  We have awarded roughly 39,000 grants to state, local, territory, and tribal law enforcement agencies throughout the country, funding 126,000 additional law enforcement officers and benefiting nearly three-quarters of the nation’s law enforcement agencies.  And we have trained 700,000 law enforcement personnel, community members, and government leaders to put community policing principles into action.

Beyond these efforts, we have produced and distributed more than two million copies of publications, training guides, and resources.  We have funded thousands of school resource officers through the COPS in Schools program.  And we have fostered innovative partnerships between law enforcement agencies and entities as diverse as the Environmental Protection Agency and local child protective services.

Taken together, these grants, trainings, and partnerships have had a clear and measurable impact in communities – and individual lives – from coast to coast.  When the Government Accountability Office studied the effectiveness of the COPS Office in 2005, it found that COPS funding had produced significant reductions not only in the overall crime rate, but particularly in rates of violent crime and property crime.  FBI statistics indicate that the national rate of violent crime in 2012 was roughly half the rate in 1993.  On Monday, the FBI issued a new report on last year’s crime rate that confirmed that this decline is continuing.  And the GAO has found that, over the years, a significant percentage of the nationwide drop we’ve experienced can be attributed to COPS expenditures.

Just as importantly, for the first time in more than four decades, we’ve seen that – since President Obama took office – crime rates and incarceration rates are now declining together.  This is a signal achievement in which everyone here can take tremendous pride.  And these promising trends verify what we already know to be true about community policing: that closer community ties and deeper community engagement have the power to reduce crime by building trust, mutual respect, and strong cooperation between law enforcement officials and the residents they serve.

These efforts go to the heart of our national work to improve public safety.  They speak to the power – and the responsibility – of every individual police officer to make a positive difference.  And they have been made possible only through the tireless commitment of COPS Office professionals.

Critically, these gains are not visible only in the aggregate – at the 30,000-foot level – in the form of national statistics or abstract trends.  This progress is real.  It is measurable on the ground.  And it is clearly evident in the dramatic transformations we’ve seen in communities across the country.

From Phoenix to Hartford – from Sacramento to Miami – COPS Office assistance and support are helping to create and restore the kinds of inviting, safe, and secure environments in which parents can feel confident raising their children, and in which children are proud to grow up.  Throughout my career in public office – and especially during my tenure as Attorney General – I have seen, as you all have seen, that city by city, block by block, community policing is brightening our neighborhoods.  It is strengthening the fundamental fabric of our nation.  And none of it is happening by simple blind luck or good fortune.  On the contrary: all of this has resulted directly from the outstanding leadership, the positive vision, and the concerted efforts of people sitting in this room today.  And it will continue only with your persistent engagement, expert guidance, and steadfast resolve.

Like everyone here, I am deeply invested in the success of this approach – and confident that it will continue to have a lasting impact – in part because I have witnessed its power firsthand.   I served as United States Attorney for the District of Columbia at a time when Washington was a city in crisis, suffering from an epidemic of crime and corrosive antagonism between residents and law enforcement.  In response, and with the support of President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno, my office launched the first community policing and community prosecution initiative to be implemented in our nation’s capital.  In the years since, this city’s U.S. Attorney’s Office has had striking success in bringing down crime rates in the District.  And, for me, community engagement has remained both a personal and professional priority – which is why I have been a vocal supporter of the COPS Office since the day it was created.

In fact, the hallmarks of the COPS Office’s work – in driving evidence-based strategies, sparking early interventions, supporting tailored approaches to distressed communities, and developing creative reforms of outdated methods – have greatly influenced the Obama Administration’s approaches to priorities far beyond the realm of community policing.  They are among the animating principles behind the “Smart on Crime” initiative I launched last year to strengthen the federal criminal justice system – from top to bottom – in part by moving beyond outdated metrics and toward a more holistic approach to law enforcement, sentencing, incarceration, and rehabilitation.  These same principles are also reflected in the groundbreaking My Brother’s Keeper initiative that President Obama announced in February, to address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color and ensure that all young people can reach their full potential.  Through this initiative – and particularly through the My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge, which the President kicked off in September – the Administration is working alongside 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.

All of this is important, ongoing work – and all of it springs from the efforts that you and your colleagues are leading.  I am confident that, today, as we celebrate 20 years of progress, we can do so with great optimism about the future we’re building together.

As we speak, the COPS Office continues to take significant steps toward rebuilding trust where it has been eroded, confronting long-simmering issues before they erupt, and spreading effective community policing strategies to cities and towns throughout the nation.  In September, I announced a new round of grants through the COPS Hiring Program – totaling nearly $124 million – that will support the hiring and retention of 944 law enforcement officers in 215 agencies and municipalities throughout the country.  These investments will serve pressing needs – such as localities experiencing high rates of violent crime – while reinforcing our national commitment to community policing, writ large.

In addition, the COPS Office has been instrumental in the recent launch of our National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, an exciting and wide-ranging new effort that emphasizes training in evidence-based strategies, as well as policy research and development, to combat mistrust and hostility between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.  From Las Vegas, to Philadelphia, to St. Louis County, we’re engaging in collaborative reform with law enforcement leaders – helping agencies move proactively to enhance their policies, procedures, systems to address particular issues and strengthen relationships with citizens.  From Seattle, to Detroit, to Ferguson, Missouri, we are providing intensive training and technical assistance to help law enforcement agencies respond to issues arising from specific incidents.  These efforts are part of COPS’ overall continuum of services to advance community policing and ensure that police agencies engage in constitutional practices.

In the days ahead, the office will also be expanding its efforts to educate a new generation of law enforcement leaders.  And I’m proud to announce today that COPS officials and experts are beginning to look systematically at the circumstances that have allowed certain communities to take proactive steps to avert potential tragedies.  As it unfolds, this cutting-edge “Near Miss” initiative will help us learn from the quick thinking, the smart policies, and the effective procedures that have succeeded in maintaining both public safety and officer safety during prior incidents.  And it will allow other cities to replicate strategies that have been proven to work.

Even more broadly, the Justice Department will also continue working to mitigate the considerable threats our officers face every time they put on their uniforms.  As the brother of a retired law enforcement officer, I know firsthand the anxiety that family members and friends feel whenever their loved ones are out patrolling the streets.  I feel strongly that all Americans owe our courageous law enforcement personnel a tremendous debt of gratitude for their patriotic service, for their often-unheralded sacrifices, and for the dangers they routinely face in the name of public safety.  And that’s why I have always been proud to support these selfless public servants; grateful for the tradition of excellence and professionalism they extend each day; and steadfast in my commitment to make sure our officers can return safely to their homes and their families – every day and night.

In recent years, thanks to the leadership of COPS officials; the resources and training the department has made available through initiatives like VALOR and the Bulletproof Vest Partnership Program; and the sweeping commitment we’ve made to help prevent violence, to improve officer resilience, and to increase survivability during violent encounters – including ambushes and active shooter situations – I’m pleased to note that the Justice Department is working harder than ever before to empower our local, state, and tribal partners to do their jobs both safely and effectively.

These efforts are both broad in scope and potentially transformative in their intended impacts.  But today – with your help, and with the continued leadership of Ron and his colleagues – I believe it’s time to take them even further.

It’s time to extend the progress we’ve seen over the past two decades to each of the vibrant communities that has not yet experienced equivalent gains, despite the courage and commitment of our brave men and women in law enforcement.  It’s time to expand our reach, to magnify our focus, and to redouble our efforts to bring a community-oriented approach to neighborhoods still suffering from crime, from blight, and from neglect.  And it’s time to ask ourselves, as a nation, whether we are conducting policing in the most effective and efficient way possible – so we can confront 21st-century challenges with 21st-century solutions; so we can consider the profession in a comprehensive way; and so we can provide strong, national direction on a scale not seen since President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement nearly half a century ago.

Under the leadership of the COPS Office, we’re already taking important initial steps.  The Justice Department is currently working with major police associations to conduct a broad review of policing tactics, techniques, and training – so we can help the field combat emerging threats, better address persistent challenges, and thoroughly examine the latest tools and technologies to enhance the safety, and the effectiveness, of law enforcement.  This review will provide a comprehensive, foundational document detailing key developments and challenges in American law enforcement over the last 50 years.  It will seek to identify gaps in knowledge that will inform future discussion, research, and practice.  And going forward, I will support not only continuing this timely review, but significantly expanding it.

Of course, like you, I have no illusions that this work will be easy; that areas in crisis will be quick to respond to our determined efforts; or that distrust, division, and disparity will be eradicated overnight.  We must continue to stand up – and stand together – in advancing these difficult and often dangerous efforts.  We have seen, over the last two decades, that this work requires consummate focus, perseverance, and commitment.  But we have also proven – time and again – that America’s law enforcement leaders, this unique office – and its outstanding staff, both past and present – are more than equal to the task.

This morning, I call upon all of you – those who are here today, those who are tuning in on the Justice Television Network, and your partners across the nation – to reaffirm your commitment to the cause we share.  To reassert your devotion to the mission that drives us, and the work that binds us together.  And to rededicate yourselves to the task now before us, and the progress with which we’ve been entrusted, as we continue to build – and to bolster – the effective American police forces, and the prosperous American communities, that all of our citizens deserve.

Thanks to your indispensable efforts, I am confident that we will continue to see community trust increase, and crime and violence decline, across the nation.  Thanks to the record of achievement we’ve established over the past two decades – and especially the last six years – I’m certain that we will continue to fortify America’s ranks of committed public safety professionals.  And thanks to the strong and steady leadership of our next Attorney General – Loretta Lynch, who will be a fierce ally in this fight, a champion of law enforcement, and an outstanding leader of this department, once she is confirmed by the U.S. Senate – I have no doubt that the next 20 years can bring even more of the positive change that we have seen over the last 20.

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 ways to contribute, to lead, and to give back to the country I love so dearly.  And no matter where my individual journey may take me, I look forward to where our shared efforts will lead us in the months and years to come.

At this time, it’s my great pleasure to introduce our next speaker – a leader who has been involved with national criminal justice policy for more than three decades.  Laurie Robinson served as Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs for a total of ten years, during both the Clinton and Obama Administrations, making her the longest-serving AAG in OJP’s history.  She was instrumental in increasing this department’s focus on science and evidence-based programming.  And in addition to being an indispensable leader, and the current Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Criminology, Law and Society at George Mason University, she also happens to be my very good friend.

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming Laurie Robinson to the podium.

Updated August 18, 2015