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Remarks by Attorney General Holder at the International Association of Chiefs of Police Annual Conference


Orlando, FL
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Chief [Yost] Zakhary, for that introduction; for your leadership as President of the International Association of Chiefs of Police; and for your dedicated service to the people of Woodway, Texas – as Police Chief, as City Manager, and as Public Safety Director – for over three decades.

It’s a pleasure to join you here in Orlando today.  And it’s a tremendous privilege, as always, to stand with so many distinguished law enforcement leaders.  I’d like to thank the IACP’s Board of Directors – and every one of your members – for inviting me to take part, once again, in this important annual conference, as we confront a range of evolving challenges and reaffirm our shared commitment to honoring all who wear the badge. 

Over the course of my career in public service – and especially during my tenure as Attorney General – I have been fortunate to work closely with many of the leaders in this room, and with your colleagues across the country, to address urgent and emerging threats; to improve our collective ability to protect the communities we serve; to secure the resources we need to keep our officers safe; and to ensure that America’s criminal justice system is as fair – and as effective – as possible.

It has been among the greatest honors of my career to count you as colleagues, as partners, and as friends in advancing this important work.  For over 120 years, the IACP and its members have stood on the front lines of America’s struggle against crime, violence, and victimization.  You have been keepers of a sacred public trust, and stewards of a proud tradition of service, that predates our Republic.  And especially in recent years – in the face of sequestration, government shutdown, and other unprecedented difficulties – you have repeatedly proven the power of cooperation and collaboration across jurisdictions and even international borders, speaking out for the physical and mental health of those brave few who wear the badge – and risk their lives – to keep their communities safe.

We gather today at an auspicious moment.  Thanks to your leadership – and the extraordinary valor of every one of our officers on the street – the past two decades have been defined by dramatic reductions in criminal activity.  As you know, the rate of violent crime that was reported to the FBI in 2012 was about half the rate reported in 1993.  It has declined by more than 11 percent just since President Obama took office.  And the rate of incarceration has gone down by more than 8 percent over the same brief period – the very first time these two critical markers have declined together in more than 40 years.

This signal achievement owes a great deal to the courage, and the profound sacrifices, of our men and women in law enforcement – each of whom shoulders tremendous burdens, at great personal risk, in order that others might live safe and free.  As we come together here in Orlando, we must bear in mind just how challenging – and how often thankless – their vital work can be.  We have a great deal of work to do when it comes to increasing support for law enforcement officials and their families; forging close bonds of trust between our officers and the communities they serve; and overcoming the mistrust and misunderstanding that some people bring to interactions with the police – and that some officers may bring to interactions with certain communities. 

But as we open a new chapter in this important conversation, we must never lose sight of the immense and unyielding difficulties that are inherent in the law enforcement profession – from the dangers these brave men and women face every time they put on their uniforms, to the split-second decisions they often must make, to the anguish of family members who awaken at night to the sound of a ringing telephone –hoping for the best, but fearing tragic news about a loved one out patrolling the streets.

As our nation’s Attorney General, I have always been proud – and steadfast – in my support for law enforcement personnel and their families, who make tremendous and often unheralded sacrifices every single day to keep us safe.  These sacrifices are too often overlooked.  And I believe we do ourselves, our communities, and our nation a grave disservice if we ignore these difficulties – just as we do ourselves a disservice if we dismiss, or fail to address, the conditions and lingering tensions that exist just beneath the surface in so many places across the country – and that were brought to the surface, and raised to the urgent attention of this group and others, by this summer’s events in Ferguson, Missouri. 

As law enforcement leaders, it is incumbent upon each of us to take constructive, inclusive steps to rebuild trust and instill respect for the rule of law in all of the communities where these tensions are uncovered.  This is something that our new Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, Vanita Gupta – who’s here with us today – understands well.  She recognizes, as we all do, that this is best accomplished through a collaborative process with law enforcement, with the proactive leadership of OJP and the COPS Office, under Karol Mason and Ron Davis.  We are all committed to standing with you in the effort to build trust.  And fortunately, thanks to robust partnerships that bind the Department of Justice to the IACP – and the innovative work of so many of the chiefs who are here in Orlando today – together, we are making great strides to do just that.

As a result of the leadership that so many local police are providing – and the Justice Department-led reform efforts that are underway in St. Louis County and elsewhere – we are making this effort a focused, national priority.  The Justice Department has launched a substantial new program – known as the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice – to enhance procedural justice, to reduce implicit bias, and to support racial reconciliation.  Through this and other programs – as in our regular interactions with exemplary law enforcement executives like you – my colleagues and I are doing important work to see that tensions are addressed, rather than swept under the rug; to build dialogue and bridge longstanding divides; and to ensure fair treatment for everyone who comes into contact with police – while enhancing citizen compliance with law enforcement authorities.

At its core, this is about far more than addressing the issues highlighted by the intense public response to events in Ferguson.  It’s about practicing sound and effective law enforcement.  That’s why, under the leadership of our COPS Office, the Justice Department is working with the IACP and others 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 targeted 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. 

After all, we’ve come to understand over the years that – when people have faith in the integrity of the process – they are more likely to cooperate with local authorities and obey the law, even if they disagree with particular outcomes.  And that’s why our COPS Office has invested more than $14 billion to keep our streets and communities safer through community policing – funding over 126,000 officers; awarding approximately 39,000 grants to state, local, tribal, and territorial law enforcement agencies; and training more than 700,000 law enforcement personnel, community members, and government leaders.

In September, I announced a new round of investments in this work – in the form of nearly $124 million in grants under the COPS Hiring Program.  This important funding will support the hiring and retention of 944 officers at 215 agencies and municipalities around the country.  And the impact of these grants will extend far beyond the creation and preservation of law enforcement jobs – helping to strengthen relationships between these officers and the communities they serve, to improve public safety, and to keep more officers on the streets.

This has the potential to make a profound, positive difference in the lives of millions of people.  But it’s only the beginning. 

Through our highly successful Byrne Justice Assistance Grants – or Byrne-JAG – the Bureau of Justice Assistance, a part of our Office of Justice Programs, has awarded nearly $290 million in funding to 56 states and territories, and more than 1,000 local jurisdictions, during the last fiscal year alone.  These resources are helping to spur innovation and drive evidence-based policing in countless communities.  And thanks to initiatives like VALOR, which has trained more than 15,000 officers at over 110 training events – and ALERRT, our active shooter response training partner through VALOR, which has trained over 50,000 officers – we’re making good on our commitment not only to ensure success, but to promote safety, among law enforcement professionals throughout America.

By helping to prevent violence, to improve officer resilience, and to increase survivability during violent encounters – including ambushes and active shooter situations – the Justice Department is empowering our local, state, and tribal partners.  And under our Bulletproof Vest Partnership Program, we’re also helping to provide access to the lifesaving equipment that they need to stay safe. 

Since we launched this important program in 1999, the Department has awarded more than $390 million toward the purchase of over 1.1 million bulletproof vests.  In 2013 and 2014 alone, protective vests saved the lives of at least 31 law enforcement and corrections officers.  And three of their vests were purchased, in part, with BVP funds. 

Beyond these efforts, the Justice Department is striving to expand access to the tools our law enforcement officials need to counter a wide range of evolving public safety threats, from human trafficking to opioid addiction.  I’m pleased that a new e-Guide – available from our Office for Victims of Crime – gives law enforcement and victim service providers the information and insights they need to respond effectively to crimes involving forced sex and labor.  This updated resource will help strengthen anti-human trafficking task forces now in operation across the country. 

And as we face down the growing threat posed by addiction to heroin and other opioids – including prescription painkillers – I’m proud to announce that the Justice Department is rolling out a new online toolkit to help law enforcement professionals respond to drug overdose emergencies both safely and effectively.

Because local police officers are often the first to arrive on the scenes of these overdoses, it is absolutely critical that we equip them to respond appropriately.  As you know, naloxone – also known as Narcan – is a fast-acting drug that’s extremely effective at restoring breathing to a victim in the midst of a heroin or other opioid overdose.  In recent months, I have begun urging local law enforcement authorities to equip their officers with naloxone.  I’ve directed federal law enforcement agencies under the authority of the Justice Department to review their policies to determine whether their personnel should also be equipped with this potentially-lifesaving remedy – just as ATF Special Response Team medics have been for some time now.  And in the course of my regular interactions with leaders like you, I’ve heard a number of requests to offer new information and assistance to public safety professionals who carry this drug.

In response, we’ve assembled new online toolkit, comprising over 80 resources from 30 contributing law enforcement and public health agencies.  This naloxone toolkit is available today on the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s website.  And I encourage you all to take full advantage of the information it provides. 

Coupled with the targeted reforms we’ve made under the “Smart on Crime” initiative I announced last year, I am confident that these efforts will save and improve lives while conserving precious resources.  As you know as well as anyone, we must never – and we will never – stop being vigilant against crime, or the conditions and choices that breed it.  But investing in effective prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation; ensuring that incarceration is used appropriately – and reserving the toughest penalties for serious, violent, or high-level traffickers – can only serve to strengthen our criminal justice system as a whole.

Now, I know there are some who have suggested that recent changes in charging and sentencing policies might somehow undermine our ability – at the federal level – to induce cooperation from defendants in certain cases.  But – as I know from experience, and as so many of the seasoned law enforcement leaders in this room surely recognize – the reality is that these concerns are overstated.

Defendant cooperation depends on the certainty of swift and fair punishment, not on the length of a mandatory minimum sentence.  Like anyone old enough to remember the era before sentencing guidelines existed and mandatory minimums took effect, I can testify to the fact that federal guidelines attempted to systematize the kinds of negotiations that were naturally taking place anyway.  Far from impeding the work of federal prosecutors, the sentencing reforms I’ve mandated have strengthened their discretion.  And the belief that cooperation is wholly dependent on mandatory minimums does not align with objective facts. 

Going forward – with these important, commonsense changes; with the resources and support the Justice Department is providing; and with the strong leadership of the IACP and each of its members – I am confident that we will continue to see crime and violence decrease in all of the jurisdictions represented here.  We will continue to ensure that America’s finest can protect themselves, and secure their communities, as effectively as possible.  And – with dedication and persistence, in partnership with one another, and thanks to the bravery of our men and women on the front lines – we will continue to make the progress that our citizens both need and deserve. 

In the weeks ahead – wherever my individual path may take me – I want you to know that my commitment to this work, and my abiding respect and admiration for you and your colleagues, will never waver.  I am proud of all that we have accomplished together over the last six years.  I look forward to everything we will achieve in the critical days to come.  And I thank you all, once again, for your tireless work, for your friendship – and for your ongoing service to the nation we love so dearly. 

Updated August 18, 2015