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Remarks by Attorney General William P. Barr at the Major Cities Chiefs Association Conference


New Orleans, LA
United States

I appreciate the invitation to address this group.  I want to start by thanking you, and the men and women you lead, for serving in what I think is the most noble profession in our country – enforcing the law and keeping our communities safe. 

Even in the best of times, there is no more challenging profession.  It requires skill, courage and the patience of Job.  But the climate today has made the job 10 times more difficult.  It is a climate characterized by cowardly politicians who do not support their police forces and by a deceitful national media that seizes on a relatively few incidents to scapegoat police and cultivate a false narrative that our police are systemically evil.  

I salute you, and your departments for standing tall in these times and continuing to carry out your duty to the public.  America is fortunate to have the professional police leaders and departments we have today, and despite the constant propaganda of the media, the American people recognize that.  The police, along with military, remain among the most respected institutions in the nation.

I want to say something initially about the core of our mission – protecting our communities from violent crime.  This is not a discretionary government service.  This is the reason we have governments in the first place.

Let me first put things in context.  As you know, I was Attorney General in the early 90’s when violent crime rates were at an all-time high – twice what they are today.  We had gotten there through a three-decade period – the 60s, 70s and 80s – with soft-on-crime policies very much like those which many states are now adopting – with revolving-door justice, sky-high recidivism rates, and an unwillingness to take violent predators off the street.

This led to the unbelievable levels of carnage that peaked in 1992.  That resulted in a consensus that we had to strengthen our criminal justice systems and start to target and incapacitate the chronic violent predators who are responsible for the lion’s share of the violent crime.

Those policies worked as they always do.  For over 20 years we had falling crime rates, and violent crime was cut in half. 

Unfortunately, people seem to have taken lower crime rates for granted and we have seen many states readopt the misbegotten policies that led to the crime crisis in the first place.

Even before COVID and the death of George Floyd this year, we were seeing an untick in violent crime in many of our cities.  But with the lockdowns and the demonization of police, we have seen that increase take hold in many places.

You often hear today the same sloganeering that was prevalent in the 60s and 70s.  It is said, that you cannot address crime by going after the criminals, but you have to address the “root causes” of crime – which means more social spending.  The defund the police movement reflects this philosophy – take funding from police and spend it on social programs.

This is a false dichotomy.  I think everyone here today would agree that tough law enforcement cannot be the only solution.  We must also address the pathologies that contribute to crime.  But they are not alternative approaches.  They must be complementary.  Strong law enforcement may not be able to do it alone – but it is indispensable – there can be no solution without it.  Law and order is the foundation of all social progress.

On the face of the DOJ building in Washington is the Latin inscription that translates:  “From law and order, everything else flows.”

Businesses cannot take root, if our streets are shooting galleries.  Schools cannot redeem our young people, if they are overrun by gangs.

A strong police presence and a strong law enforcement response to violent crime in our cities are “table stakes.”  Without these, any idea of social progress is folly.

I have yet to meet a real civic leader in our inner-city communities that suffer from violent crime, who actually lives in that community, who wants fewer police.  Yes, they want the respectful treatment they are due as citizens, but, if anything, they want more police.

Another false dichotomy lurks under the idea of “community policing.”   Community policing is great, and we are all for it.  But somehow the soft-on-crime crowd thinks of it (and they are not really sure what it really is) as an alternative to targeting the chronic violent offenders and locking them up.  It is not an alternative.  In fact, it does not work at all unless you have a strong criminal justice system that is effective in taking violent offenders off the street.  People are not going to cooperate with police and identify the predators if they think the criminal is going to be out on the street the next day,   

That is why the movement of many jurisdictions to do away with pre-trial detention and bail is so destructive of community policing and so dangerous to our communities.

I want to also point out that addressing the root causes of crime is not a new idea.  We have been pouring massive resources for many decades into social programs designed to address the root causes of crime, without much success.

From our standpoint, these programs would be more effective if they were coordinated with, and operated in tandem with our crime fighting efforts, and with the constructive leadership in affected neighborhoods.  This philosophy was behind the idea of weed and seed, which I initiated in 1991.  I know many of you are trying to get this done on an ad hoc basis in your own cities, but we need this approached systematically.

But I also think we need new approaches and not just pour money into the same old failed programs that frequently perpetuate the problems by subsidizing bad behavior or creating deeper dependency.

The economic growth and prosperity of the private sector is critical, along with policies that ensure that economic opportunity is provided in the inner cities. Before COVID struck, we saw unprecedented progress in this area.  And that can happen again. 

And policies like Economic Opportunity Zones can help ensure that opportunities are brought to the inner cities. 

I think we need more innovation in education as well.  Money is not the problem.  We have tripled in real terms the amount we spend on each student in the public schools.  I think we need more kinds of schools more capable of acting in loco parentis.  School choice would allow for more charter schools, schools affiliated with local churches, and so forth.

But, again, as I say – law enforcement is the indispensable foundation for any social progress.  We have to play our position.

Now let me turn to the question of reform.  Today, the media focus is on reforming policing.  I do not think anyone here would suggest that we should ever stop improving and professionalizing our police forces.  It is a constant and never-ending journey.  But, before turning to that, I want say a few words about another reform effort that is even more essential today.

The criminal justice system is a process that is only as strong as its weakest link. As long as I can remember the police, at the front end, have done a good job.  They do a pretty good job of identifying and catching the criminal.  It is the rest of the system that more often falls down – the prosecution and adjudication of the case.  And that is where we see the weakness today.

In many cities, the criminal justice system is becoming dysfunctional.  We are seeing laws that ignore the safety of the community – like the laws doing away with cash bail or pre-trial detention.  We are seeing so-called “social justice” DAs who do not enforce the law, and also judges who are indulgent of criminals and disregard the safety of the community.

This is where the most dramatic change is needed.  The American people need to understand that their own safety depends on them.  If they want an effective criminal justice system, they are going to have to pay attention to who they elect as District Attorney.  They are going to have to pay attention to the judges they elect or retain.  And they are going to have to select mayors who understand that public safety is the primary duty of government.

Now let me turn to police reform.  Over many decades, we have steadily improved and professionalized our police forces in this country. We are blessed today with the most effective, professional, diverse, and well-led police establishments in the world.  Our police leaders – all of you – recognize there is always more work to do.

We need to continue to attract and retain the best and the brightest to the ranks.  We need to provide the best training available to meet the evolving challenges our officers face on the streets.  And we need to foster systems of accountability that are fair to our officers but also have sufficient teeth to weed out the bad actors.

We need to continue reform not because we are failing.  We are succeeding.  Like all human institutions we are not perfect.  We cannot be, because we are made up of imperfect humans.  But we never stop striving to be the best we can.

The starting point for moving forward is the need for police to be adequately resourced and supported.  Defunding the police is the exact opposite of what we need to do.  We need to invest more in the police and public safety.  The fact is that, even before Minneapolis and COVID, the burden on our officers was become heavier.  It was becoming harder to compete for the best candidates.  It was harder to find funds for the training our police officers need to meet the complex challenges they face or to deploy the technology that can make them more effective and keep them safer.     

The fact is that public safety budgets as a percentage of public spending have remain stagnant for many decades.  We need to increase investments in law enforcement.

As you know, this Administration wants to support your efforts to continue to professionalize and improve your departments.  The President’s Executive Order directs the Department of Justice to take a number of steps toward that goal, including creating new law-enforcement certification standards, and we are close to implementing that order.  We also hope to soon release the detailed report of the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, although it has unfortunately been delayed by litigation.  

Part of sensible reform is to be honest about the phenomenon of excessive force.  Are there instances of excessive force?  Of course there are.  No one is more focused on reducing them than the leaders in this room.  But we also have to be honest that instances of deliberate, cold blooded excessive force are relatively rare and becoming rarer.

And many of the instances that are presented by the media as involving excessive force are not being fairly presented in context.  The vast majority of instances come about when suspect engages in forceful resistance to a police officer, triggering a sudden violent affray.

People have to remember that a police officer does not have the luxury of walking away from a violent suspect.  They try to de-escalate, but they must subdue that suspect. They are frequently at a disadvantage because in any struggle they have to make sure their weapon is not taken. And the stakes for the officer could not be higher – it is their life.  It is whether they go home.  They have to make split second decisions in fast-moving situations.

The media fosters misunderstanding of the risks involved in these situations. 

The bottom line is that, if we are going to send our police officers into uncertain and potentially fatal encounters, we need to be fair to them in judging their actions.

 The absolute worse thing would be to adopt the radical proposal to eliminate qualified immunity, which protects police officers from personal liability when they make good-faith errors in enforcing the law.  If an officer knowingly violates someone’s clearly established rights, personal liability may be appropriate.  But qualified immunity provides breathing space for officers to do their jobs without fear that an inadvertent or unpredictable error will subject them to financial ruin.  Without qualified immunity individual officers would be deterred from going into risky situations that are necessary to save lives.

If we wish to minimize excessive-force situations, the most important step we could take is to re-establish the principle that there is no valid justification for physically resisting a police officer.  The approach must be “comply first, complain later.”  This will save the lives of officers and of suspects.

Finally, if we are interested in real reform, we have to distinguish between people of goodwill who are genuinely interested in improving policing and bringing about public safety from those whose professed agenda is to tear down the existing system.  Their goal is to precipitate violence against police and to neuter and demoralize police. These are the radicals who have hijacked demonstrations and reengage in violence.  Molotov cocktails and bricks.  These are not peaceful protesters exercising their First Amendment rights.  They are criminals and thugs and must be dealt with accordingly.

Let me close by saying that I have been visiting our Operation Legend cities over the past few weeks.  In all of them, I am seeing the tangible results of the strong partnership between Federal and state and local law enforcement.  As partners, we can help make our cities safer and more prosperous.  And as long as I am Attorney General, you can count on the Department of Justice to be your partner in the vital work of enforcing the rule of law and building a more effective criminal justice system.

Updated October 19, 2020