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Remarks as Delivered 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 than it has to be.  It is a climate in which politicians are sometimes inclined not to support the police and sometimes they throw the police to the dogs. And it is also characterized by a deceitful national media that seizes on a relatively few incidents to scapegoat police as a whole and cultivate a false narrative that our police are systemically evil.  It’s a media that seems to countenance the throwing of bricks and rocks at our police officers, capable of killing them or seriously injuring them. That countenance is slowly veneering that all police are bastards or cops are bastards, or that they should be thrown and fried in a pan like bacon. These are the men and women who put their lives on the line to serve their communities to protect people they do not know at great risk to themselves. And yet, this is perfectly countenanced in our society by the media.

So I salute you, and your departments for standing tall in these times and continuing to carry out your duty of protecting 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 our country and they deserve to be. 

I want to say something initially about the core of our mission which is protecting our communities from violent, predatory crime.  This is not discretionary, this is not a discretionary function of government.  This is the reason we establish governments in the first place.

Let me first put things in context.  As you know, I served as Attorney General in the early 90’s, '91 and '92, when violent crime rates were at an all-time high – twice the level it is today.  We got there through three-decades of lenience – the 60s, 70s and 80s – with soft-on-crime policies very much like those that many states are now adopting – with revolving-door justice, sky-high recidivism rates, and an unwillingness to take chronic violent predators off the street.

This led to the unbelievable carnage which peaked in 1992.  The country came to its senses and there was a consensus that we had to strengthen our criminal justice systems and start targeting and incapacitate the chronic violent offenders that have always been responsible for the lion’s share of violent crime.

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

Unfortunately, people seem to have taken it for granted that we have these low crime rates, lower crime rates than we did, we have seen that 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 uptick in violent crime in many of our cities.  But with the lockdowns and with the demonization of police, we have seen that increase take hold.

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 put it more into social programs.

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

On the face of the Department of Justice building in Washington there is the Latin inscription which reads, and I am translating:  “From law and order, everything else flows.” All the social programs in the world will not result in a hill of beans if there is carnage on the streets.

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 the “table stakes.”  Without these, any idea of social progress or addressing the root causes of crime are folly.

I have yet to meet a real civic leader in our inner-city communities that suffer from violent crime, who actually live in that community, who want fewer police.  Yes, they want the respect that they are due as citizens of our country, but, if anything, they want more police. They want greater safety. They are tired of living behind bars, while criminals roam the streets completely free.

Another false dichotomy lurks underneath the idea of “community policing.”  Community policing is great, and all of us are for community policing.  But somehow the soft-on-crime crowd thinks of it (and they are not really sure what it means, they like it, it’s a nice buzz word) as an alternative to a strong police response to crime. They think it’s an alternative targeting the chronic violent offenders and getting them off our streets, it’s a nice idea because it does not require that kind of tough action.  But 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 those offenders off the street.  People are not going to cooperate with police and identify the predators for the police if they think the criminal is going to be out on the street the next day.

That is why what we are seeing for example, and I just give this as an example, in New York is such a tragedy. A great police force with, you know, a huge city, a diverse city, a city where you would expect a much higher crime rate, and during times did have a much greater crime rate. But was doing very well with low levels of crime and a very strong community policing program. And that has been completely upset and overturned by these ill-considered laws passed at all, which essentially do away with pre-trial detention, and provide defense lawyers with the identity of the informants almost instantaneously. It’s a tragedy.

That is why the movement of many jurisdictions to do away with cash bail and undermine pre-trial detention is so destructive and ultimately dangerous.

I want to also point out that addressing the root causes of crime is not a new idea.  We have been pouring money into social programs for many decades, programs designed to address the root causes of crime, and frankly they have not been very successful. And when I say pour money, I mean tens of trillions of dollars.

From our standpoint, I think we all know 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 communities that are deeply affected by crime.  This philosophy was behind the idea of weed and seed, which I initiated in 1991. The object being to try to coordinate all the social spending, the after-school programs, and all the other aspects of social spending from the other agencies and bring them to the table with law enforcement on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis, sitting at the table with the community leaders. And I know that many of you are using this approach on an ad hoc basis in your cities, trying to bring some order out of this. But we have to do this much more systematically as a country across the board and bring all the resources, state and federal, to better coordinate them with law enforcement.

And this goes back to the very point I started with, which is the foundation has to be safety.  But I also think that we need an addition to the coordination of these efforts.  We should not just pour money into the same old failed programs. We need to be willing to try new approaches. Some of the old programs, although very well intentioned, frequently perpetuate crime by subsidizing bad behavior and sometimes creating deeper dependency.

One of the things that is most important is economic growth and prosperity of the private sector, it’s critical. And then ensuring the opportunity involved with that growth reaches every community. Before COVID, we saw unprecedented progress in this area.  And that can happen again. 

And policies like Economic Opportunity Zones can also help ensure that opportunities are brought to these communities. 

I think we need more innovative solutions in education.  Money is not the problem in education.  We have tripled in real terms the amount we spend on each student in our public schools.  I think we need to experiment with different schools, a broad range of options for parents, charter schools, schools affiliated with local churches, schools that are capable of acting in loco parentis, which public schools are no longer capable of doing. School choice I think would allow much more innovation and help us address much more affectively the problem of juvenile crime in our inner cities.

But, again, as I say that law enforcement has to be the foundation, and we have to play our position. By that I mean, and in public debate law enforcement is frequently confronted with the claim, you cannot, it would be so much better if we had this, this and this, which are not in our bailiwick. And instead of getting drawn into that, we have to play our position. Let the other agencies play their position. Yes, in coordination with us, but our position, we have to focus on achieving our objective, which is stopping the bloodshed and where people can flourish and community life can flourish. And we can do that by providing safety. That’s our mission. All the other good ideas are good, but the police cannot perform every function in society. We could probably do it, or you could probably do it better than many of the people doing it, but we still have to stick and play our position.

Now let me turn to the question of reform.  Today, the media characterizes reform or focuses on reform as it relates to reforming the police, as if the police are the biggest problem we face in the realm of public safety.  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 the issue of police reform, I want say a few words about another reform effort that I think is more essential.

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 pretty good job.  They identify and catch the criminal.  It is the rest of the system that often falls down – the prosecution and adjudication of the case, and even the corrections system and the reentry system, and the system of guarding against recidivism.  These are where our weaknesses are today, not the effectiveness of the police.

In many cities, the criminal justice system at the state level is becoming dysfunctional.  We are seeing laws pass that ignore the safety of the community.  We are seeing so-called “social justice” DAs who do not believe it’s their job to enforce the law, and we are also seeing judges who are indulgent of criminals and disregard the safety of the community.

This is where the most dramatic change and reform is needed.  The American people need to understand that they control their own destiny. They are ones who determine the level of their own safety.  If they want an effective criminal justice system, they are going to have to pay attention to who they elect to be District Attorney.  They are going to have to pay attention to the judges they elect or vote to retain.  And they are going to have to select mayors, and select people who understand that public safety is the primary duty of government.

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

We need to continue to attract the best and the brightest to police 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, but because we are succeeding.  But like all human institutions we are not perfect.  We cannot be perfect, because we are composed, all human institutions are composed, of those recalcitrant imperfect humans.  But we have to keep striving to be the best we can be and I think all of you as leaders do exactly that from my experience.

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 police and public safety.  The fact is that, even before Minneapolis and COVID, the burden on our officers was becoming heavier.  It was becoming harder to compete in a full employment economy to attract the best candidates.  It was harder to find funds for training our police officers to meet the complex challenges they face and the funding necessary to deploy the technology that can make them more effective and safer for the officers.     

The fact is that public safety budgets as a percentage of public spending have remained stagnant for over a half century.  We need to increase investments in law enforcement.

It strikes me as ironic that we are willing to pay as a society, and rightfully so, a very high price to save lives from this horrible pandemic we have, COVID, and we do as a people sustain a great burden to do that, a great cost to do that. And we stay home, businesses are closed, and as I say that may be appropriate and is to a degree. But crime is a form of a pandemic, and we know who the carriers are. In most cases, most of you know in your own communities the drivers of violent crime. It’s worth an investment to save those lives, to save those innocent lives, and to save the property costs, and the blighted lives that crime brings with it. And so we have to wake up and once again reprioritize law enforcement.

Beyond the funding, I know you are all committed to continue to professionalize and improve your departments. And this administration is committed to supporting your efforts. The President’s Executive Order directed the department, directed me to take a number of steps toward that goal, including creating new law-enforcement certification standards, and also setting up a national database of officers who have been determined to have engaged in excessive force. And we have completed our work at the department and our proposed implementation of that executive order is now pending in the White House. I expect that its release is imminent. We also hope to release the detailed report of the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice. I know many of you participated on the working groups that were part of that effort. The final report has been drafted, I think there are many excellent constructive ideas, unfortunately we have been enjoined by a court from issuing it at this point but I do expect and hope that we will be able to get those out very shortly.

Part of sensible reform that we should undertake is to be honest about the phenomenon of excessive force.  Are there instances of excessive force?  Of course there are instances of excessive force. We are dealing with human beings. No one is more focused on reducing these 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. Oh you want to fight? I’ll see you tomorrow. That officer is duty bound to try to deescalate, but failing that, to subdue by force the suspect. They are frequently at a disadvantage in a struggle because they have to worry about their fire arm being taken from them. And the stakes for the officer could not be higher – it is their life.  It is whether they go home at the end of the day.  They have to make split second decision in a fast-moving, confusing situation.

The media fosters misunderstanding of the risks involved in these situations.  I remember watching a video of two officers rolling around trying to subdue an individual who was fighting them fiercely, and almost had the upper hand on the officers. The individual had a gun in his belt, and was reaching, was trying to reach for the gun. And one of the officers who was fighting with him was trying to keep his hands away from the gun. And this was going on, seesawing back and forth, and finally one of the officers managed to break away, took a gun and shot, took out his gun and shot the suspect. Who as I said during this was trying to get to his own gun. And the media, you know, a lot of heavy breathing about how terrible this was. The guy did not have his gun in his hand when he was shot. It was obviously a good shoot. Those police officers deserved to go home at the end of the day. And the law does not contemplate an even fight. The law contemplates using the force necessary to protect the public, including the police officers involved.

The media also frequently hyperventilates when a suspect with a knife who is refusing to drop the knife is shot, as if this was an unfair fight. But they do not educate the public about how deadly someone with a knife can be within a second. The ground that they can cover and the fact that they can kill a police officer. It’s a deadly weapon. And use of force in those circumstances is usually justified.

 The press frequently seizes on how many shots are fired.  As if the number of shots fired means it was excessive force, regardless of whether there was predication to use deadly force. But it’s never explained to the public that the police are taught to keep firing until the threat is neutralized, and they know the threat is neutralized. And that may involve numerous shots.

When I was Attorney General last time, I took the firearms course down at Quantico.  And it involved the FATS machine where you see the scenarios and you decide whether to shoot or not shoot. And like almost everyone else who goes through that, I started out saying, ‘I’m really going to be cool here. I am going to thread the needle each time. So I will be a little bit restrained.’ And I started getting shot on a regular basis. And I aired the other direction and I ended up shooting a lot of innocent people. And I think every member of the media should go through that and see the difficulty of these decisions and what can happen.  

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

The absolute worst thing would be to adopt a proposal to eliminate qualified immunity, which protects police officers from personal liability when they make good-faith errors in enforcing the law.  If a police officer knowingly violates someone’s clearly established constitutional rights, then 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 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.  It used to be understood in this society, and that’s why we have strong laws against resisting police. Resisting police puts everyone in jeopardy. It leads to an escalating situation which endangers the suspect and it endangers the officer, and it endangers bystanders and innocent members of the public. And we must have zero tolerance once again for physical resistance to officers.  That will save lives.  It will save the lives of our police officers, and of suspects and of citizens.

Finally, if we are interested in real reform, we have to distinguish between people of goodwill who have grievances and want to protest them but at the end of the day are genuinely interested in improving policing and bringing about safer and fairer society. And we have to distinguish those people from those whose professed agenda is to tear down, to destroy the existing system.  The goal of these instigators, these violent instigators, is to precipitate violence with police and to ultimately demoralize the police. These are the radicals who have hijacked legitimate, first amendment demonstrations and engaged in violence including Molotov cocktails and brick throwing, sometimes shooting.  

I was just in Saint Louis yesterday. And it was not widely reported around the country that on the evening of June 1, June 2, on the evening of that big demonstration four officers were wounded by gun shots.

Those attacking police are not exercising their first amendment rights. They are criminals and have to be dealt with accordingly.

So let me close by saying that I have been visiting in the last couple of weeks our Operation Legend cities.  And as I think all of you know that’s our response to this increase in violence in nine cities around the country. We pulled together a group of 1,000 federal law enforcement officers and have tried to increase our task forces. And we have funded additional task forces with grants and additional man power. You know, we have been trying to step up the fight against violent crime in these cities. And we are starting to see tangible results that come from this strong partnership between federal, state and local law enforcement.  I think together as partners, we can make our cities safer and more prosperous.  And every time I visit a city I am awestruck by the tenacity and the bravery of the police officers who are engaged in Operation Legend. And I am proud of serving as attorney general primarily because it enables me to work closely with the law enforcement community. I want you to know that in this administration you can count on the Department of Justice to be your partner in the vital work of upholding the rule of law and building a more effective criminal justice system. Thank you.

Updated October 17, 2020