~ Monday, July 13, 2015
Remarks as prepared for delivery
Good morning – and thank you for the opportunity to be here today. I want to express my gratitude to Dr. [Cedric] Alexander for that kind introduction, and for his outstanding leadership of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. I also extend congratulations to incoming NOBLE President [Gregory] Thomas. I look forward to your leadership of this stellar organization. I’d also like to thank Chief [Rick] Hite and all the officers of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department for hosting us – and this important conference – in their beautiful city. It’s a pleasure to be among so many extraordinary partners, exceptional colleagues and good friends. And it’s a privilege to stand with such an inspiring and devoted group of public servants as we work to promote public safety, protect national security, and defend the rights of every individual who calls America home.
It is that vital mission that the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives has advanced for nearly four decades by bringing together law enforcement professionals at every level who are dedicated to ensuring “justice by action.” This group has made profound, positive and lasting differences in the well-being of our neighborhoods, in the defense of our homeland and in our fundamental approach to public safety in this country. Through comprehensive training programs, ardent advocacy and innovative thinking, you have enhanced careers while improving – and saving – countless lives. You have worked to open the doors of opportunity to all Americans, so that women and men of all backgrounds can serve the community and the country they love. And you have built bridges of understanding to populations in need and at risk, from formerly incarcerated individuals reentering society to the more than 60,000 young people you reach through your mentoring and leadership development programs.
In every case and every instance, you have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the communities you protect, to the high calling you exemplify and to the enduring ideals you uphold. Over my career in law enforcement – as a federal prosecutor, a United States Attorney and now as Attorney General of the United States – I have deeply admired how you and your fellow officers perform daunting tasks with courage and compassion. And at every stage along my journey, I have felt your support and guidance, and I thank you for your inspiration. I recognize the extraordinary leadership and strength of character you must possess in order to serve as “the conscience of law enforcement.” And I understand the value of your efforts not only to protect our communities, but to engage with our fellow citizens; not only to uphold the law, but to empower those whom it serves; not only to carry out the responsibilities of our profession, but to live up to the moral obligations of our country.
These are not simple objectives – and nowhere are the challenges more clear than in relationships between law enforcement and communities of color. In such a diverse nation with such a complex racial history, communities of color too often feel like the targets, rather than the beneficiaries, of law enforcement. Too often, law enforcement officers and executives can feel separated from the communities they serve. And too often, deeply-rooted tensions, anxieties and mistrust are allowed to fester until they violently erupt. In recent months, a series of tragedies in cities across the country has reminded us that these breakdowns can have devastating consequences and has awakened this nation to longstanding issues that we have a civic responsibility to address and that NOBLE has long seen and sought to bring to the forefront of public discourse.
After all, the work that you and your members are tasked to do – whether you serve law enforcement agencies or criminal justice practitioners at the federal, state, county, or municipal level – is essential to the safety of our citizens and the defense of our country. On matters of national security, you serve as our boots on the ground – monitoring the communities you know so well, identifying the seeds of homegrown terrorism and making sure they don’t take root. You’re keeping watch over threats to our cyber security, safeguarding our information networks against intrusions by state actors and lone-wolf attackers alike. And you stand on the front lines of our nationwide push to end human trafficking and assist trafficking survivors.
You know better than anyone that doing these jobs well – and serving our communities effectively – requires that we have a durable baseline of trust, respect, and mutual understanding between law enforcement and the citizens we serve. You know from experience that when officers and residents share reliable and resilient relationships, residents are more likely to help with investigations; victims and witnesses of crime are more likely to come forward; and all of us in law enforcement are better able to assist our neighbors and constituents when they are in danger – or simply in need of a helping hand. You recognize that the way forward involves both police engagement and community responsibility. True community policing has long been your hallmark, from the days of the late, great Lloyd Sealy to today.
I want you to know that I am committed to doing my part. Bolstering trust where relationships have frayed is one of my top priorities as Attorney General and I pledge to you that the Department of Justice will do everything we can to support the progress that you and all of our communities need and deserve. Last September, we launched the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, which is investing in training; advancing evidence-based strategies; spurring policy development; and supporting research that promotes credibility, enhances procedural justice, reduces implicit bias and drives racial reconciliation. In pilot sites across the country, we are working with community leaders to develop plans for progress, as well as specific strategies tailored to local needs. And as you may know, I recently embarked on a national community policing tour to showcase some of the outstanding work that law enforcement agencies and community groups are doing all across the country through innovative and collaborative programs designed to advance public safety, strengthen police-community relations, and foster mutual trust and respect. I’ve already visited Cincinnati and Birmingham, where we had robust and productive discussions with law enforcement officials and a variety of community leaders and stakeholders – and in the coming weeks, I will continue on to East Haven, Connecticut; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Seattle, Washington; and Richmond, California. I am optimistic that these roundtable conversations will help spur the improvements within law enforcement and community organizations that we would all like to see nationwide. We have a great deal of work to do – but even at this early stage, I have seen promising signs of progress that make me not only hopeful, but excited about where our journey will lead.
When I was in Cincinnati, on the first stop of my community policing tour, I went to Chase Elementary School to observe the city’s Right to Read Program, in which Cincinnati police officers mentor and tutor students. These young children had regular contact with officers and had formed strong bonds with them. They saw them as peers and helpers; trusted grownups and cherished friends. We played “Jeopardy” with the students and reviewed what they had learned. We talked about what they were doing in school, and what they want to be when they grow up. I asked if anyone wanted to be a police officer. And every hand shot up.
I asked them why – what made them want to be an officer? They told me that police officers keep us safe. They protect people who need protection. They get the bad guys. And then a quiet boy in the back of the classroom raised his hand and said, “Because they are the peacemakers.”
I wish everyone in this country could have witnessed that moment. I want every American to have a chance to know a law enforcement officer as well as those children do. I want every American to share the awe that I have always felt for the extraordinary work law enforcement officers perform. And I want every American to understand that no one pursues this difficult line of work for glory, for fame, or for power – we do it because we are heeding the call of public service; because we want to do our part for our neighbors and fellow citizens; and because we want to make the world a safer, stronger, more peaceful place.
Those of us in this room have a unique opportunity – and a special obligation – to advance that understanding. I am reminded of the words of W.E.B. Du Bois, who captured the duality of the black experience when he wrote that “one ever feels his twoness.” I have always believed that the benefit of that internal struggle is a vital perspective on the value of diversity – not to meet a quota, but to expand a worldview; not to set ourselves apart, but to connect with our extended communities. As men and women of color, we have an opportunity to ensure and to make clear that law enforcement at every level – from the Office of the Attorney General to the officers on the front lines – stands united with all Americans in the pursuit of a safer shared nation, a brighter common future, and a more just society; that we will protect and serve every community, from rural towns to prosperous enclaves to neighborhoods defined by discord and distress; and that we will never settle for trickle-down justice that protects and serves a fortunate few, because we know what that feels like, and we will never condemn another to that fate. What we will always insist on is nothing less than equal justice; comprehensive justice; justice that “rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” That is our goal; that is our creed; and that is the lodestar that will set our course – not only today, but every day, in every community across the country.
Now, I have no illusions that, going forward, this work will be easy, or that our long-sought goals will be achieved overnight. But thanks to faithful public servants like you – the women and men in this room, and your partners across the nation – I also have no doubt about what we can accomplish together. This country – and certainly this impressive gathering – has never failed to regard seemingly intractable challenges as manifest opportunities. We have never failed to stand up for what is right in the face of what is difficult. And we have never failed to look toward the horizon with determination, with courage, and with resolve. I know NOBLE. You have always stood at the challenging intersection of our communities’ greatest needs for both understanding and protection. You have worked all day and well into the night to protect those who fear, to comfort those who have been harmed, and to ensure that all our citizens know the security promised them by those who dreamed the dream of this great country of ours. You have seen all of this and done all of this because you are the peacemakers – the guardians. I want you to know that, as you pursue this effort, you not only have my grateful thanks – you also have my full and unwavering support.
Thank you, once again, for your remarkable service, your inspiring leadership, and your unshakable fidelity to our most deeply-held values and our highest ideals. Thank you for holding our safety in the palm of your hand. I wish you a most productive conference. And I urge you to keep up the outstanding work.