Attorney General William P. Barr Delivers Remarks at the International Association of Chiefs of Police Officer Safety and Wellness Symposium

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Good morning.  It is wonderful to be in Miami and the great state of Florida.

Chief Casstevens, I appreciate the kind introduction.  Thank you for your decades of service in uniform to our country, first as an MP with the U.S. Army’s legendary 101st Airborne Division and, afterward, as a police officer in Illinois.  All of us are grateful for your leadership of the IACP, which has been shaping and advancing the police profession for well over a century.

Thank you all for being here today, and particularly for your concern for the critical issue at hand.  This Conference is dedicated to examining challenges to officer safety and wellness.  Our shared objective is overcoming these challenges so that our more than 900,000 men and women in blue are best positioned to carry out their charge: serving and protecting the American people.  I want you all to know that there is no higher priority for the Department of Justice than the safety and security of the American people.  To meet that charge, we must have your back. 

I am confident everyone here agrees that this Conference is timely.  There is no tougher job in America than serving as a law enforcement officer.  This was true in the past, and it is even truer today.  As you know better than anyone, the trials our country’s law enforcement officers encounter on a daily basis are complex, difficult, and wide-ranging.

Some of the challenges confronting officers have been around for a long time, while others are relatively new.  Policing is dangerous.  The reality is that being a police officer is more difficult today than it has ever been before.  

One reason is the emergence of a deeply troubling attitude towards police in some parts of society.  Far from respecting the men and women who put their lives on the line to protect us, it has become common in some quarters to scapegoat and disrespect police officers and disparage the vital role you play in society.  This undoubtedly makes your already difficult job of protecting the public even harder.

Nor is the rise on attacks against police purely rhetorical; all too often, the attacks are physical.  Assaults against officers have jumped about 20 percent, up to about 60,000 a year.  In 2018, 106 officers died in line-of-duty incidents, 11 of whom lost their lives in ambush attacks, more than double the number of officers killed by ambush the previous year.  Last year, the number of officers who died in line-of-duty incidents rose to 134. 

Here in Florida, eight officers died in line-of-duty incidents in 2019, while two have already fallen this year.  I will now read their names, and let us take a moment of silence afterward.

  • Sgt. Steven Greco
  • Lt. Daniel Hinton
  • Sgt. David Thompson
  • Sgt. Anthony Neri
  • Officer James Brown
  • Deputy Sheriff Benjamin Nimtz
  • Sgt. Tracy Vickers
  • Officer Ken Foley
  • Officer Paul Dunn
  • Master Trooper Joseph Bullock

Thank you.  The sacrifice of these heroes will not be forgotten, and will continue to inspire and uplift many.

At the same time that our police officers must face these verbal and physical attacks, we have asked them to combat the fallout from a vast range of social pathologies, including mental illness, broken homes, homelessness, and drug abuse.  An officer is estimated to witness about 188 “critical incidents” over the course of his or her career, inflicting serious trauma.

According to one study, between 25 percent and 30 percent of police officers have stress-based physical health problems, most notably high blood pressure and coronary heart disease.  Further:

  • 83 percent of officers report regularly dealing with domestic family disputes and crisis situations;
  • 80 percent report responding to felonies in progress;
  • 59 percent report incidents requiring the use of force;
  • 27 percent report exposure to dead or battered children;
  • 23 percent report being physically attacked.

It is a lot to ask men and women to protect the public from dangerous criminals at the same time that they do the jobs of social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists. 

Officers are seeing the worst side of society.  What they are seeing today is worse than ever.  And they are seeing it more often. 

I know you will be discussing the ways the ways in which these burdens are impacting the police today.

I would be remiss not to mention here the recruiting and retention crisis.  A full-employment economy combined with the demands of policing has made attracting and keeping high-caliber officers a nationwide challenge.  Fewer people are applying for law enforcement jobs and early exits and retirements are on the rise.  The number of sworn officers per capita has fallen over the last two decades.  The average number of full-time sworn officers in relation to the number of U.S. residents was down 11 percent between 1997 and 2016. 

Requiring law enforcement to do more with less exacerbates the problem, adding to the stress individual officers are already feeling.

Police officers are at a higher risk of suicide than any other profession.  Some of you likely know that we just lost another NYPD officer a few weeks ago.  In Florida, at least six officers lost their lives to suicide in 2019.  At least one Florida officer has fallen to suicide this year.

The rate of suicide among those in law enforcement and firefighting is 40 percent higher than the national average.  Nearly one in four officers experience thoughts of suicide at some point in their lives.  At least 228 officers took their own lives in 2019 – a 44-percent increase from the previous year.  Not only is that higher than the number of line-of-duty deaths, it reflects a steady increase in officer suicides over the past several years.

These are staggering statistics.  A lot more must be done.  Our men and women who wear the badge are some of our country’s strongest and bravest people.  And like the rest of us, there are times in their lives when they need support.  Military veterans and police are strong, brave, yet reluctant to come forward and seek help and support.  Everyone goes through difficulties.

We have a moral obligation to do all we can to support the men and women who keep us safe.  Fortunately, there has been growing recognition of that obligation.  Citizens have stepped up and made a difference.  Earlier this month, Officer Sean Wyman, hailing from the Tallahassee Police Department, was recognized with the Back the Blue Award for his bold efforts to raise awareness about suicide and deliver mental-health training to our police.

The challenges to policing and the rule of law widely and seriously impact our country’s law enforcement officers.  To counteract and surmount them, we must not only acknowledge that challenges exist, but address their effects head on.

To ensure the safety and wellbeing of America’s police officers, President Trump directed me to establish the Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice. 

The police have no greater champion than President Trump.  During his third State of the Union, he stressed – as he has many times – that we as a nation need to support the men and women of law enforcement at every level. 

President Trump recognizes that officer suicide is unacceptable and has taken steps to end it.  In July, he signed into law the bipartisan STOIC Act, which authorizes funding for mental-health and suicide-prevention services geared toward law enforcement.  Three months later, he signed the executive order creating the Commission at the IACP Conference and Exposition in Chicago.

Just last month at the Justice Department, I had the privilege of announcing the formal establishment of the Commission.  The first of its kind on criminal justice in half a century, the Commission will comprehensively assess the most pressing issues confronting law enforcement today, including challenges to officer health and wellness.

It should go without saying that officer safety and wellness is also a priority of the Department of Justice.  In 2019, the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) awarded $15 million under its VALOR and National Officer Safety Initiatives.  BJA has also provided nearly 4,000 trainings under VALOR to more than 124,000 law enforcement officers to improve safety, resilience, and well-being.  And BJA’s SAFLEO program is providing training, technical assistance, and resources to law enforcement and their families to help prevent law enforcement suicide. 

Further, the department’s National Institute of Justice has developed a strategic plan dedicated to safety, health, and wellness research.  It awarded more than $2 million to support officer safety research projects in 2018, and ramped up those investments to $3 million last year.

It is imperative that state and local jurisdictions not skimp on investing in law enforcement.  To maintain the professional police forces to which we have become accustomed, we must ensure ample budgets to fund proper compensation, full-force levels, sufficient equipment, and adequate training.

Money is critical, but government can only do so much.  Support for American law enforcement needs to come from the American people too.  At a minimum, support means that we as individuals lend officers an extra amount of goodwill for having chosen a life of difficult public service and frequent personal risk.

There were times in the past when we did not show enough respect for men and women who served in our armed forces.  I remember those times, particularly during and after the Vietnam War.  Today, thankfully, veterans and members of the military receive the respect they deserve for their sacrifice and heroism in defense of our nation.  

We should be showing our police officers the same gratitude we show our soldiers.  Soldiers protect our people by fighting our enemies abroad, while the police protect our people by guarding them here at home.  Foreign wars usually come to an end, but the battle that law enforcement fights never comes to an end.  There is never a final victory, it is constant.  That takes a special kind of courage and a special kind of sacrifice.   

While policing is demanding, it is also uniquely rewarding.  It is one of our country’s highest callings, and we are blessed that there are men and women of character willing to serve selflessly so that their fellow citizens can live securely.  We owe our officers the support and services they need to work their way through problems.

When President Trump signed the Executive Order forming the Commission, he pledged: “We want to take care of our law enforcement officers.”  Today’s conference and your participation in it comprise a sincere and enthusiastic endorsement of that goal.

Thank you so much for sharing your time this morning, and for everything you do for this country.

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Author: February 27, 2020

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