Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Thank you, Vince [Hawkes]. It’s wonderful to be here.
I’m grateful to Vince and to all the leadership and staff at the International Association of Chiefs of Police for the work they do, every day, on behalf of brave law enforcement officers across the United States and throughout the world. The relationship between the IACP and my office, the Office of Justice Programs, goes back many years, but it has never been stronger than it is at this moment. We have stood side by side in the fight against crime – a fight our Attorney General has called “ceaseless” and “unrelenting” – and our partnership has never wavered. What unites us is a deep and abiding respect for our law enforcement professionals and an unflagging commitment to their safety and welfare. I am proud of the work we have done, and will continue to do, together.
Let me say here at the beginning that for this Department of Justice, nothing is more important than the safety of our communities and the well-being of our nation’s law enforcement officers. We are so fortunate to have an Attorney General who fully appreciates the dangers our officers face and who will stop at nothing to give them the tools they need to undertake their sworn duties effectively and safely. And he understands that protecting our officers, just like protecting our communities, is a collective responsibility, one that involves federal agencies working hand in hand with state and local departments.
Attorney General Barr is of one mind with our President. President Trump loves our law enforcement professionals. He sings your praises at every turn. As he said in Chicago last October, “Every day, Americans get up and go to work, our children go safely to school, and our families sleep soundly at night because the people in this room stand guard. You risk your lives and you save countless others.”
This is a President who understands the sacrifices our officers make and who deeply admires your courage. His admiration is shared throughout his Administration – especially, as you heard yesterday, by our Attorney General.
I’m so proud to be part of a Department of Justice so fully committed to supporting law enforcement. As a prosecutor earlier in my career, I worked closely with local police, particularly on domestic violence investigations, which, as we all know, can be some of the most volatile cases for police. I came away with a full appreciation for the difficult and often thankless work that they perform, and my respect has continued to grow.
As the Attorney General has reminded us, these are very challenging times for law enforcement. You are finding yourselves called on to perform ever more, and ever more dangerous, duties. The drugs you seize are more lethal, the guns more powerful, the gangs more bent on violence. Online exploitation and other forms of cybercrime are becoming more sophisticated and more vile. International criminal organizations and human trafficking operations are working relentlessly to establish a foothold in your communities. And social problems like mental illness and homelessness are now being dropped at the precinct door.
Meanwhile, police are literally under attack. In addition to the tens of thousands of physical assaults you endure every year, you suffer verbal attacks that are no less harmful to morale. This leaves officers feeling under-valued and under-appreciated – something I find completely heartbreaking and totally unacceptable.
All of this has taken a toll. As the Attorney General explained, the number of sworn officers per capita has fallen. Many departments are struggling to recruit and retain personnel. And we hear that fewer people are applying for law enforcement jobs, and early exits and retirements are on the rise.
And then you heard the Attorney General talk yesterday about the alarming rise in suicides among law enforcement officers. The numbers are hard to pin down, and the 228 suicides reported by our friends at Blue H.E.L.P. are almost certainly an undercount. It’s enough to know for the moment that they greatly surpass line-of-duty deaths and they have gone up each of the last four years. One thing is certain: This is a disturbing trend that demands immediate corrective action.
For too long, our nation has largely ignored the pressures on law enforcement officers, and we’ve conveniently overlooked the toll that policing exacts. We can ignore it no longer. And we can no longer be complicit in a culture that values silence and stoicism over officers’ physical, emotional and psychological health.
It is critical that we find a way to give officers the support they need and deserve. No one wants this more than the President, which is why he established his Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice. I have the great honor to serve as Vice Chair of the commission, serving with Phil Keith, the commission’s chair and the Director of the COPS Office, along with 16 other law enforcement and criminal justice experts from across the country. We just held our first hearing yesterday, and more hearings, field visits and public meetings are in the works. The issue of law enforcement health and wellness will get its own chapter in the commission’s report, which is due to the President at the end of October. And I guarantee you, no section will get greater attention.
And as the commission meets, listens and deliberates, we are working hard at the Office of Justice Programs to keep our law enforcement professionals safe and healthy. Last year, we awarded more than $62 million to help purchase police body armor, train officers on protective strategies and tactics, and conduct research on ways to mitigate stress and prevent suicide.
The Bulletproof Vest Partnership remains a hallmark of our work to protect officers’ physical safety. In the 20 years that we’ve managed this program, our Bureau of Justice Assistance has awarded $467 million to help more than 13,000 jurisdictions purchase over 1.3 million bulletproof vests. Meanwhile, our National Institute of Justice continues its long-running ballistic standards and testing program.
But our responsibility for officer well-being does not end with providing high-functioning equipment. We’re also helping law enforcement agencies develop strategies to counter threats and prepare their officers for dangerous situations. Our VALOR initiative is the linchpin of this work. Under VALOR, we’ve trained more than 124,000 law enforcement officers on methods to better ensure their survivability, resilience and well-being.
We have a new offering this year called the National Suicide Awareness for Law Enforcement Officers Program, or SAFLEO. SAFLEO delivers training and technical assistance focused on increasing awareness of and preventing law enforcement suicide. I’m also very pleased that BJA and the IACP worked together to develop an issue brief on preventing officer suicide. It’s just been published and is being made available for the first time here at this symposium.
We also continue to make substantial investments in research on officer safety, health and wellness research, and we’re working closely with our partners in the COPS Office to bring law enforcement officials and researchers together to share information and best practices on these issues.
As officers of the law, you shoulder a very heavy burden. Most people don’t appreciate how heavy. That’s because you go about your work quietly, professionally, not asking for or expecting recognition. As the Attorney General put it yesterday, while our great military protects our interests in far-flung places across the globe, you man the ramparts here at home – and you do it, not because you seek praise, but because you seek justice.
But just because you choose to wave away accolades does not mean you should deny yourselves the help you deserve. And frankly, the rest of us need to do a better job of recognizing when you need support. We owe it to you to help you do your jobs not only effectively, but safely, without undue stress and in a way that you find meaningful and fulfilling.
The Office of Justice Programs and the Department of Justice are working hard to meet that responsibility, and we are so grateful to have partners like the IACP. Your health and your well-being are of paramount importance to all of us. You have my pledge that this will remain a top priority.
I want to thank you all for your time, and for all that you do to protect your communities. We owe you everything. Thank you again, and best wishes for the remainder of the symposium.
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Author: February 28, 2020