Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday that he would soon announce a Department of Justice program to address racial profiling in law enforcement.
“In the coming days, I will announce updated Justice Department guidance regarding profiling by federal law enforcement,” Holder told an audience in the historic sanctuary at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. “This will institute rigorous new standards — and robust safeguards — to help end racial profiling, once and for all. This new guidance will codify our commitment to the very highest standards of fair and effective policing.”
President Obama dispatched Holder to Atlanta for one of the first of many meetings around the country with community leaders and law enforcement to talk race, healing and reconciliation in the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown on Aug. 9.
Holder’s yet to be detailed new guidance comes as the Obama administration has taken steps toward addressing some of the nation’s lingering strongholds of inequity, particularly in the criminal justice system. Holder announced in September an historic, multi-million dollar study on racial profiling and racially biased policing.
Holder said the administration is also working to bolster tools that law enforcement agencies have to build out police forces more equipped to help close the trust gaps while still maintaining public safety. The Department of Justice, ahead of a grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s death, offered new guidance to police departments on how to maintain order during peaceful protests while safeguarding the constitutional rights of protesters. The Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services also recently held training sessions for law enforcement leaders in the Ferguson area on non-biased policing. Holder touted the president’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative aimed at boosting the lives of at-risk boys and young men of color and the DOJ’s Smart Sentencing Initiative which eliminated many of the crack-era mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws.
“There can be no question that Michael Brown’s death was a tragedy,” Holder said in the church, where he evoked the legacy of the chapel’s favorite son, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “But in the months since this incident occurred, it has sparked a significant national conversation about the need to ensure confidence in the law enforcement and criminal justice processes. The rifts that this tragedy exposed, in Ferguson and elsewhere, must be addressed – by all Americans – in a constructive manner.”Holder said that it was deeply unfortunate that this “vital conversation was interrupted, and this young man’s memory dishonored, by destruction and looting on the part of a relatively small criminal element.”
Holder told those gathered during a forum at the church that it was a privilege to stand with them where Dr. King first found his voice, as they work to build cooperation, foster inclusion “and make your voices heard.”
“Like millions of Americans, I know many of you have spent the past few days with family members, friends, and loved ones, giving thanks for the blessings of the past year – but also mindful of recent news, the anguished emotions, and the images of destruction that have once again focused this country’s attention on Ferguson, Missouri,” Holder said.
“Like you, I understand that the need for this trust was made clear in the wake of the intense public reaction to last week’s grand jury announcement. But the problems we must confront are not only found in Ferguson,” he continued. “The issues raised in Missouri are not unique to that state or that small city. We are dealing with concerns that are truly national in scope and that threaten the entire nation.”
In the wake of the grand jury decision in St. Louis County, dozens of angry youth took to the streets of Ferguson and set fire to more than a dozen local businesses. In the same week non-violent protesters in Ferguson in about 100 other cities across the county launched waves of civil disobedience calling for justice for Brown and other young black men killed by cops.
On Monday, Holder and President Obama met with many young organizers from across the country at the White House and heard directly from them their hopes, pains and demands for structural change that could disrupt America’s troubling pattern of police violence and injustice. Meetings were also held with mayors from various cities and religious and civic leaders. Holder promptly flew to Atlanta following the meetings.
Back at Ebenezer, Holder’s speech was briefly interrupted by protesters. The attorney general responded by saying, “I ain’t mad at cha,” an ode to a song by the same name by the late rapper 2Pac.
Holder said that federal civil rights investigation into Brown’s death and the larger Ferguson Police Department were ongoing. “They have been rigorous and independent from the beginning,” he said. Holder noted that the bar for civil rights charges is extremely high in these types of cases, but said that he wanted to assure the American people that the Justice Department will continue to conduct its investigations in a thorough, timely manner.
“We will see these investigations through to their appropriate conclusions, so that we can continue to work with the community to restore trust, to rebuild understanding, and to foster renewed cooperation between law enforcement and community members,” Holder said, including citizens whose rights must be respected and officers who make often-unheralded sacrifices.
“Bonds that have been broken must be restored. Bonds that never existed must now be created,” Holder added. “But the issue is larger than just the police and the community. Our overall system of justice must be strengthened and made more fair. In this way, we can ensure faith in the justice system.”
In closing, Holder once again reflected on the legacy of Dr. King, whom he said “reminded us in his very last speech, on the night before his life was taken, that it’s only when it is dark enough that the stars can be seen.”
“Tonight, once again, it is dark enough. Yet even in recent weeks, there have arisen great sparks of humanity, and hope that illuminate the way forward,” Holder said from the sanctuary. “These are the moments that remind us of the values that bind us together as a nation. These are the times of great challenge and great consequence that point the way forward in our ongoing pursuit of a more perfect Union. And these are the lights that will help us beat back the encroaching darkness and the stars that will guide us, together, out of this storm.”