Protecting Communities Through Partnerships and Listening
Remarks as delivered.
Hi, everyone. I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak with you, again, as part of this year’s IACP conference.
Over my first three years as FBI Director, I’ve met and talked with law enforcement leaders from all 50 states, and from about 50 countries around the world. And I wish we could’ve re-connected again in person today, because of how much I enjoy getting to meet and engage with so many of you face-to-face each year. The fact that this conference is virtual is just another reminder of the extraordinary challenges we’ve all had to face over this past year.
The Current Environment
Our law enforcement family has been tested in ways that we never imagined.
For the past seven months, day in and day out, officers across our country and around the world have epitomized bravery and resilience by serving others despite the dangers of this global pandemic. With all the worry and uncertainty out there, law enforcement has stepped up—we’ve kept coming to work because we know that we can never let our guard down.
Of course, our own people are far from immune to the hardship and anxiety caused by COVID. Law enforcement is already a dangerous enough profession. Here in the U.S., the number of officers killed in the line of duty in 2020—from things like shootings and car incidents—is already up troublingly from last year. Yet, our law enforcement deaths from COVID alone—in effect, a whole new category—surpass even this year’s increased felonious line-of-duty deaths.
These are terrible and sobering losses, and sadly, more are sure to come. But the nature of our profession means we have to persevere in the face of this crisis—and we have done just that.
Beyond COVID, other recent events have created unique challenges for police agencies across our country.
We’ve seen violence and destruction of property at otherwise lawful protests across U.S. cities. All too often, the primary agitators are dangerous extremists who seek to sow discord and divide our country, not to bring about peaceful change. Many of our officers have been called into action, and put in harm’s way, to contain the violence that has jeopardized the rights and safety of our citizens. Some have even taken undeserved criticism for their efforts.
We’ve had to work together to ensure that both our law enforcement officers on the front lines and our citizens remain safe—particularly those citizens trying to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights in the midst of this violence. Because the voices of people demonstrating to support the bedrock principles of justice and equality deserve to be heard.
As we all know, the fundamental job of law enforcement is to protect and serve all citizens. And we can’t do our jobs without the faith and trust of the American people. When we see incidents where some of our fellow citizens are killed or have their rights violated by law enforcement officers—incidents when public servants fail at their most basic duties—we see that trust erode. And when citizens believe we haven’t lived up to that trust, it’s understandable that they want to speak out.
As law enforcement leaders, we have an obligation to listen and engage with those who are calling for change. We’ve got to work to combat that loss of trust—trust we’ve worked so hard and so long to build; the trust that we need to do our work, and that our communities deserve.
I know this is a priority for every chief, sheriff, and superintendent across the spectrum of policing.
None of us has all the answers, but like you, I support honest conversations about how we in law enforcement can strengthen public confidence in our organizations and improve our relations with all the communities we serve.
While the world has changed in new and unexpected ways this year, many things have unfortunately stayed the same.
Last year in Chicago, I spoke with you about a number of pressing issues—like maintaining lawful access to electronic evidence against proliferating warrant-proof encryption, reducing deaths and violence against our officers, and improving mental health in our ranks.
If anything, these issues have become even more important over the past year. Every day, law enforcement officers face any number of threats to their safety. As I mentioned earlier, the number of officers feloniously killed in the line of duty this year is up notably from last year. At the time I’m recording these remarks, there have already been 38 felonious line-of-duty deaths in 2020, compared with 32 by this time in 2019. That’s 38 of you I’ve found myself calling individually to offer my sympathies and support. And sadly, given the trends, by the time you’re watching this, that number will almost certainly be higher.
In late August, early September of this year, during a single 15-day period, I made seven of those calls—that’s basically one every other day. The average age of the officer killed was only 36 years old, and he or she had served for an average of nine years. Each officer was a son or daughter, and many were mothers and fathers. All were beloved community members who sought to serve their fellow citizens. Each paid the ultimate price for their selfless devotion to duty. And let’s not forget the scores of others who have been injured in the line of duty and survived, but whose lives are forever changed.
As I’ve said repeatedly, but doesn’t get said nearly enough, it takes an incredibly special person to get up every morning and put his or her life on the line for a total stranger. Frankly, it’s hard for me to understand why more people don’t seem to appreciate that.
Our officers, deputies, and agents are understandably concerned about the increasing dangers they face, and the heightened scrutiny of everything they do. We, as leaders, have a duty to keep safe those on the front lines who are keeping all of us safe. I know everyone listening to me right now is committed to doing just that.
Part of the solution is working together to see how we can improve our engagement with the people we have sworn to protect.
That starts with recruiting and retaining talented people—folks who use good judgment, act with professionalism, and are committed to serving and protecting others. I know recruiting has been a challenge for a lot of your departments, and we at the FBI will continue to work with you to coordinate events that promote the important work you do—because we are all in this together.
It also means that we have to redouble our efforts to listen to the citizens and communities we serve—to hear their concerns, to answer their questions, and to assure them of our commitment to protecting—and respecting—the rights of all citizens. Now many of you are already doing this, and I encourage you to stay the course and keep doing it.
We also need data to better assess the millions of interactions each year between law enforcement and our citizens. That’s why the FBI developed the National Use-of-Force Data Collection, and I’m grateful to IACP for helping us promote the collection of use-of-force statistics across law enforcement agencies. Two thousand nineteen was the first year we collected data—and back in July, we released the participation statistics. The agencies who submitted use-of-force data last year represented 41 percent of all federal, state, local, and tribal sworn officers. That’s a great start, but we need to build on it.
I recognize that some departments may face both technical and policy-related challenges in submitting this data. The FBI stands ready to provide any assistance we can with the submission process—because collecting and sharing accurate police use-of-force data is the best way to make sure that we’re having informed conversations about police reforms.
Communities and law enforcement across this country need our leadership more than ever—because the threats we’re facing are only becoming more challenging and more complex. So I’d like to take just a few minutes to talk about some of those shared threats.
First, violent crime.
We’ve seen a spike in serious violent crime in a number of American cities this year—including increases in murders and aggravated assaults. These types of crimes unsettle our communities and undermine our citizens’ most basic sense of security. For many of you, violent crime remains the most significant threat you face in your jurisdiction.
Fighting violent crime is a responsibility we all share. That’s why the FBI has surged agents and other FBI resources to investigate and arrest the worst offenders in a number of cities that have seen a sharp uptick in violent crime.
Operation Legend, which was launched in July of this year, is a coordinated initiative with our federal, state, and local partners. It was first deployed in Kansas City, but has quickly expanded to Chicago, Albuquerque, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Memphis, and St. Louis. The FBI has been working with our partners there to provide intelligence, conduct interviews, collect and process evidence, and provide cellular data analysis and social media exploitation, among other things.
And I’m happy to say that the operation has already produced encouraging results. Working together, our folks have already been able to take hundreds of additional violent offenders off the streets and seize countless unlawfully possessed firearms. Through this work, we’re sending a loud and clear message to gang members and violent criminals that we will deploy our collective strength to ensure the safety and security of our neighborhoods and communities.
Terrorism and Violent Extremists
We also remain focused on the threat of terrorism and violent extremists.
Terrorism remains the FBI’s top priority, though the nature of that threat has evolved significantly since 9/11. Today, the greatest threat we face in the U.S. is from lone actors who radicalize online and look to attack soft, familiar targets with readily available weapons—which limits our chances to detect and stop them before they can act.
This lone actor threat includes two distinct categories.
The first is homegrown violent extremists—people who have been radicalized primarily here in the United States, and who are inspired by foreign terrorist organizations. The second is domestic violent extremists—people who commit violent criminal acts to advance ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, like anti-government bias. Last year, 2019, was the deadliest year for domestic extremist violence since 1995, the year of the Oklahoma City bombing. Within the category of domestic violent extremists, the most lethal activity in recent years has come from racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists.
On top of that, this year, we’ve seen an alarming spike in violence, including lethal activity, from anti-government and anti-fascist extremists.
But no matter which category of terrorist violence we’re talking about, we’re focused on disruption—on making arrests before extremists can act. Just this year alone, through the hard work and dedication of countless men and women at the FBI, together with our task force officers and our partner agencies, we’ve prevented attacks in Kansas City, Tampa, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Boston, Phoenix, and other places. And we’ve got to keep relying on our partnerships to stay ahead of this evolving threat.
COVID-Related Frauds and Crimes
It’s hard to discuss the current threat picture without also mentioning the impact of COVID. Scammers never let a crisis go to waste, and this pandemic is no exception.
So far, the FBI has opened about 750 COVID fraud cases. Those cover everything from fake PPE and test kits to charity fraud scams to hoarding and price-gouging of critical supplies. We’re also now seeing scams targeting unemployment insurance and the Paycheck Protection Program.
On top of all that, COVID has introduced new cyber vulnerabilities. Our kids are now online so much more. And the more they’re online, the more vulnerable they are to predators—and we’ve seen a significant uptick in reports of online child sexual exploitation over the past few months.
Which leads me into my next topic, lawful access.
The challenge of maintaining lawful access to electronic evidence cuts across all these threats.
The good news is, we’ve begun seeing tangible action on this issue—both the House and the Senate have introduced lawful access bills this year. But we still have a long road ahead of us. Some in the tech industry are doing their best to convince people that we in law enforcement are somehow trying to weaken encryption so we can directly access data ourselves. And that’s simply not true.
We’re asking providers to maintain built-in, secure access that they control themselves, to the data on their own platforms and devices—so that they can respond to lawful warrants and court orders. We’re not asking for a key for ourselves or for the means to get into their data without one.
We must have strong cybersecurity, one of our top priorities, but we cannot—and need not—sacrifice real-world, flesh-and-blood security. And we certainly can’t leave it to a few profit-seeking companies to unilaterally dictate that sacrifice to something like 325 million American people. This is a societal issue.
To make progress on this issue, we’ve got to do a better job of talking about all the crimes we increasingly can’t solve—and the victims we increasingly can’t help—because of default, warrant-proof encryption. We’ve got to keep sounding the alarm on this issue, because the problem isn’t just persistent. It’s growing, all the time.
The Way Forward—Partnerships and Listening
Whatever the threat or challenge, we’ve got to stay focused on what we know to be true—that strong partnerships are critical to everything we do. And we need to lean on those partnerships more than ever, especially when times are tough.
I’ve urged our leaders in FBI field offices to stay in close contact with you, and to let you know we’re here to help however we can. Because we know it takes all of us working together to keep our communities safe.
Which brings me back to what I said earlier about the importance of listening. As law enforcement leaders, we’ve got to listen to our fellow citizens, to our colleagues, to our partners, and to our community leaders.
In recent months, I’ve touched base with many of you and have learned about what you’re seeing lately in your own communities. The FBI remains ready to stand with you, shoulder to shoulder, in your efforts to protect the American people.
I’ve also spoken with leaders from a range of faith-based organizations and national advocacy groups, and I’m going to continue to do so. It’s important that we understand their concerns and are able to reassure them that our departments are determined to uphold our mission and serve all the communities we’re sworn to protect. That dialogue is essential to our success.
Of course, all the talk in the world won’t matter if our actions don’t back it up. That’s why, when we’re worried about the perceptions of law enforcement, we’ve got to stay focused on our brand where it matters most.
I’m talking about the opinions of the communities you serve—the people who actually interact with your department or your agency through your work, the people who truly count on you. Because those are informed opinions—based not on some comment or sound bite, but on direct personal experience and our engagement with members of the community. Those opinions are built one case at a time, one investigation at a time, one traffic stop at a time, one 911 call at a time, one compassionate act at a time.
We know that law enforcement isn’t perfect. But we cannot let those few officers who fail to uphold our values define who we are. Because the vast, vast majority of our folks go about their work, day in and day out, with the goal of serving and protecting all people equally—and they succeed, inspiringly, in doing just that.
A lot of people recognize—but we must never take for granted—the countless acts of bravery and heroism demonstrated by law enforcement professionals across this country.
There’s the officer in Bridgeport, Connecticut, who spotted a runaway SUV with no driver and two helpless passengers inside and mustered all his strength to stop the car from jumping a curb and striking a group of teenagers on the sidewalk.
There’s the San Diego K-9 officer who came to the rescue after a suicidal man drove his truck off an oceanside cliff with his twin 2-year-old daughters inside. That officer scaled down the cliff in the dark, using a 100-foot leash he had in his patrol car. Then, using his water survival training from his days as a Marine, he towed the girls and their father to the rocks, where fire rescue personnel could recover them.
Now those examples are extraordinary, and are what many in the public rightly consider synonymous with the best of law enforcement in this country. But what goes unnoticed far too often are the countless acts of compassion and kindness that our folks show to members of our communities every day, acts of thoughtfulness and generosity that go above and beyond the call of duty to help people.
Like the Arkansas officer who took an 8-year-old girl to her school’s daddy-daughter dance after her dad had passed away over the holidays.
Like the Detroit officer who helped a homeless man shave after seeing him struggle because he didn’t have a mirror.
Like the pair of Dallas officers who came across a struggling mother of six kids when responding to a call. They learned the woman and children had fled an abusive husband a few months earlier—but there was literally no furniture in the apartment they’d all fled to. So they collected money from fellow officers to furnish that apartment.
And these acts of kindness don’t just end at our borders. There are the police officers in Calgary, Canada, who had the tough job of notifying a young mother and her four kids that their husband and father had died in a workplace accident. During their visit, the officers learned the kids didn’t have many toys—so members of the force collected gifts and surprised the family last Christmas.
I could go on and on with examples from every department across our country and around the world. Unfortunately, those incidents don’t spread like wildfire on social media or make the headlines on cable news. But that doesn’t mean they don’t make a huge difference. Because every encounter between our officers and the citizens we serve is an opportunity to build upon their trust and support.
So we have to keep working, and listening, and showing people who we really are.
* * *
There was another time, not so long ago, when our nation experienced a lot of what we’re seeing today. A surge in violent crime, public unrest in many of our city streets, dissatisfaction with social conditions, violence against police, and heightened, and in many cases deserved, scrutiny of police procedures.
That was the 1960s and '70s—a really tough time for law enforcement in our country. But our law enforcement leaders back then didn’t give up; they persevered. And over the following decades, thanks in no small part to their work, our nation drove crime down dramatically. We reclaimed many of our nation’s cities from crime and despair, and created spaces where neighborhoods could thrive, businesses could prosper, and families could feel safe. And we can draw inspiration from some of yesterday’s leaders in addressing the issues we face today.
Let me close with a quick story that I think captures perfectly a lot of what I’ve talked about today.
During a protest march this past June, a 6-year-old African-American child named Dallas Brown and a Houston P.D. officer named Khalil Johns struck up a friendship. When the little boy approached him, Officer Johns knelt down, looked him in the eye, and listened. Afterward, Officer Johns said: “I wanted him to see an officer that looks like him, face-to-face. And to let him know that you are represented in the police department.” Officer Johns also told Dallas: “This uniform doesn’t mean that I’m better than you. This uniform means that I have a duty to protect you.”
For his part, young Dallas said: “I think he was very cool, and he’s my friend.”
Moments like that matter. They don’t solve every problem we face in law enforcement today. They don’t erase every past instance of police officers abusing their power and eroding public trust. But they do make a real difference. They remind the people we serve—and remind all of us, too—why we signed up for these jobs in the first place. Why our people put on the badge and face the storm every day.
Despite all the criticism, the aggravations, the danger, and the stress, we signed up for these jobs to serve justice and to help people. And there’s no better work than that.
Thank you for choosing that work. Thank you for your leadership, and your support of the 37,000 men and women of the FBI. And thanks for listening to me today.