The President Hosts a Panel Discussion on Criminal Justice Reform

Bill Keller:
Welcome everybody. It’s an honor to be here
on the White House campus, and a special pride for
the Marshal Project, which only really launched
about 11 months ago. In the last year or so,
Americans have begun paying much closer attention to
the state of our criminal justice system. It’s not news anymore that
we incarcerate a greater percentage of our people
than any other country. Four times the
rate of China, five times the
rate of England, nine times the
rate of Germany. I think our only
rival is North Korea, which is not particularly
company you want to be in. It’s also not news that the
people in our prisons and jails are disproportionately
black and Hispanic. It’s not news that the
reasons for this include more severe sentences than
you will find in other democracies, a failure to
rehabilitate those we lock up so that many end
up back behind bars, an aggressive war on drugs,
and a bail system that means every day thousands of
Americans are confined for the crime of being poor. It’s also not news that,
in many of our cities, we’re seeing a breakdown of
trust between police and the communities they serve. So we know all of this, and
today we’re going to focus instead on what we
can do about it. Yesterday we saw the birth
of another organization pressing for reform, this
time an alliance of police chiefs and prosecutors, men
and women on the front line, many of whom are in
the audience today. We’re all for reform. Everybody’s for reform. There’s a bipartisan
groundswell for reform, but that word is
pretty elastic. So, for starters, I’d
like to ask each of you, starting with the President:
What’s the goal here? Is it something more than
just shrinking the prison population? How — what will
success look like? The President: Well,
first of all, Bill, thanks for moderating this. Thank you to the
Marshall Project. I am particularly grateful
to folks in law enforcement, some members of
Congress who are here, people in prosecutors’
offices — all of whom have taken a great
interest in this. And as I said backstage
before we came out, I do think that we’re in
a unique moment in which, on a bipartisan basis,
across the political spectrum, people are asking
hard questions about our criminal justice system
and how can we make it both smart, effective,
just, fair. You’re right, Bill, that
reform encompasses a whole bunch of stuff, and not
everybody is going to have the same views
on every issue. But I do think there are
certain principles that my administration — our
esteemed Attorney General Loretta Lynch and her deputy
and others — are pursuing. And there I do think
that there’s some rough agreement. Number one, I think there’s
a recognition that our criminal justice system
should treat people fairly regardless of race,
wealth, station; that there has to be
a consistency in the application of the law. I think that’s an area
where people agree. And so when I
came into office, and we saw a huge variance
in how crack cocaine was being treated versus
powder cocaine, people immediately
asked the question, why is that — particularly
given that there might be differences in demographics
in terms of who uses it, and that would be an example
of an area where we had to reform it. And we still haven’t gotten
it where it probably needs to be, but we made a change. So, one is fairness. Number two, proportionality. I think one of the things
that has come up again and again in the discussions
of reform is, in any criminal justice
system we want to make sure that the punishment
fits the crime. And if we know, for example,
that someone engaged in a non-violent drug crime
should be punished but that their sentence should not
probably be longer than a rapist or a murderer, and
yet that’s not what our sentencing
guidelines reflect, then that’s a problem. So, proportionality is
the second issue that I’m concerned about. Number three is a
recognition that incarceration is just one
tool in how we think about reducing crime and violence
and making our communities safe. And if that’s the only tool
— if we think we only have a hammer, then everything
becomes a nail — then we’re missing opportunities for us
to create safer communities through drug diversion and
treatment, for example, or through more effective
re-entry programs, or getting to high school
kids or middle school or elementary school kids
earlier so that they don’t get in trouble in
the first place, and how are we
resourcing that. So that’s a third area. Connected to that is where
are we spending our money? We know we’re spending $80
billion a year incarcerating folks. If, in fact, we had
smarter sentencing, we thought about how we’re
dealing with drug offenses more intelligently, we are
working on evidence-based approaches to rehabilitation
and reducing recidivism, and that leads us to save
money that then, in turn, we can put on the streets
to have a greater police presence, to cultivate
better community-police relations, to focus
prosecutors’ attention or police officers’ attention
on the truly dangerous criminals, then aren’t we
better off and isn’t that what we should be pursuing? So those are the kinds of
areas where I think there is actually rough agreement. Now, obviously, the devil is
always in the details here, and there are going to be
some disagreements on how successful is drug
diversion, and can we, in fact, significantly
reduce the prison population if we’re only focusing on
non-violent offenses where part of the reason that in
some countries — in Europe, for example — they have
a lower incarceration rate because they also don’t
sentence violent offenders for such long
periods of time. Those are all
legitimate debates. And I think that part of
what our administration is trying to do is
look at the data, figure out what we know
works, what we don’t. And the final point I’ll
make — and I’ve said this before with respect to
criminal justice reform — we can’t put the entire
onus of the problem on law enforcement. I think there’s been a
healthy debate around police-community relations
and some of the episodes that we’ve seen around
the country, but we, as a society, if we are not
investing in opportunity for poor kids, and then we
expect just the police and prosecutors to keep them out
of sight and out of mind, that’s a failed strategy. That’s a failure on
our part, as a whole. And so part of what we’ve
also been trying to do — and this goes to the
prevention issue — is think about where are the
communities that are most vulnerable. I was in West
Virginia yesterday, talking about the
opioid epidemic. Heartbreaking stories that
you’d hear from parents about their children first
getting OxyContin or Vicodin maybe from a
medicine cabinet, and suddenly
they are hooked. They move on to heroin. And there was a consensus
we need to spend more of our time on treatment and not
just on incarceration as a strategy. And I pointed out to them
that part of what makes this an area where maybe those
of us who are better off or middle class are more
sympathetic is because it seems more like our kids
are vulnerable, as well. But, of course,
that’s illusory. If kids in the inner city
are not getting treatment and opportunity, that’s as
much of a problem as if it’s happening to our kids. And we’ve got to think of
all our children in that same way. And I’m encouraged by
the fact, in particular, that law enforcement is
making this point over and over again — because they
have the credibility because of the courage and the hard
work and they’re on the frontlines. So, with that, I should
probably make sure that the Chief actually
gets a word in. (applause) Mr. Keller:
There’s a lot in there that we — I’d like to pick up
on as we go through the allotted time. And I think I’ll start with
the question of sentencing, these Draconian sentences
that we apply to so many crimes, in part because
that’s the subject matter of the legislation that just
today passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. A few decades ago, when
crime rates were higher and when the only way to get
elected to office was to be tougher on crime
than your opponent, Congress began restricting
the license the judges had in making their sentences. They established mandatory
minimum sentences for a number of crimes. They tightened up
the safety valve. And that seems to now be
recognized as the pendulum having swung too far
in one direction. So it’s beginning to swing
back a little bit in the other direction. The bill that passed out
of the Senate Judiciary Committee today does
some modest reductions in mandatory minimums. And — sorry, having a
senior moment on my thought — but prosecutors love
mandatory minimums, as a rule. So this is really a
question for you, John. Prosecutors love mandatory
minimums because they can use them as leverage
to drive plea bargains, because they can use them to
turn low-level offenders and get them to rat
out their bosses. How far can you go in
eliminating or reducing mandatory minimums,
do you think? Why not just eliminate
them altogether? Mr. Walsh: Well, let me
first start out by thanking the President and also the
Attorney General for their incredible leadership
in this area. Part of the reason we have
a moment where all of law enforcement and the entire
political spectrum are supporting changes to the
sentencing regime is the leadership that you have
shown and the people in this room have shown,
including Chief Beck. Mandatory minimums are an
important part of how the federal system is set
up, but since 2013, when the Smart on Crime
policy was announced by then-Attorney
General Holder, federal prosecutors have
been instructed not to use mandatory minimums except
in cases that really merit their attention — in other
words, aggravated felons; leaders of drug
organizations; violent people. And what’s that’s meant is
that our use of mandatory minimums has probably
dropped by about 25 percent in that time. But so far, we have not seen
a corresponding drop in the willingness of lower-level
conspirators to cooperate with us. In other words, what we’re
seeing in the Smart on Crime policy is a direct ability
to reduce mandatory sentences while still
protecting the public. So the bottom line is
— you ask the question, should we eliminate
mandatory minimums entirely, and I think the
answer to that is no. But we have to reserve their
use for the most severe, dangerous and violent
offenders who are out there. Mr. Keller: Why not
eliminate them, though? Why not just have sentencing
guidelines the way we have now and have had
it in the past, and leave it to the
discretion of judges? Mr. Walsh: Well, I certainly
think that — part of what prosecutors do is
advocate to judges. That’s our job. We’re used to it and I think
we’re confident about the results we can get. Having said that, there’s
something to be said for those most aggravated,
top-level criminals knowing that they’re going to get
hit if they get caught with a very severe penalty. But that’s different than
saying we’re going to use mandatory minimums to drive
what has turned out to be mass incarceration of
relatively low-level offenders in the
federal system. Similarly, I think on the
state side — and I would turn this over to Chief Beck
— some of the laws that were enacted on the state
side in the 1980s and early ’90s also had very
heavy penalties. Whether those are necessary
in every instance to accomplish the goals of
public safety — that’s a question that
we could debate. But the bottom line is, I
think that from a federal prosecutor’s point of view,
keeping mandatory minimums for the most serious
offenders still makes sense. But using them very
sparingly for less serious offenders also makes sense. That’s part of what
Smart on Crime is about. Mr. Keller: Chief, do you
want to pick up on that? Chief Beck: Well,
just very briefly, if you view the criminal
justice system as a response to a sickness in America,
if you view it through the medical aspect, then you
have to look at sentencing as a dosage. And I think that we are now
experiencing a time in the United States where crime is
at a level where we require a different dosage. And we have to recognize
that all crimes do not carry the same weight. And some crimes involve
addiction and mental illness and have other pathways that
can be more effective than incarceration. And in states
across the nation, some of our prisons and
jails are schools for criminality. And to put young people —
and it’s mainly young people — into those schools for
criminality based on minor offenses doesn’t
make any sense. So I think we need to stop
wasting money and start investing money. And when I talk about
investing money — I’m remiss, I should say that
I’m privileged to speak for so many chiefs, so many
great chiefs in the audience here — over 50 of them —
and we all believe in the same thing, that we need
to invest in our future, not continue to use money
to lock the future of the United States up. We need to invest in that so
that we can move to a place where many of these offenses
are looked upon as the illnesses that they are. Mr. Keller: Your state has
been sort of a laboratory in this regard. You’re now in the fifth year
of a court order to reduce prison populations. Last year, California
passed Prop. 47, which reduced a lot of
felonies to misdemeanors. How has that played out? What lessons are there for
the rest of the states in your experience? Chief Beck: So I think
there’s some really, really good lessons
to be learned. And California often leads
the way and sometimes we get things absolutely right
and sometimes things need adjustment. And I think it’s important
to recognize that what California did in 47 is take
several hundred felonies, largely drug-related, and
move them to misdemeanors. And a couple of things
probably should have been included in that. We also took away
progressive prosecutions, so, in other words, you can
be arrested and re-arrested and re-arrested again
for the same crime. And even though it’s a
misdemeanor at this point, there’s no enhanced
sentencing or enhanced ability to get folks
into treatment. And the other piece is, is
there needs to be a stronger lever for the courts to
encourage folks to go into treatment. We’re realizing that we’re
dealing largely with addicts here and they don’t have
self-determination enough to do it, so there needs to
be a way to help do that. And then, thirdly,
and most importantly, there needs to be adequate
programs for people to be diverted into. And it does no good in my
estimation to arrest for these offenses over and over
and over again with no place for them to go but back onto
the street to continue that cycle. And so one of the things
that I would love to see in this discussion is that we
all acknowledge the fact that this is not a
cost-saving measure. I don’t believe that
reducing incarceration should be looked at as a way
to save money for the state or for the federal
government. I think that should be
looked at as a way to develop money to reinvest
into the futures of young people, and then
that will, in turn, eventually save money. But in the short term,
you’ve got to have another pathway. Mr. Keller: In your first
answer, Mr. President, you touched on the two —
what I think of as the two biggest myths about
criminal justice reform. One of them Chief Beck
has just addressed, which is the idea
that in the end, you can save a lot of money
by letting people out of prisons without
reinvesting that money. The other is that you can
significantly reduce the populations of prisons by
letting out low-level drug offenders. It’s true at the
federal level, nearly half of the people
who are incarcerated are there for drug crimes. But at the state level,
where most people are incarcerated, it’s
more like 17 percent. Are Americans willing to
consider rolling back the sentencing for people who
are violent criminals? The President:
Well, first of all, I think it’s important to
look at the evidence — and there’s some
conflicting data, but here’s what we know —
that we increased our prison population
fourfold from 1980. And the best social science
seems to indicate that, initially, locking up folks
who were violent for more certain, longer stretches
reduced violence on the streets, but that there was
a diminishing return at a certain point and it
kind of flattened out. But we just kept on
locking folks up without, at that point, it being the
main driver of violent crime reductions. And we have seen incredible,
historic reductions in crime over the last 20 years. I know that there’s been
some talk in the press about spikes that are happening
this year relative to last year, and I’ve asked my team
to look very carefully at it — Attorney General Lynch
has pulled together a task force — and it does look
like there are a handful of cities where we’re seeing
higher-than-normal spikes. Across the 93 or
95 top cities, it’s very hard to
distinguish anything statistically meaningful. Now, that doesn’t mean that
we don’t take seriously what’s happening
in those cities. But the bottom line is,
is that I think there’s a strong consensus in the
United States of America that you shouldn’t be hit
over the head when you’re walking down the street,
that you don’t want somebody breaking into your house
and threatening your family, that somebody who
commits violence, we don’t have a lot
of tolerance for. I would distinguish between
those situations and whether or not giving somebody
who’s 25 years old a 40-year sentence versus a 15-year
sentences is the smart thing to do, particularly because
we know that young people do stupid stuff and
as they get older, they get a little
less stupid. I speak from experience. (laughter) That at
least was my experience. And now I’m watching
my teenage girls, and they’re a lot
smarter than me, but there are still
some gaps in judgment. (laughter) So here’s
the bottom line. I think it’s smart for us
to start the debate around non-violent drug offenders. You are right that that’s
not going to suddenly half our incarceration rate, but
if we get that — if we do that right, and we are
reinvesting in treatment, and we are reinvesting
resources in police departments having more guys
and gals on the street who are engaging in community
policing and that’s improving community
relations, then that becomes the
foundation upon which the public has confidence in
potentially taking a future step and looking at
sentencing changes down the road. So I don’t think there’s
anything wrong with us saying, you know what,
violent crime we want to keep down. We are going to be a little
more hesitant initially in how we think about
sentencing on violent crime than we are on
non-violent crime. If we can reduce the prison
population by 5 percent in an initial stretch
— and by the way, that’s not a
goal I’m setting, I’m just — that was off
the top of my head — but 5 percent, when you’ve
got 2 million prisoners, that’s a lot of people and
that’s a lot of resources that could be going
into other areas. So I think that this
is a staged process. We will lose the public if
we try to do everything at once without having
data and evidence, and suddenly you see big
spikes in crime again and then suddenly we’re back
into the politics of lock them up. If, on the other hand,
we do it systematically, methodically, we
see what works, we see what doesn’t — the
Chief’s point and John’s point about reinvesting
I think is absolutely critical. If we do those things well
and we can duplicate what happened last year, which
was the first time in 40 years that both the prison
population and the crime rate went down at the same
time — we start seeing the same kinds of patterns as
we’re seeing in some of these other states, and the
experience we’re seeing in the U.S. Attorney’s Office
where we’re not telling prosecutors you’re going
to be promoted based on how many maximum
sentences you get, but rather based on how wise
your use of prosecutorial discretion — if all those
things prove that we’re still doing a good
job controlling crime, then I think we’ve got
something to build on. Mr. Keller: One
other drug question. John, you work in a state
that was one of the first two to legalize recreational
use of marijuana. Should Congress take
marijuana off the Schedule I list of illegal drugs? Mr. Walsh: So I’ve learned
that I always get a marijuana question. (laughter) Mr. Keller:
Sorry to be so predictable. Mr. Walsh: I want to
reiterate something that I think that the President and
the administration has made clear, is that the
administration is not in favor of the legalization
of marijuana. And the decision to move
marijuana from Schedule I to a different schedule is
really — there’s a process behind that — it has to do
with the medically accepted uses for the drug. I will make this comment
about the situation in Colorado. One of the things that’s
been a tremendous, positive development in
Colorado is that the state regulatory system has become
clearer so that the local law enforcement has a good
sense of where its lines are and what enforcement
action it can take. And that’s made our ability
to partner with local law enforcement in federal
enforcement of marijuana very much clearer. So we see an evolving
situation where I think, again, as in so many things,
the key is a federal-state law enforcement cooperative
effort to make sure the system works. Mr. Keller: I’d like to ask
both Chief Beck and John Walsh, are there things that
the leader of the free world could be doing on his own
without the permission of Congress over the next
year and change of his administration that would
make this problem better? Less of a problem? The President: Let me just
amend that question — (laughter) — because I’ve
got some outstanding members of Congress here and I want
to work with them to get stuff done. (applause) I get into
enough trouble with Congress without Bill trying
to stir things up. (laughter) Mr. Keller: That’s why I asked the other guys. Chief Beck: First I have to
say that I’m amazed by the depths of the President’s
understanding of this issue. I mean, the first answer
that you gave covered so many of the points that John
and I have talked about in private, and it’s obvious
that you understand the way that the chiefs in this room
and the prosecutors in this room feel about this issue. So that’s a huge
start, in my opinion. But I think that one of the
things that we need to look at is remember that this
system is made up of three parts, this criminal
justice system. It’s a federal level, which
we’re talking about directly here, but most folks are
affected by state-level prosecutions, state-level
incarceration, or even local — even
on the local level. And so when we talk about
having treatment available, when we talk about
diversionary systems that we can use to get less
people in the jail system, it needs to apply
to all three. It can’t just be for the
use for the federal system. It has to go down to the
state system — because many of the states and all the
municipalities now struggle economically, and putting
money into community-based organizations or to some of
the things that the states and the counties run
is very difficult. And so if we could get some
federal help with systems that are off-ramps for
people that are addicted, and off-ramps for people
that are arrested for low-level crimes — because
the arrests aren’t stopping. I mean, the chiefs in here
represent tens and tens of thousands of low-level
drug offense arrests, my organization included. But we’ve got to have
somewhere for them to go. And it can’t just be 48
hours in the local lockup and then right back on the
street corner where they came from. It just can’t be that. Mr. Keller: John, have you
got any requests of the President? Mr. Walsh: The one thing
that I would really emphasize — so much of law
enforcement really depends on local law enforcement,
and our partners in police departments and sheriff’s
offices all over the country on the federal side
we value tremendously. We can’t get our federal
work done without the partnership between federal
law enforcement and state law enforcement. One area where over the
years we’ve seen a decrease in federal assistance
to state and local law enforcement is
in the COPS area, the community
policing grants. We have fewer officers on
the street with federal money than we used to have. And that’s an area that I
think would go a long way to enabling the police
departments and sheriffs’ offices to engage in that
community-oriented policing that really will
help prevent crime, so that we’re not confronted
with the situation of trying to decide how much of a
sentence to give a violent offender because maybe we
prevented some young person from going down that
road in the first place. Chief Beck: And just not
to ignore the opportunity, I have to say that the kinds
of programs that I know the President wants, I know the
police chiefs out here want, the kind of programs that
have maximum community interaction where people
know the officer on the street, where officers are
not there just to enforce the law but they’re
there to build community, those are the most
resource-intensive programs that we have. And I know the President is
familiar with a couple of programs we have
in Los Angeles, and I thank him for bringing
the Tingirides family out here for his State
of Union speech. But those kind of things are
exactly the kind of programs that we could expand
on with a little help. Mr. Walsh: And, Bill,
there’s one other thing that I think is very important
— kind of an amazing number that I only relatively
recently became aware of is that we release every year
from state and federal prison 600,000 people. So that’s 600,000 prisoners
coming back into society every year. Do we have 600,000 people’s
worth of re-entry programs? I don’t think so. We have a lot of
work to do in that. State and local
efforts are great. Many of the U.S. attorneys who are present
here in this room have been working on developing great
re-entry programs all over the country. But that’s another area
where taking some of these savings and putting it into
that kind of programming is going to reduce the
re-offending rate and really make a big difference. Mr. Keller: Let’s take a
little time to talk about the need to repair the
mistrust between police forces and the communities
that they serve and protect. I notice we’ve solicited
questions and thoughts from our readers through
social media. And one thing that recurred
was a fairly high level of cynicism about the promises
that we’re all going to do better at policing, that
we’ve taken the Black Lives Matter movement to heart. People say the people who
are now prescribing a return to community policing are
the same people who gave us stop and frisk,
and broken windows, and these other strategies
that as they were applied in practice tended to result
in over-aggressive policing. And I guess the kind of
cynical question from the masses would be why should
we trust you to get it right this time? The President: I’m
actually going to — Chief, I’m going to interject
before — Chief Beck: Thank you, sir. The President: — before
you have to answer this. (laughter) No, no, no — well, and the reason I say this is
because it goes to something I said earlier, and that
is when you look at, for example, racial bias in
the criminal justice system, the criminal justice system
and our law enforcement systems are
reflections of us. And so if we, as a society,
are willing to tolerate very poor neighborhoods
with no opportunity, a lot of violence, a lot
of substandard education, and then we’re surprised
that the police, in interacting with a
community that hasn’t been cared for, is going to
have tougher interactions, then we’re passing the buck. Now, I take very seriously,
as I said before, the need for fairness in
our criminal justice system. And Bill — we did a little
interview before I came out here, and Bill asked, what
had been your experiences. And I fessed up. I have — as a young man,
there have been times where I was driving and I got
stopped and I didn’t know why. But I want to make sure that
when we approach this issue we recognize that it’s
not all on the police and everybody else can just
sit back and opine. The community and the
society and the city and the state and the nation have to
be partners with the police so that we’re not giving
them impossible jobs — because they have the
right to come home, too, to their families. I will say this, that where
I’ve seen really smart community policing that
rebuilds trust there is a commitment not only to train
police more effectively and make sure that there is
accountability if there is misconduct, and that there
is data being collected around who is
being targeted, and there are independent
investigations when excessive force
may have been used, but there’s also a
commitment typically to the kinds of treatment programs,
the kinds of partnerships with the schools, with
businesses getting involved, opportunities being
provided to young people. And as a consequence
everybody is taking responsibility for this. And the police become part
of a team to eliminate bias in a system. The problem of racial
justice or injustice in the society has been a running
theme in this country’s history for a
very long time. And so we just have to make
sure that all of us own it. Now, with that, I do want
all the chiefs to look at the task force
recommendations we’ve put forward post-Ferguson
because there are specific things that police
departments and police officers can do
to rebuild trust. And I don’t want to
let them off the hook, because there are some
real problems in certain jurisdictions
that we’ve seen, and I don’t think the Chief
or any of the chiefs here would deny that. Chief Beck: No, we
certainly wouldn’t. And I think it’s important
to recognize that the chiefs that are in this room, many
of whom are — if not all — of whom I know have been
talking about community trust for a decade. I’ve been the chief
for a mere six years, but when I came into the
organization’s Major City Chiefs, IACP, this was
a common theme of our discussion. This is not a
new topic to us. The President is exactly
right — we are a reflection of a much larger
issue in America. There is racial disparity
in housing, in employment, in the entire
economic system. It is not just in
incarceration and in policing. And we have to look at these
things in the totality and address them as a nation. And we will do our part. And I thank the President
for the task force. I was lucky enough
to be a part of it. I think that there’s some
very solid recommendations that we all take to
heart are being made. We know we can do better. But we have to recognize
that we have a country where things are not always equal. And we can fix that. We can work on that. But we’ve all got
to work on it. It’s not just the cops
— it’s everybody. And, Mr. President, I’ve
been stopped several times too — I always knew why. (laughter) The President:
There are a number of times where I knew why also. (laughter) I don’t want to
suggest that every stop was uncalled for. (laughter) There were times
where I checked my odometer and I just took that ticket. Mr. Keller: Mr. President,
you referred to this earlier as a moment, an opportunity. And it’s clearly true that
people are paying more attention to it; we now
have bipartisan sort of cross-ideological arguments
in favor of reforming the system. How durable is that moment? Do you worry at all that we
might find ourselves a year down the road — there’s
a spike in crime, there’s a Willie
Horton-style horror story? Or people don’t just want
to spend the money that it would take to
fix the system, and we declare that what
passed the Senate Judiciary Committee today was victory,
mission accomplished, and we move onto
something else? The President: I think
those are all real dangers, and we have to guard against
those dangers — which is why I said that rather than
think that we’re going to all solve this overnight and
then when it doesn’t get all solved overnight,
we’re disappointed, I’m much more interested
in a sustained, steady process where we’re
bringing people together, we’re listening
to everybody. And we’re trying to maybe
start with some low-hanging fruit and then we get deeper
into it and we figure out more of what works
and what doesn’t. We’re balancing that
against the public’s primary interest, which is making
sure that they’re safe. And, by the way, that’s in
poor communities and black communities as
much as anybody. I mean, historically,
when you look at it, one of the ironies here is,
is that when you look at racial bias in the law
enforcement and criminal justice system, historically
it was under-policing in African American
communities. The attitude was let them do
whatever they want as long as they’re not coming
into our neighborhoods. And there are hardworking,
wonderful families and kids who — they want to be safe. They want to be in
partnership with the police. They just want to make sure
that a police officer is properly trained so that
just because a kid has a hoodie, they have — partly
because they know the community, they don’t
automatically assume, well, that must be somebody I
should arrest or frisk, and I can distinguish
between kids the same way we — in their own neighborhood
they can distinguish between kids who are really causing
trouble and kids who are just being kids. So I think the
moment is here, but we’ve got to build
on it and we’ve got to be systematic about it. Couple things that haven’t
been said that I want to emphasize. Collecting data I think is
something that’s going to be very important in
guiding us forward. And John was talking
about federal, state, and local cooperation — we
don’t really do a good job right now in collecting
national data on a real-time basis, but we now have the
tools and the technology to do it better. And the better our data, the
better we can target where is real crime going on,
where are we seeing maybe some problems in
police-community interactions that we can
catch ahead of time — it’s transparent so the community
then has trust because they’re seeing, all
right, here’s what’s been happening, and so we’re
initiating both internally at the federal level,
but also reaching out to departments to figure out
how do we get a national database that’s
more effective. That’s point number one. Point number two — we’ve
got the outstanding Chief of Camden, who I had a chance
to visit — a great example of community policing and
data driving down crime, and regaining trust
from the community. I mean, the Chief here has
got sort of a war room that has cameras on some of the
hotspots around the city, but it’s not considered Big
Brother because they’ve set up software where the
community can direct the cameras so that they don’t
feel like they’re being spied on from the outside,
but rather it’s a tool for the community to monitor
what’s happening. They’re then
sending that in, and the Chief has trained
— retrained his entire department. First thing they did
when they brought in new recruits, they just put them
in the neighborhoods where they’re going to be serving,
and they had to walk basically for
24 hours, right? And if they needed to
go to the restroom, they needed to get
to know some people. (laughter) And so they started meeting local businesses. Creative work,
like, for example, where they know there were
hotspots and some gang shootings related to
drugs, the Chief takes some forfeiture money,
I think it was, and — this was one of
my favorite stories, because it’s smart, it shows
us thinking — purchases two ice cream trucks, has police
officers drive the ice cream trucks, park them where the
drug dealing has been going on, giving out free ice
cream from the police — suddenly families are
out on the streets, and now it’s creating a
space in which it’s a lot harder for you to
just be dealing drugs. And the Chief talks about
sometimes we know who the drug dealers are, and
instead of arresting them — where they’re just going to
be released — he’s going to have an officer stand right
next to them and talking to them, and asking them
why are you doing this. So the point is, is that the
use of technology or the use of data, combine with
smart community policing, really can have an
impact, really can make a difference. But my hope coming out
of all these efforts, including the legislation,
is that we put an emphasis on what works. And we’re not blinded by
ideology and we’re not blinded by fear. All this talk that’s getting
hyped about this huge spike in violent crime, this is
where you have to step back and say, all right, let’s
understand statistics. 2014 was a historic
low in violent crime. So if there’s a
spike in some cities, that’s something we have
to take seriously and pay attention to, but that
doesn’t automatically suddenly translate into this
notion that a crime wave is coming because it’s still
lower this year than it was for every year
between 1995 and 2013. It’s just it may be that
last year was the anomaly. And that’s an example of
us having to make sure that we’re not being driven
by fear or bias in how we approach this problem. But we’re looking at facts
and trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Mr. Keller: Our
timekeeper, Carly, has just held up a
sign that says “stop.” (laughter) Actually, she held up about two-thirds of but I figured — The President: It’s okay. Mr. Keller: — I didn’t want
to put her job at risk by trying shutting you off. The President:
This is my house. (laughter and applause) I can go over time, generally. But maybe we can hear
from the Chief and John, and maybe get some
closing thoughts. Chief Beck: I just think
this is a tremendous opportunity for law
enforcement and the justice system in America. Out of crisis
comes opportunity, and right now we do have
a crisis of confidence. And there’s a tremendous
opportunity for us to do better at putting
out our message, at about making sure that
people are treated fairly, and at making sure that
we’re effective law enforcement. And this will be looked at
in history as a door that was open, and hopefully
we will walk through it together. Mr. Walsh: I just want to
echo a comment that the Chief made a moment ago,
which is I’m just amazed by the command of this area
that the President has got among the million other
things that he does. I would say, to go back
to your first question, Bill — what is
success — in the end, we have an opportunity. This is a moment in time,
and I think we’re taking advantage of it collectively
to both reduce the rates of incarceration and make our
communities safer by taking the savings and investing
it in prevention, in effective
community-oriented enforcement, and in
reentry programs. I think we can do that. And with the leadership
of the President, the Attorney General,
and all the people here, both in Congress and in
federal law enforcement, we’re well down that road. The President: And
because it’s my house, I’m going to take one last
— I want to drive home one point, and that is the
relationship between race and the criminal
justice system, because this is where
sometimes politics intrudes. “Black Lives Matter” is a
social media movement that had tried to gel around
Ferguson and the Eric Gardner case and some
other cases that came up. And very rapidly, it
was posited as being in opposition to the police. And sometimes, like any of
these loose organizations, some people pop off
and say dumb things. And on the other
hand, though, it started being lifted up
as these folks are opposed to police and they’re
opposed to cops, and all lives matter. So the notion was somehow
saying black lives matter was reverse racism, or
suggesting that other people’s lives
didn’t matter, police officers’
lives didn’t matter. And whenever we get bogged
down in that kind of discussion, we know
where that goes. That’s just down
the old track. So let me just suggest this. I think everybody
understands all lives matter. Everybody wants strong,
effective law enforcement. Everybody wants their kids
to be safe when they’re walking to school. Nobody wants to see
police officers, who are doing their
job fairly, hurt. Everybody understands
it’s a dangerous job. I think the reason that the
organizers used the phrase “Black lives matter” was not
because they said they were suggesting nobody else’s
lives matter; rather, what they were suggesting
was there is a specific problem that is happening
in the African American community that’s not
happening in other communities. And that is a legitimate
issue that we’ve got to address. I forget which French writer
said there was a law that was passed that really was
equal because both rich and poor were forbidden from
stealing loaves of bread and sleeping under the bridge. That’s not a good
definition of equality. There is a specific concern
as to whether African Americans are sometimes
not treated in particular jurisdictions fairly or
subject to excessive force more frequently. I think it’s important for
those who are concerned about that to back it up
with data, not anecdote; to not paint with
a broad brush; to understand the
overwhelming majority of law enforcement is doing the
right thing and wants to do the right thing; to
recognize that police officers have a really tough
job and we’re sending them into really tough
neighborhoods that sometimes are really dangerous,
and they’ve got to make split-second decisions. And so we shouldn’t be
too sanctimonious about situations that sometimes
can be ambiguous. But having said all
that, we as a society, particularly
given our history, have to take this seriously. And one of the ways of
avoiding the politics of this and losing the moment
is everybody just stepping back for a second and
understanding that the African American community
is not just making this up, and it’s not just something
being politicized; it’s real and there’s
a history behind it. And we have to
take it seriously. And it’s incumbent then on
the activist to also take seriously the tough
job that police have. And that’s one of the things
that the post-Ferguson task force did. We had activists who were
marching in Ferguson with police chiefs and
law enforcement, sitting down and
figuring this stuff out. And just assuming good faith
in other people — going to the issue of people being
cynical — I think is important. I’ve rarely gotten much
accomplished assuming the worst in other people. Usually it works better
if I assume the best. So I just wanted
to make that point. Mr. Keller: Thank you. I guess I’m here as the
representative of the cynical profession. The President: Yes, you are. Absolutely. (laughter) Mr. Keller: Bu
I would just like to say there are a few issues I
feel less cynical about. I do worry — I share the
worry you have that this evaporates because of
short attention spans. And I guess it’s on us in
the news media in part to make to make sure that
that doesn’t happen. The President: Well, thank
you for hosting this. And thanks to everybody here
in attendance and the chiefs for the good work
you’re doing. (applause)

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