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President Johnson's Martin Luther King Jr. Day Speech

Good Morning.

Chief Scott, thank you for that warm and generous introduction. Chief Beck, thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak here today. Mayor Garcetti, thank you for your leadership, your friendship and for being here today.

I would also like to thank President Nikias for helping to make this possible, and take a moment to recognize my fellow Police Commissioner, Sandra Figueroa-Villa, who made time to join us today.

Also, thank you to: Police Commission Executive Director Richard Tefank; Inspector General Alexander Bustamante; the LAPD Command Staff, all of the brave men and women of the LAPD and other distinguished guests.

There is one other man that I want to recognize who is with us today. He has been an influential civic leader in the national and local civil rights movement for decades. He was active in the civil rights movement in the 1960’s and participated in sit-ins and marches in support of Dr. King. He is the past President of the Los Angeles Urban League and served as a Los Angeles Police Commissioner for eight years. He has also been a great friend and mentor to me. Mr. John Mack.

Standing here, joining with all of you to commemorate one of my heroes, means more to me than you could know. What a tremendous honor to speak on the life of a man who led our nation to find its true greatness …

A leader whose words held the power to make America face deeply ingrained inequities and find the courage to change course …
A preacher who dared to share his dream with millions, at his own peril, because his faith was greater than the difficult times ahead.
My commitment to public service could not exist without the debt I owe — that we all owe — to the men and women of the civil rights movement.

Like Dr. King, many made the ultimate sacrifice — so that people like me could live in a world where equality is an expected norm, not an unreachable dream.

I was born in 1968, days after Dr. King was assassinated. That means my generation was really the first to be blessed with the opportunities made possible by the movement he led.

I attended a nominally desegregated elementary school. I was one of five African-Americans in a student body of about 500.
That school laid a solid educational foundation for me in those critical early years.

So, despite being the grandson of a coal miner with a sixth grade education, and the son of a firefighter who didn’t finish high school, I was able to attend Rutgers University and New York University School of Law.

And over the course of my career, when I have what some people might call “bad days,” I take a moment to visualize the events of Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

To be frank, that’s all the perspective I ever need. Because you know what that shows me? I don’t really have any bad days.

Still, when I was considering whether or not to take on the commitment and responsibilities of joining the police commission, a lot of people I respect and admire told me not to do it. They said it was a no-win position.

I was told that you can’t do the job without coming out damaged … there is no middle ground … you will be attacked from the right and the left … it will hurt your family and your business … the stress will kill you.

More than one person told me I would be crazy to do it.
I was truly torn. But at the end of the day, I kept returning to the words of Dr. King:
“On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right? There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.”

Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that the right choice, and the only choice, was to take this on.

I believe that I can make a difference on this commission … and I believe that the LAPD is the perfect department to lead the difficult national conversation going on right now, about the relationship between police and the communities they serve.

It is no coincidence that a police department whose official motto is “to protect and to serve” . . . And whose stated guiding value when using force is reverence for human life … today remembers and honors a man who had a heart of service.

You see, apart from being a giant in the civil rights movement, in his very essence Dr. King was a man who just wanted to do God’s will.
To fulfill that destiny he endured beatings … bombings … assassination attempts. He weathered arrests and jail time. And he ultimately gave his life so that others could be free.

But his trials, and that final sacrifice, were not in vain. Dr. King had the capacity to will an entire nation to confront its most difficult issues.

And to this day, his example calls out to each one of us — a constant challenge to give our whole selves to doing the right thing.
Our theme for today, “The Time Is Always Right To Do The Right Thing,” was also a theme in Dr. King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham jail.”
In his letter, Dr. King responds to those who called his activities “untimely and unwise” … who believed that “colored people would receive equal rights eventually,” but thought Dr. King was “in too great a religious hurry.”

Dr. King wisely responded that time is neutral — it can be used either constructively or destructively.
He met complacency with a reminder that human progress doesn’t happen because it’s inevitable … it comes through the efforts of men and women willing to work hard for change.

In a narrow jail cell, Dr. King challenged us to use our time creatively … and to never forget that “the time is always ripe to do the right thing.”

That call did not go unheeded.

As a nation, we have made incredible — some would say unimaginable — progress in the decades since Dr. King’s life was taken.
Today, our first African-American President is completing his second term ... Blacks and Latinos are serving at the highest levels of government and business … people of color are accomplished and respected leaders in all facets of American life.
Still, there are miles to go in making sure a fullness of opportunity is available to everyone in America, regardless of race.
Although African-Americans make up 13% of the population, and Latinos make up 17%, we currently have no African-American Governors and only 2 Latino Governors.

Only 2% of our Senators are African-American, and only 3% are Latino. African-Americans lead only 5 Fortune 500 companies — Latinos lead only 9.

Although we no longer have state-sanctioned segregation in our schools, opportunity in our public education system is still largely divided by race and income.

The financial commitment to students in schools with mostly non-white students, is dramatically lower than dollars spent in schools with predominantly white student bodies.

The unemployment rate for African-Americans and Latinos is significantly higher than it is for whites. Across the country, we are seeing laws enacted with the clear intention of disenfranchising black and Latino voters.
But with all of that said, the most pressing issue of race facing our nation right now involves the relationship between the police and the communities they serve.

In 2015, an estimated 1,100 people were killed by law enforcement.

Far too many of these deaths involved unarmed African-Americans. In the worst way possible, men like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Laquan McDonald are now household names that embody our country’s struggle with this issue.

As a result, we have seen businesses burned to the ground in Ferguson and Baltimore … commerce interrupted at the mall of America and in Chicago’s Magnificent Mile.

Right here in L.A., we have seen protests at The Grove, and even on the 405 freeway.

Although I do not agree with many of the tactics of groups like Black Lives Matter — and it frustrates me when they unfairly lump all police departments together — I am squarely on board with pushing for further reform in police departments across our country.
My goal is to use these challenges as turning points, and I think that there is no better police department than our own LAPD, to be that shining example for the rest of the nation to follow.

This is not Ferguson … or Baltimore … or Chicago.

Yes, L.A. has endured some painful times — and still experiences some today.

But our city has an outstanding record of reform. And now is the time for us to do even more of what is right for our city and for our police department.

As President of the Police Commission, I am proud to say that the goals I have set for our Department — which, in word and deed, have been embraced by Chief Beck and his Command Staff — are well aligned with what Dr. King asked of us.
Today, our Department is striving to follow an example that he would have been proud of: working hard to stay focused on constitutional, fair, respectful, and unbiased policing of our extremely diverse city — particularly in the African-American, Latino, LGBTQ, and immigrant communities.

It is not enough to just say these words. They must be backed up by actions.

We are taking that action: Department-wide preservation of life training … a revised and extended training program focused on public trust, constitutional policing, handling persons suspected of being mentally ill, and use of force de-escalation techniques.

And now we are doing even more — figuring out what we can do better, with a hard and unvarnished analysis coming through a series of audits and reports being prepared by the department and our Inspector General.

We will keep asking, “How can we improve our training and tactics, our policies and procedures? How can we deepen our commitment to community and relationship-based policing?”

Because none of us should accept the status quo. And to be effective, everyone must be engaged in this process...

That means the Police Commission, the Chief, Command Staff, our brave officers in the field each day, and the people in the communities we all serve — working hand-in-hand.

A pillar of Dr. King’s philosophy was recognizing the power of working in alliance and unity with others.
And one of the most impactful aspects of his leadership style was establishing relationships with, and earning support from, interests ranging from labor unions and anti-war organizations to social reform advocates and religious groups.

For us, the truth is simple: we will only resolve the crisis of confidence in communities of color by working in partnership with the people we serve.

We must continue working hard to build new relationships in our communities, and expand on existing partnerships.

As a department, our mentality has to be that we have allies — not enemies — in the everyday residents, community leaders, and others who raise their voices on these issues, which are so vital to the future of our City.

I see everyone in Los Angeles as co-workers on a very important job: making our communities more resemble the dream that Dr. King articulated.

Today I find hope in the belief that if I turn to every police officer sitting here today … every minister … every man or woman who serves the community through their line of work or through their philanthropic activities … I would get similar answers to the question: “what makes you do what you do?”

If you look deep within yourselves, you’ll probably all find that same unexplainable urgency that Dr. King felt … a desire to make this nation great, by helping others make their lives better.

This is the hope that assures me that our police department, in unity with a determined and resilient city, can and will become a model for constitutional policing for the nation.

Not tomorrow … not in some distant future … but right now.

To every person who has ever felt the urgency to help, I thank you for your sacrificial service to our City. And I ask that you keep going.
May you continue to be inspired by Dr. King’s example. I leave you with his words:
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Let’s all do what’s right, and let’s do it now. Thank you.